HOUSTON—Elvin Hayes jogged down the dark tunnel and the massive crowd in the Astrodome erupted in cheers as he came through the giant green doors.
It was the late 1960s and college basketball, like everything else, seemed to be changing. Integration was taking hold and the sport’s popularity was growing.
But it had never seen anything like this.
On Jan. 20, 1968, Hayes led the second-ranked Houston Cougars to a 71-69 upset of Lew Alcindor and top-ranked UCLA in what was billed as the "Game of the Century." The brainchild of Houston coach Guy Lewis, it was the first college basketball game played in a dome and the first regular-season game broadcast nationwide.
It was a television hit, drawing about 12 million viewers, and it lured 52,693 fans to the Astrodome, launching the era of domed stadiums as viable venues for major basketball events. It was such a success that the dome landed the Final Four in 1971.
"There will never be anything like that night," said Hayes, who scored 39 points in the victory. "You look up, and you just saw all those people. That was the most amazing spectacle that I’ve ever seen."
The Final Four returns to Houston later this week, but the host site is Reliant Stadium, the huge, sparkling home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Next door, the Astrodome sits silent and ignored, a locked-up and lifeless monument to the city’s sports and cultural history.
Hayes wishes the stadium could’ve been refurbished and opened for some kind of basketball-themed event in conjunction with the Final Four. Instead, the "Eighth Wonder of the World," hailed as an architectural marvel when it opened in 1965, is rotting inside as Harris County leaders ponder its fate.
It’s more than just a building to Hayes, who refers to it lovingly, like a captain to his ship.
"I will always have a very special fondness for that building," said Hayes, now a radio analyst for Houston basketball games. "But when I pass by now, I also have a sadness. There’s the dome just sitting there. All that happened inside, all she meant to so many people—it’s all just a memory now."
And what a history.
The dome was the vision of former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz, a flamboyant salesman who was part of a group awarded the city’s first major league franchise in 1960, the Colt .45s. Hofheinz wanted a stadium that would protect fans from the searing summer heat, torrential downpours and bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
When it was finished, it included a Texas-sized apartment for Hofheinz beyond right field as well as a one-lane bowling alley, barber shop, chapel and other unusual rooms.
"He had a room with a Caribbean theme, and another one with a bar and a lot of novelty items," said Tal Smith, one of the original employees of the Colt .45s. "Everything he did was colorful. He was very creative, he liked to have fun and he added some flavor to everything he did."
The signature of the space-age building was the $2 million scoreboard that flashed a gaudy light show after the team, renamed the Astros, produced home runs and victories. The display featured fireworks, snorting bulls with Texas and U.S. flags on their horns, and a galloping roper trying to lasso a calf.
The NFL’s Oilers played there, too, as did Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney over the years. Ali fought here, Earl Campbell ran over defenders here, Nolan Ryan’s fastball went over 100 mph here.
It was the site of circuses, bullfights, polo matches, Major League Baseball’s first indoor game, a Republican National Convention and the world’s largest indoor rodeo. It hosted the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, WrestleMania and served as an emergency shelter in 2005 for refugees from Hurricane Katrina.
"It’s sort of the building that put Houston on the map," said Dave Bush, a spokesman for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. "When you used to fly into Houston, one of the first things you’d see was the Astrodome. People would look out the window of the plane and talk about it, because it was such an unusual building and it was really one of a kind."
Out of necessity, the dome also christened the one-of-a-kind surface called AstroTurf.
The floor was originally sodded with Bermuda grass, but baseball players complained that they were losing fly balls in the natural light that came through the translucent panes in the ceiling.
Hofheinz ordered the panes painted opaque, but the limited sunlight killed the grass. Hofheinz sent Smith in search of a solution and he got a tip that a prep school in Providence, R.I., had installed a synthetic material called ChemGrass in a playground there.
Smith, now the Astros’ president of baseball operations, flew to Providence to see it for himself. He ran and rolled baseballs on it, then called Hofheinz to say he might have found the answer. Hofheinz was sold, and the turf was installed on the infield in time for the start of the Astros’ 1966 season.
