Resurrecting Phi Slama Jama
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.
Today the building is outdated, if not crumbling, looking more like a place to store old office furniture or heavy equipment than a basketball arena.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.
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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."
The highly anticipated game delivered beyond expectations, drawing a record television audience of close to 15 million viewers, and it's credited with bringing college basketball into the realm of "major" sports. ESPN summed it up this way: "The best damn show anyone had ever seen over 40 minutes. The game that buried stallball forever."
The only college basketball game that might top the Louisville game is the one that was played two days later. In Phi Slama Jama's first National Championship appearance, the team played North Carolina State. Houston was heavily favored, but lost 54-52, ironically, on a last-second dunk. It's considered one of the greatest moments in sports.
But in Houston, it was a bitter end, or the beginning of the end, of an era. Clyde Drexler, after promising to return to the school for his senior year, left for the NBA. Young and Olajuwon stayed, but things weren't the same. The team advanced to the Final Four for a third straight year and its second National Championship game in a row, but lost to a favored Georgetown 84-75. Olajuwon and Young graduated and were both selected in the first round of the NBA draft (Olajuwon was picked first overall, ahead of Michael Jordan, by the Rockets).
It was also the end of Guy V. Lewis, who won 592 games in his 30 years as head coach. Lewis was either pushed out or decided to leave, depending on who tells the story, but after the start of the New Year in 1986, Lewis announced that he was leaving the University of Houston.
"I never thought of this as a job. To me, it was a crusade to build it into a great basketball program and a great school," Lewis told the Associated Press. "It is known all over the nation as a great school. Unfortunately, the people of Houston don't know it."
Acouple years later, Drake and her husband Mike were at Hofheinz, sitting in the same seats they had for years, watching the Cougars play in an early round of the Southwest Conference tournament. The team lost, missing postseason play for the first time in the decade.
According to Drake, another longtime fan sitting in front of her stood up after the game and said, "At least we won't get embarrassed in the Big One."
"People had been calling for Guy's head for years, which I find ludicrous, because they said he couldn't win [a national championship]," Drake says. "Well, we haven't been close to that since then."
In 1974, Nikki and Mike, unmarried at the time, traveled to Las Vegas to watch the basketball team. Nikki was a University of Texas grad, but Mike was a faithful Houston alum who attended the school because of Elvin Hayes, a 1960s Cougar basketball great who played in the "Game of the Century." In Las Vegas, on a whim, the couple decided to get married.
"Pretty much since then, our social life, our marriage really, has revolved around University of Houston sports," Nikki Drake says.
One of the staples of Lewis's tenure was his parties after each game, held in Garrison Gymnasium next to Hofheinz. Win or lose, Cougar supporters were invited into the gym to talk to the players and coaches. About 2,000 people, Drake says, would usually show up.
"If I thought Guy wasn't playing somebody, I would just question him about it. I would say, 'Why aren't you playing so and so? He hasn't had any turnovers,'" Drake says. "Guy was never offended. He would just say, 'Well, Nikki, I just forgot.'"
The Drakes hosted team dinners at their house, attended just about every Cougar basketball game — home or away — and even showed up at Saturday morning practices, which Lewis opened to the public. (Drake says a couple thousand other people would do the same.)
The fans were so close to the team that it caught the eye of a reporter from the Kansas City Star before a 1983 NCAA Tournament game in Kansas City. Before the team headed to the arena, some members, including seven-foot-tall Olajuwon, sat in the hotel lobby with a group of fans and played with their children.
"Mike was upstairs talking to the coaches or something, and the reporter walked over and asked if we were coaches' wives," Drake says. "We told him we were just fans, and he couldn't believe it. He was dumbfounded. So, he wrote a story about us."
She continues, "We were probably too close to the players, and it probably [led to] some NCAA violations, but it was always such a warm feeling around the team. We had some bleak years (before Phi Slama Jama), but they were still always fun years. As soon as Guy retired, it was the beginning of a change of emotion out there."
After Lewis resigned, the university brought in Pat Foster, a coach from Beaumont's Lamar University, and almost immediately, Foster worked to move away from Lewis and Phi Slama Jama. The team's colors, for example, were changed from red, white and blue to red, white and black. The game parties were all but canceled — one player was sometimes allowed to talk to fans after a win — and legend has it that Foster threw away reels and reels of Phi Slama Jama game film (they were saved by another coach.)
"He didn't want anything to do with Guy," Drake says. "Anyone would've had a hard time following him, but I think Pat was a little overwhelmed by the whole thing. Pat certainly wasn't a bad coach, he was just different."
In fact, the entire University of Houston athletic program was different, and it entered a period of complete disarray. The school's longtime athletic director, Harry Fouke, left in 1979, and the position had become a revolving door for young, ambitious administrators from, oddly, California. Cedric Dempsey, for example, spent just two years at the university — he later became director of the entire NCAA — and the man who replaced him left two years later. Tom Ford, the athletic director when Lewis resigned, left the school in 1986 in the middle of an investigation into the football program that started when former players admitted to receiving cash payments.
