Houston sports teams seem to have a knack for inflicting pain. Let's face it: There isn't a scale in the world capable of measuring the suffering we've experienced at the hands of the Astros, Rockets, Texans and Oilers. But, for me, no team twisted the knife quite like thePhi Slama Jama Cougars
. Olajuwon. Drexler. Micheaux. Young. Franklin. I LOVED those guys. How could you not? They played the game of basketball in a way never before seen and did so with a sort of joy and innocence that today's players, both blessed and cursed with the prospect of hype, money and instant fame, could never hope to duplicate. Or at least that's how I remember it. I'm sure my own youthful naivety at the time played a large part in the formation of that idealistic memory.
Either way, I was smitten. Like a teenage boy still coming to grips with the fact that the hottest girl in school is actually dating him, I couldn't get over the fact that this was my team. During the '82-'83 college basketball season, the national spotlight was firmly fixed on Houston. Not New York. Not Los Angeles. For once, we were the center of attention. We were the ones being envied. We soaked it in and didn't mind showing off our prized possession at any and every opportunity. Can you blame us? In the back of our minds, we knew the break-up was inevitable. The hot girl never stays with the star-struck kid for long. But, hey, in the meantime we were going to enjoy every single second.
Our euphoria peaked during the classic Semi-Final game against Louisville's Doctors of Dunk. After falling behind in the first half, U of H took us to a state of basketball nirvana with a sublime twenty minutes that was sure to become the stuff of legend. From such dizzying heights, we could see the top of the mountain. And it was good.
To this day, some 24 years later, I still can't properly put words to what happened next. Instead, I'm merely flooded with random thoughts and pictures: A sluggish start. Antiquated rules (that would, agonizingly, be changed just a couple years later). Too many missed free throws. Drexler's near steal that could have resulted in a game-winning dunk. A desperate heave. Looks of bewilderment. A crazed coach aimlessly running around in search of someone to hug. And then tears. Lots and lots of tears.
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It didn't make sense to me then and it doesn't make sense to me now. I guess that's the thing about young love: You want it to be perfect and last forever. And when it doesn't and that first wave of cold, harsh reality washes over you, you're left with a permanent reminder that life's not fair and that the greatest joys bring with them the greatest pain. Who says sports don't teach you anything worthwhile?
But you know what? I learned something else, too. At some point, you have to suck it up, lick your wounds and move on. You're more cautious the next time, perhaps even a little bitter and jaded. But you're also wiser, stronger and more confident for having gone though the experience. Now picture an eight year old trying his best to piece this stuff together and you receive a rare, telling glimpse into the mind of the curmudgeon responsible for this trip down memory lane.
These days, I harbor no ill will toward the members of the Phi Slama Jama frat. I never did, actually. To be sure, I wish things had ended differently. For me. For them. For all of us. But how can you hate the hot girl? You can't. You can curse the timing, the bad luck or your own inadequacies, but she was simply a force of nature passing through. No, you can't hate her. After all, she probably gave you much more than you could ever hope to give in return. So here's what you do: Simply raise your glass, remember the good times and give yourself no more than a fleeting second to wistfully think about what might have been. Pause. Lorenzo f'ing Charles. Damn. Still one final, single, solitary tear to be shed.
And then you move on. — Jason Friedman