"It took its share of criticism," Smith said of the turf, blamed for countless knee injuries through the years, "but I think it served its purpose in the Astrodome quite well."
The dome, named in a nod to the space program’s huge influence on Houston, also wowed architects and provided a template for other stadiums, including the Superdome. It was the first domed sports venue, the first with air conditioning, and was spacious enough to fit an 18-story building under its 208-foot high roof.
"The Astrodome stretched state-of-the-art construction and design practices to new dimensions," said Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and author of the "Houston Architectural Guide." "It has exceptional historical significance, as the model for a new generation of sports stadiums."
But the dome long ago gave way to those newer stadiums, adorned with retractable roofs and updated luxury boxes. The scoreboard was removed in 1988 after Oilers owner Bud Adams demanded it be replaced by 10,000 seats. Nearly 10 years later, the Oilers moved to Tennessee.
The Astros opened play at Minute Maid Park in 2000 and the rest of the Astrodome’s major tenants and events were gone by 2003, including the city’s giant annual rodeo.
In July 2008, the fire marshal’s office cited the county-owned building for nine code violations, including a faulty sprinkler system, and only maintenance workers and security guards are now allowed inside. Last month, a fire started in the dome when water leaked onto a transformer.
"It’s really a spooky place," county judge-executive Ed Emmett said. "It’s got all those empty seats, and all these old bathrooms and kitchen facilities. It’s going to be forever springing leaks."
The structure is also draining money from taxpayers, between $2 million and $4 million in maintenance and insurance costs annually.
"It’s just sitting there," Emmett said. "Something needs to be done with it."
Emmett and the county commissioners are awaiting a cost analysis from the county’s sports and convention corporation on three proposals for transforming the structure and its 10-acre footprint:
Demolition of the Astrodome and construction of a fountain and outdoor plaza in its place at an estimated cost of $128 million.
Conversion into a science and technology center, with solar panels on the roof forming a world map, for approximately $374 million.
Conversion into a multipurpose facility, with science and technology exhibits, a museum, movie-studio space and conference space suitable for exhibitions, festivals and conventions for about $588 million.
Each option includes a privately financed hotel with up to 1,500 rooms and is part of a master plan for the Reliant Park complex, the 350-acre expanse where Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome sit side-by-side, encircled by massive parking lots.
Emmett won’t rule out other options, either. He offered the idea of turning the dome into a giant indoor park, with natural grass and a transparent glass roof.
"If you said, ‘We’re going to have a big arts festival indoors on the grass in the Astrodome,’ I think a lot of people would go to it," Emmett said. "I think people would get creative if you said, ‘Here’s a venue, use it."’
Emmett said the Astrodome’s place in the city’s history will play a major role in the final decision.
"It’s not dissimilar to the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be a temporary structure, but it became a symbol of Paris," he said. "The Astrodome has become that same kind of a symbol for Houston and Harris County. So we should explore every option for keeping it."
Last year, the sports and convention corporation conducted an online survey that showed "overwhelming" support for preserving the Astrodome, according to corporation chairman Edgar Colon. A "Save Our Astrodome" petition on the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance website has more than 3,500 signatures, many with sentimental messages attached.
"It’s an icon of Houston, it’s a great building," Colon said. "It kind of defines the ‘can-do’ attitude of the people in this region. There is a lot of history to that building—even before you start talking about all the great memories people have from the things they watched inside."
The dome offered one last testament to its staying power in 2008, when Hurricane Ike roared across the city. The storm tore holes in Reliant Stadium’s retractable roof, and blew off doors, causing flooding at ground level.
The Astrodome, meanwhile, survived with virtually no damage.
The dome cost about $35 million to build, while Reliant Stadium’s price tag was roughly 10 times more.
Hayes smiles at the irony.
"The roof at Reliant went flapping in the wind, while the dome stood there, silent and strong," Hayes said. "I would love to see her stand, I would love to see her stay. But sometimes in America, we tear down our history, and that’s sad.
"I hope that’s not her future," Hayes said. "She’s meant a lot to a lot of people’s lives here in Houston, she’s meant a lot to a lot of people’s careers, including mine. I just appreciate her."