A university spokesman at that time told the Houston Chronicle, "[Ford] called us from a Pizza Hut somewhere. He said he was hitting the road."
Without stable leadership, there was no one to stop the bleeding, and despite bundles of cash coming into the university during the Phi Slama Jama years, the athletic department started operating with a multimillion-dollar deficit. The NCAA ruled in 1988 that the football program committed 250 violations, and the team was placed on three years' probation, banned from bowl games for two years, television appearances for one year, and lost ten scholarships.
But in the middle of all the mess, the basketball team somehow continued to produce a respectable product. Foster coached the team for seven years, winning about 65 percent of the time and leading the Cougars to three NCAA Tournaments. The team lost in the first round each time, though, and Foster's product simply wasn't good enough, and certainly not exciting enough, for fans used to the glory days. When another university offered Foster a bigger contract, he took it.
Foster summed up his experience with the Cougars to Houston radio station KTRH 740 AM: "A coach has to constantly...determine if his detractors outnumber the people that are for him. I don't know, we've taken a lot of hits. Our team has taken a lot of hits, but I've taken more hits personally."
During the next decade, the university blew through three more head coaches. Alvin Brooks, from Houston's Wheatley High School, replaced Foster, but left the school with a losing record and no NCAA Tournament appearances. Clyde Drexler returned to coach the Cougars after he retired from the NBA, but that experiment failed. Drexler barely lasted two seasons. Ray McCallum, a coach from Ball State, took over next, but he also resigned, after four years, with a losing record.
The "family atmosphere" was long gone, Drake says, and when the team stopped winning, the fans simply disappeared. For the first time in more than two decades, the Drakes gave up their season tickets.
"It was sad, to a certain extent, but really the team was just boring," Drake says. "In Houston...you better put something out there that's exciting."
In March of 2004, the university hired Tom Penders, a former University of Texas coach. Penders had been out of coaching for three years, resigning most recently from a short stint as the head coach at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., after allegations of NCAA rules violations and criminal charges were filed against one of his players.
Last year, while Penders was completing his sixth season with the Cougars, the most talked-about team in the city was not the university but the Third Ward'sYates High School, working on an undefeated season and its second straight state championship.
Perhaps the best player on that team was Joseph Young, Michael Young's son. The elder Young told the Chronicle last year, "My son was raised by the University of Houston. This is where I want him to play. Man, do I want him to play here."
Two other Phi Slama Jama players had sons in high school during Penders's tenure, too. Josh Micheaux was an all-district player for Fort Bend's Elkins High School, and L.J. Rose, the top-rated point guard in the nation, plays for Houston's Second Baptist School. Trouble was, Penders didn't seriously recruit any of them.
"[Penders] talked about it, but nothing was ever set or done," Michael Young says. "I don't know; he just didn't want him."
And Penders didn't successfully recruit, or even seem to make an effort to recruit, any of Houston's top talent. His coaches, for example, didn't visit Yates High School, basically across the street from the university, one time, and this year's roster features just one Houston-grown player. (Mikhail McLean, who moved to Houston in 2006 and played at the Second Baptist School).
Joseph Young signed to play at Providence College, a Division One school in Rhode Island that competes in the Big East. Josh Micheaux graduated from Elkins in 2008 and played the last two seasons at Baytown's Lee Community College before transferring to Georgia State, and Rose, in his senior season at Second Baptist, lists his top college choices as Kansas, North Carolina and Duke. Houston isn't even close.
The trouble started for Penders when one of his assistant coaches had a falling out with some local AAU (American Athletic Union) coaches, making recruiting the area almost impossible. During the last two decades, AAU, made up of privately funded, summer league teams, has dominated the recruiting process.
The squads aren't designed to teach or develop skills, but solely to showcase players during the few weeks in summer when college coaches are allowed to watch the kids. A coach doesn't have the time or resources to thoroughly recruit every high school in the country, but he can show up for a weekend at a national AAU tournament and see a wide range of talent. If a kid can get on a top AAU team that gets invited to those big tournaments, held in Las Vegas and Orlando, it's the difference between getting noticed or not, making an AAU coach one of the most — if not the most — important people to a young player.
A couple years back, for example, John Wall, a high school player in North Carolina, was the top-rated prospect in the country and perhaps the most coveted recruit to come out of high school in the last decade. During his senior season, Baylor University gave Wall's AAU coach, Dwon Clifton, a big contract to come to the school as its "Director of Player Development," a position specifically created for Clifton. Suddenly, Baylor, a school with little or no basketball tradition, became one of Wall's top college choices. Wall eventually chose Kentucky, where he played one season before becoming the top pick in this year's NBA draft, but the message from Baylor was clear.
"The high school coaches might not be happy with it, but [AAU] really puts the kids out there," Young says. "High school is still very important, but most of the kids are recruited through AAU."
