Some Historical Significance in UH's Return to the Sweet 16

UH men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson summed up how his team felt about being the first team since Phi Slama Jama to reach the NCAA Sweet 16, "These guys weren't born," Samson said. "So that means nothing to them. Like when they came here, everybody likes to talk about Phi Slama Jama. The kids didn't know who they were. They never heard of them. That's for the old guys."

While certainly true, for the "old guys" who do remember the exhilaration and heartbreak of back-to-back appearances by the Coogs in the NCAA championship game, the Cougars reaching the final 16 in the tourney this year is a big deal. For those who are unaware of why, here's a brief primer.

In 1983, the Cougars went all the way to the championship game where they lost on a last-second, improbable shot by massive underdogs NC State and young coach Jim Valvano. That Cougar high-flying Cougar team — nicknamed Phi Slama Jama — captivated the entire city and featured both Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon, as well as legendary college coach Guy V. Lewis. The loss was so shocking, many believe it was the only thing that kept Lewis out of the basketball Hall of Fame until after so many of his contemporaries and former players were already enshrined.

One season later, the Coogs were back in the title game, a contest that featured a clash of the titan centers in Olajuwon and Georgetown's Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas would win with relative ease and Olajuwon (who would later change his name to Hakeem) would be drafted by the Rockets with the first pick in the NBA draft.

This was significant not just because UH was such a huge part of the Houston sports landscape at the time (it was a relative low point in Houston pro sports), but also because it continued to solidify the feeling that Houston was a cursed sports town. With no major titles of any variety, it was hard to argue otherwise.

Ten years after that loss to NC State, Olajuwon would lead the Rockets to the city's first ever sports title. To win it all, he had to best Ewing in a brutal seven-game series against the New York Knicks. A year later, Drexler would join him in a dramatic Valentine's Day trade that brought the two former teammates together, and bring an unprecedented sixth-seeded Rockets team to a second straight title. Two tough losses at UH were seemingly converted to two championships a decade later. It's difficult to imagine more poetic symmetry.

It was 34 years after that second run in 1984 before UH won a game in the NCAA tournament. That was last year. This year, it's 35 years since they have been to the Sweet 16 with a fairly decent chance of landing in the Elite 8. As important as this is for University of Houston sports, it is of landmark importance to Houston sports in general.

Sampson's players may not have been born when Phi Slama Jama were dunking their way into history. They weren't even born when Olajuwon and Drexler were redeeming Houston basketball with the Rockets. But they have a chance to be a part of city lore replete with devastating losses and, thankfully now, some stunning victories. They may not remember those early struggles and even those first breakthrough victories, but it's pretty sweet for the "old guys."
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke