Resurrecting Phi Slama Jama

Can UH resurrect its basketball glory days?

Hofheinz Pavilion doesn't look today like a place where the best basketball team ever once played.

That team was the University of Houston's men's basketball squad from the early 1980s, nicknamed "Phi Slama Jama" by Houston Post sportswriter Thomas Bonk for the team's affinity for the fast break and slam dunk, a style of play that wasn't the norm, and was even disrespected by the older basketball establishment.

Phi Slama Jama was stocked with future NBA Hall-of-Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, along with other guys, like Michael Young, Larry Micheaux, Lynden Rose, Reid Gettys, Ricky Winslow and Greg Anderson, who went on to have pro careers. The team made Hofheinz an intimidating venue for the opposition and one of the most entertaining places in Houston.

The Cougars hired Clyde Drexler as head coach after he retired from the NBA. Drexler barely lasted two seasons.
Courtesy of University of Houston
The Cougars hired Clyde Drexler as head coach after he retired from the NBA. Drexler barely lasted two seasons.
Hakeem Olajuwon (left), a key to the Phi Slama Jama teams, was the first overall pick in the NBA draft after he left the university.
Courtesy of University of Houston
Hakeem Olajuwon (left), a key to the Phi Slama Jama teams, was the first overall pick in the NBA draft after he left the university.

Today the building is outdated, if not crumbling, looking more like a place to store old office furniture or heavy equipment than a basketball arena. Local high school districts have built new mega-arenas during the last decade, but Hofheinz remains a symbol of another time.

On a recent afternoon in early October, this year's team was inside the old building, warming up for a shoot-around and scrimmage.

"Coming from the projects, this is perfect for me, almost like a dream," says senior forward Maurice McNeil. "I knew a little bit about the tradition [during the recruiting process], but it was more about me being comfortable here."

Senior guard Zamal Nixon adds, "I definitely knew about the program, its rich tradition, things like Phi Slama Jama, how big they were back in the day. But that era was more so in the eighties."

During those years, almost every one of the university's athletic programs was winning. The football team won a Cotton Bowl in 1980 and a Southwest Conference championship a few years later. The golf team had future professional greats Fred Couples and Steve Elkington and won three national championships in four years. The swimming, diving, volleyball, track and field teams were full of future Olympians, including Carl Lewis, perhaps the greatest track athlete of all time.

The basketball program, however, was the keystone, and as Coach Guy V. Lewis told ESPN, "Most of my guys came from a five- to six-mile radius from the campus."

"Guy pretty much owned the local market when it came to talent," says Nikki Drake, a University of Houston supporter since the 1970s. "He certainly recruited nationally, but Guy prided himself on at least getting the best kid out of Houston each year."

Michael Young, who attended Yates High School and has worked for the Cougar basketball program since retiring from the NBA, says, "I was recruited by a lot of schools, but back then, there wasn't any [other] choice but the University of Houston. For a lot of us who were right here, we didn't want to go anywhere but the university."

But incredible as the athletic program used to be, its decline has been as amazing. In a relatively short period of time, the University of Houston has become irrelevant.

In the fall of 2010, the football team started its season with high hopes, but those quickly faded when quarterback Case Keenum went down with an injury. The team is currently 3-3 and lost its last game, 34-31, to an ecstatic Rice team.

The basketball team ended last year with a miraculous run, winning its conference tournament to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years. But the season's attendance was so poor that it didn't even rank among the Top 100 Division One schools. To make the Hofheinz seem more crowded, team officials even placed black cloth on top of large sections of seats.

Perhaps the most frustrating and puzzling part to Houston fans is why the basketball program moved away from the strategy that once made it so special: The team has almost entirely stopped recruiting Houston-grown talent. McNeil and Nixon, two guys who must play well if the Cougars have a chance at success this year, are both from New York.

On April 2, 1983, Phi Slama Jama, ranked as the top team in the country, met the University of Louisvillle Cardinals in a Final Four semifinal, a game that one of the referees now calls "The Blitzkrieg."

"When you were under the basket, and they came down with all those thunderous dunks, you looked around for a bomb shelter," the referee told ESPN.

The Cardinals had won the championship in 1980 and had been to the Final Four in 1982. Louisville, however, built its team with top national prospects from New York, New Jersey, Mississippi or wherever else the best players could be found.

Houston had been to the Final Four a year earlier, too, losing to Michael Jordan's North Carolina, but during the 1983 season the team had gelled, putting together an almost perfect record and winning with dominance. During warm-ups before the Louisville game, held in an arena in New Mexico, the players wore for the first time red, white and blue jumpsuits that featured a Phi Slama Jama logo.

Houston, perhaps at its peak, won 94-81, causing a reporter from the Los Angeles Times to write: "Did anybody catch the number of the spaceship that delivered these guys? Beautiful creatures wearing HOUSTON on their chests landed on this moonscape so desolate we used to practice atomic bombs down the road. HOUSTON, to judge by the evidence, might be a city on the planet Phi Slama Jama."

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