Just past the midway point of the upcoming ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary on Phi Slama Jama, there is a moment of anguish for former players. Members of those University of Houston men's basketball teams, including Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, are forced to watch the last few seconds of their 1983 upset loss to North Carolina State in the NCAA title game. Uncomfortable chuckles and head shakes gave way to shock and awe.
"I could go without seeing that again."
"I tried to block that game out of my mind."
"That pisses me off, man. I'm pissed off right now watching it."
At the time, now legendary sports commentator Jim Nantz was a student at UH, the in-game announcer and host of the Guy Lewis Show. "It still hurts...it still hurts."
Full disclosure: I cried when Lorenzo Charles put that ball in at the buzzer to beat the Cougars. I still consider it the lowest moment in the long, sad history of Houston sports, worse than Buffalo, worse than John Stockton. It was painful to watch it again and I was 13 years old at the time, so the stunned silence and the looks on the faces of these former players feel on point.
At the core of this latest from the ESPN Films crew is that singular loss, a game that many believe cost Coach Guy V. Lewis three decades of exclusion from the Basketball Hall of Fame. But as per usual with the Emmy Award-winning program, there is a lot more to the story. If you lived through it, you'll cheer and cringe and feel exhilarated and deflated as you did then. If you know of Phi Slama Jama only from the history books, this is an inside peek at one of the great phenomena in all of college sports.
From Lewis's legacy (he was finally inducted into the Hall in 2007), controversial recruitment of black players and the freedom he gave them, to their stunning athleticism and the accidental nickname given by former Houston Post columnist Tommy Bonk, it's all here, but with one special added bonus.
Talk to most fans who watched that era and they still remember many of the names: Olajuwon and Drexler are always front and center. Micheaux, Young, Davis, Rose, Gettys, Williams and Winslow are on the short list. But few captivated fans the way Benny Anders did.
The brash point guard from Louisiana wore pink tuxedos to the Final Four and had a Camaro with his nickname, "Outlaw," on the license plate. He was a controversial figure who abandoned the team in 1984 over playing time and was arrested for gun charges when he pulled a weapon during a pickup game, yet he was beloved by fans and teammates.
After a couple of years playing overseas and in the Continental Basketball Association, he disappeared...like completely. Searches turned up nothing. Rumors ran rampant, but there was no sign of Anders. But director and Houston native Chip Rives was determined to find him as part of the documentary. What story on Phi Slama Jama would be complete without Benny, after all?
Woven throughout the hour-plus-long program is the search for Anders by former team captains Eric Davis and Lyndon Rose. Their journey took them all the way to Michigan, where (spoiler alert) they found Anders, who had been living there for decades.
Admittedly, finding Anders turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. He appears to be the same character we knew in the 1980s — if you aren't absolutely mesmerized by the black captain's hat and gold-rimmed sunglasses Anders wore in the interview, you clearly weren't a fan — but the exchange is rather short and that segment, as gratifying as it may have been for longtime fans and teammates, felt light and fairly incomplete when compared to the depth and breadth of information throughout the rest of the doc.
Still, it's a must-watch for Houston sports fans, particularly those of us fortunate enough to have seen Phi Slama Jama in action. And finding out Anders is still keeping on after all these years is damn satisfying. 30 for 30: Phi Slama Jama will air on ESPN October 18.
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