Joseph Young owes at least some of his success to AAU, too, because before becoming a standout at Yates, he wasn't getting much national attention, but his AAU coach was doing a lot of promoting.
"There's not one high school kid in America who can outshoot Joe Young," the coach told the recruiting Web site Hoopsblog.com.
The summer before his senior season,Young had a breakout performance at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, and Providence offered him a scholarship.
Cut off from the local AAU pipeline, Penders looked elsewhere.
"He pretty much went with what he knew," Young says. "He recruited a lot of kids from New York. That's where he's from, and he had a lot of friends and people he knew in that area."
Drake adds, "You're not going to have a lot of family and friends coming down from New Jersey to watch them play."
Still, despite an era of little excitement and poor attendance, Penders did what the previous three Cougars coaches couldn't: produce a team with a winning record. During his third year as coach, the team advanced to the championship game of its conference tournament, and last season the Cougars defeated perennial powerhouse University of Memphis in the conference's championship game to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since the Pat Foster era.
The team lost in the first round, and Penders announced his resignation about a month later. It was reported that after the team's flash of success, Penders wanted to stay, but newly hired (nine months earlier) Athletic Director Mack Rhoades wouldn't let him, opting to buy out the remaining years on Penders' contract.
John Royal, who covers the university's athletic department for the Houston Press Hair Balls blog, attended the resignation press conference: "Penders spoke of the players he recruited and graduated. He spoke of the pride he had in them. And he spoke of the high bar of excellence he had established. Rhoades spoke of a deteriorating program in need of a major overhaul."
"When you go somewhere else to recruit players, that's sort of a slap in the face," Young says.
Last spring, the university announced that James Dickey would replace Penders as the Cougars' head basketball coach. Dickey coached in the old Southwest Conference, first as an assistant for the University of Arkansas teams that battled against Phi Slama Jama, later as the head coach at Texas Tech during the 1990s. He left Tech after the school lost athletic scholarships because of NCAA rules violations — Dickey wasn't implicated in the investigation — and he most recently served as an assistant at Oklahoma State.
"I feel very lucky and honored," Dickey says of his hire. "People do still know about the University of Houston."
Official team practices didn't start until October 15, and Dickey hasn't gotten to put in much work with this year's squad, but his staff has already started to implement parts of his program.
"People always say it's going to be hard to make the transition, but it seems easier to me. I actually look forward to coming to practice," says Maurice McNeil, the senior forward from Manhattan. "Last year it was just me playing off what I knew. This year it seems more disciplined, more structured, and I learn something new every day, probably more than I've learned in my whole life."
More important, Dickey says his top priority is recruiting Houston, "keeping players at home," as he puts it. To help, Dickey brought back Pat Foster's old assistant and former head coach Alvin Brooks, who didn't have much success leading the team but was always considered a good recruiter who knew the Houston scene. Young was moved to the team's Director of Operations.
"We want to recruit the best players, that's the whole key," Dickey says. "The fact that [Houston] has so many talented players, it just makes sense to recruit the Houston area. And we have to get people in the habit of coming back to Hofheinz."
Dickey got more help when Joseph Young announced that he didn't want to play basketball in Rhode Island anymore. Instead, he wanted to come to the University of Houston.
"He's gotten to know Coach Dickey, and he understands his style of play and how he's going to develop him. He's just all excited and fired up about it," Michael Young says.
According to Young, Joseph wanted to return to Houston mainly because his aunt is ill and Joseph wants to be close to the family. Providence College isn't buying it, and the school won't give Young a release. He can't play basketball this year, but he is enrolled in classes at Houston and working out with the team. He'll no doubt be playing for next year's squad.
The Cougars got even more good news this summer when Shai Fields, one of Joseph Young's AAU teammates who transferred this year to Yates from Pearland High School, gave a verbal commitment to play at the University of Houston next year. If Houston's top prospect, L.J. Rose, changed his mind and decided to play for the Cougars — his father is on the Board of Regents — the basketball team, almost overnight, could become relevant again.
It's unlikely that will happen, though, and like Drake says, "When you take yourself off the map for 20 years, it's going to take a little while to get it back."
University supporters are immediately excited, however, about the combination of the school's president, Renu Khator, and Athletic Director Rhoades. Khator, hired in 2008, has at least said she believes athletics is a key to building a Tier One university — however, in an interview with Hair Balls in 2008, Khator didn't know about Phi Slama Jama — and her hiring of Rhoades in the summer of 2009 is considered a positive step. In his short time at the school, Rhoades has made some major coaching changes.
"I haven't talked to anyone who isn't excited about the future," Drake says. "All the hires he's made, other than Dickey, have been young and dynamic."
Of course, it's impossible to know how things will work out. Michael Young thinks Dickey is a guy who can lead the Cougars long-term and be successful doing it, but even if the athletic program is resurrected, the basketball team may not be the keystone it once was.
For this year's squad, things don't look too good. After all, they're playing in a town far from home, for a coach who didn't recruit them, and for a school where the glory days are just fading memories of ghosts soaring above the rim.
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