Phi Slama Jama is the greatest college basketball team never to win it all.
Coined by former Houston Post sportswriter Thomas Bonk, Phi Slama Jama is the nickname given to the University of Houston men’s basketball teams of the early 1980s. It was quickly adopted by the players and media, even appearing on team warmup suits by the middle of the 1982-83 season.
Coached by Guy V. Lewis, a 2013 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame who headed up the Cougars’ program from 1956 to 1986, “Texas’ tallest fraternity” was known for its high-flying, flashy, up-tempo style of play. Between 1982 and 1984, Houston made three straight Final Four appearances, including the NCAA title games in 1983 and 1984.
Lewis, who led Houston to five Final Fours, came up with the idea to play UCLA in the Game of the Century in 1968. The first basketball game televised in prime time, it drew a huge national audience and put the University of Houston in the national spotlight. Lewis guided the Cougars to 27 straight winning seasons and 14 trips to the NCAA tournament, but never won a national title. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he recruited local talent and built Phi Slama Jama — one of the most explosive teams in college basketball history.
Featuring ten future NBA draft picks and two players listed on the NBA’s Top 50 Team – Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — the Cougars were immensely talented. Preferring athleticism over fundamentals and fast breaks to set plays, Houston played a freewheeling style of basketball that was the antithesis of what John Wooden taught at UCLA or Bob Knight preached at Indiana.
Influenced by the playground flamboyance of Julius Erving and frenetic pace of the ABA, Houston-area prep stars stayed home to play for Lewis. Playing above the rim was the norm, and dunks trumped jump shots. “Sure, 15-footers are fine, but I like to dunk,” said Drexler, whose nickname was Clyde the Glide.
The 1981-82 Houston Cougars finished 25-8 and lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the national semifinals. Led by Houston products Drexler, Michael “Silent Assassin” Young, and Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux, Lewis’ young team also featured local boys Reid Gettys [UH’s all-time assists leader] and Rob Williams. Freshman Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a seven-footer from Nigeria, played sparingly at center [known as Akeem in college, Olajuwon changed the spelling to Hakeem after turning pro.]
Phi Slama Jama burst into America’s sports consciousness the following year. Drexler and Young, prep rivals who had decided to enroll at UH as a package deal, were named Southwest Conference co-Players of the Year. After spending the summer playing against Moses Malone of the NBA’s Rockets, Olajuwon – now a sophomore — became dominant in the post. Micheaux provided toughness, Young finesse, and co-captain David Rose [currently head coach at BYU] served as floor leader.
Riding a 25-game winning streak, Houston roared into the 1983 NCAA Final Four at 30-2. The top-ranked team in the land, Phi Slama Jama was pitted against number-two Louisville – the Doctors of Dunk – in the semifinal. Billed as the de facto national title game, the matchup unfolded like a mid-air ballet, ushering in a new era of aerial wizardry. Houston won, 94-81. The game featured 19 dunks, brought Rucker Park to the Final Four, and changed college basketball forever.
The Cougars advanced to the final, where they faced North Carolina State, a number-six seed that had gone 8-6 in the ACC and had only qualified by winning the ACC conference tournament. On paper, the game was a mismatch. ”I thought Houston was going to win that game by 40 points,” said CBS analyst Billy Packer. Played in the thin air of Albuquerque, N.C. State led 33-25 at halftime. Drexler, who had been brilliant in the Louisville game, picked up four early fouls and spent much of the game on the bench, scoring four points on one-of-five shooting. With Drexler out and Olajuwon gasping for oxygen, Houston slowed the tempo of the game. Tied at 52, the game came down to the final shot – a Dereck Whittenburg air ball that N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles caught and dunked as time expired, giving the Wolfpack a 54-52 win in one of the most monumental upsets in NCAA tournament history.
Following the graduation of Micheaux and Drexler’s early departure for the NBA, Houston returned to the Final Four in 1984. Led by consensus first team All-Americans Olajuwon and Young, the Cougars added freshman sensations Rickie Winslow and Greg “Cadillac” Anderson to their lineup. Under the calm floor leadership of Gettys, and with Benny Anders providing a spark off the bench, Lewis directed the fifth-ranked Cougars to a 32-4 record and a second straight NCAA title game.
Houston faced Georgetown in the 1984 final. The Hoyas – and their All-American center Patrick Ewing — were making their second title game appearance in the last three seasons. The game was no contest, as Georgetown won easily, 84-75, to capture the only title in school history.
Akeem Olajuwon was the first pick of the 1984 draft, and chose to leave Houston early for the riches of the NBA. Michael Young was taken in the first round by the Boston Celtics, and Benny Anders was dismissed from the team. Phi Slama Jama – one of the most talented and entertaining teams in college basketball history – was no more.
Although they never won a championship in college, Olajuwon and Drexler reunited in Houston as pros, helping the Rockets to the 1995 NBA title. After retiring as a player, Clyde the Glide served as UH’s head coach from 1998-2000, where he was assisted by his former teammate, Reid Gettys.
While the 1983 NCAA championship game sealed the legend of N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, it tarnished the reputation of Guy Lewis, who may be forever criticized for never winning a national title.
On this date in 1983, North Carolina State beat the Houston Cougars, 54-52, in the title game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It remains one of the biggest upsets in sports history.