Monday, August 17, 2009

The Big Brothers of Phi Slama Jama

Before Jerry Tarkanian's "Runnin' Rebels" of UNLV, before the "Fab Five" from the University of Michigan, there were the Cougars of the University of Houston-better known to the rest of the world as Phi Slama Jama.

Those were definitely some of the best college teams ever assembled, but the guys who set the trend for sheer athleticism and brought playground basketball to the collective hearts and minds of suburban and rural America (who had no idea such a game existed) were these cats right here.

Some crazy stories were bound to emerge from such a diverse collection of characters, such as-

-Clyde Drexler's high school coach setting the rims at 11 feet to discourage dunking, yet it didn't stop "The Glide" who continued to tear down the rim during practices.

-Drexler was considered a waste of an athletic scholarship when he arrived on campus. Lowly Rice University didn't even recruit him coming out of high school.

-Olajuwon was left stranded at the airport coming in from Nigeria as a freshman because he was not highly regarded as a recruit. When he did land in Houston coach Guy Lewis told him to take a cab to campus, not realizing that Akeem was indeed a 6'11" center as advertised(up to that point coach Lewis had never seen him).

-Coach Guy Lewis, who during the 1983 NCAA semi-finals against Louisville threw a towel at an opposing player who ran by him after stealing a pass.

-Lewis was famous for starting practices by yelling out, "Red team out"(he separated practice teams between red and white teams) and then letting the players go at each other without calling one play because he felt it encouraged improvisational, fast-paced action.

-Bennie Anders, the athletically gifted but erratic guard who had two cousins who played pro basketball-Orlando Woolridge and Willis Reed(how's that for a pedigree?). He left the squad in '84 and then disappeared, never to be heard from again. He had quit the team after a dispute with the coach over playing time, leaving behind the immortal phrase that is now part of his brief legacy at the school-"If you can't play, then why stay?"

-Incredibly, the team that sported two future NBA Hall of Famers and two of the 50 Best NBA Players (Olajuwon and Drexler) were lead in scoring by Michael Young, a 6'6" guard who never made the cut in the NBA after being drafted by Boston in 1984.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Guy Lewis from the archives of Sporting News magazine-

Phi Slama Jama part of Lewis' legend
By Jeff D'Alessio
The Sporting News

On the art of the dunk...
TSN: Did you teach the dunk?
GL: I sure did. We worked on it. I insisted on it. I think it's a very, very high-percentage shot and when you get around the basket, you ought to explode up there and stick it in the hole. We worked on it. It wasn't something that just happened. My post men had a three- or four-step movement. First, you've got to catch the ball. Then you've got to check the defense. Then you step to the basket. Then you dunk. We did that in practice over and over and over and over. Now, not all coaches agree with that, you know? A lot of coaches didn't even like the dunk. But I wasn't one of them. It wasn't for show. It's just a high-percentage shot. And I used to tell them, "You can't dunk without hustling."

On who was his best dunker...

TSN: Who's the best dunker you ever had?
GL: Oh, probably Elvin Hayes. But Akeem, Clyde . . . Man, I had a lot of guys who dunked. Dwight Davis. Dwight Jones. Ken Spain. I once had a white guy get 15 dunks in a half.

TSN: In a half?
GL: In a half.

TSN: Who?
GL: Lyle Harger. I don't remember who we were playing, but I know I got on him pretty good. He only had two points at the half. I told him not to do anything but dunk it the second half and he ended up with 41 points.

On the loss to NC State in the 1983 NCAA Tournament...

TSN: How tough was it to lose the way you did to NC State?
GL: Well, it was tough. But I'm different than most people, I guess. Losing is losing, to me. If I lose the first game of the year, I remember it all year. Most of the wins we've had, I don't pay much attention to. But I can tell you about every loss we ever had. Still can. Yeah, it was a tough loss. So was the one the year before and the one after. (NC State) just hung in there and won the game. We almost stole the ball -- we had it stolen, really -- and (Dereck Whittenburg) got it back and just threw it up there.

On Akeem Olajuwon...

TSN: Where'd you find Akeem?
GL: Akeem found me, really. He came from Africa. He came over here with the idea of visiting six or seven schools, and we were one of them. And when he got off the plane in New York there, it was cold. He went outside and went right back in and showed the people at the desk his list and said, "Where is the warmest place?" And they said, "Houston." So he called me and said he was coming. I said, "Well, do you have a ticket?" He said, "Yeah, I have a ticket." So I said, "Well, come on."

I actually didn't pay much attention to him. I didn't even meet him at the airport. He called me from the airport and I said, "Well, get you a cab and just come on in here." There's a reason for that. The guy who had put our name on the list had sent me a player from South America that was supposed to be 6-2 and he was 5-7, 8 or 9 and not only that, but he couldn't play. So I wasn't thinking too much about this kid. He told me he was 6-7 so I thought he'd really be 6-3. And the truth is, he was 6-11. So we changed in a hurry when he got here. I'll tell you, it was a gift.

*A side note-Just in case any of you ever wondered how Olajuwon got so good so fast after arriving from Nigeria, well wonder no more. First off, his remarkable footwork was the result of playing soccer as a youth.

Secondly, during the summers he played in a rec center in Houston where top-notch cats from major college programs and the NBA used to tear into each other. And the one guy who was always pitted against him was none other than Moses Malone. Their battles in the low post during these games are the stuff of legend, and it contributed greatly to Olajuwon's development as a player.

The Jammas were together from 1982 to 1984 in one form or another, but their breakout season was '82-'83 when they received their nickname from then-Houston Post reporter Thomas Bonk and even had it emblazoned on their warm-up uniforms. 1983 was the year they absolutely terrorized the NCAA tournament, with every game a virtual treatise on how to run a fast breaking, shot-blocking clinic. They originated the term "Shock and Awe" with their frenetic style of play, and if you don't believe me just ask Keith Lee of Memphis State or John Pinone of Villanova. Olajuwon and power forward Larry Micheaux absolutely tore them to shreds in the low post and I'll bet they STILL don't know what hit them. The ass kickings Houston administered were surgical in precision, and some of the best basketball that's ever been played at the college level.

I have a friend who worked at a television station and I was able to watch tapes of some of their regular and post season games from back in the day. Clyde Drexler dunking over Memphis State point guard Andre Turner stands out as one of the best I've ever seen. During the '83 Final Four Houston faced Denny Crum's Louisville Cardinals and their "Doctors of Dunk" in the semi-final game. The Cardinals kept it close but they had no answer to the unremitting onslaught of Houston.

Here is a clip of part of that game-

The final against cinderella NC State was an anti-climactic letdown, with Clyde Drexler hamstrung most of the game by 3 fouls he caught early in the first half (after the third foul picked up against guard Terry Gannon on a pull-up jumpshot in the paint that was called a charge, it was evident that that the fix was in) and the team collectively out of gas from the hammering they gave Louisville(the Final Four that year was played at altitude). Afterwards Drexler declared for the NBA draft as a junior and Larry Micheaux graduated. Even though Houston made it to the Final Four the next year they were a shadow of their former selves. Regardless, they will go down as one of the best college teams ever assembled. Their style of play was considered evolutionary but as of today no one team has managed to assemble the athletes and executed the style of play that Houston Cougars did during this brief but historic run.

There have been some great college teams in the past, but none quite like the Big Brothers of Phi Slama Jama-likely to be imitated but unlikely to ever be duplicated.

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