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40 years after Phi Slama Jama, there is hope in Houston for a better finish

Forty years is too long to hold on to grief. Members of the 1983 Houston men’s basketball team, which found themselves on the wrong end of one of the most famous upsets in NCAA tournament history, processed that moment, did peace with him and went on with their lives.

But in recent days, these former Houston players, many in their 60s, have felt the echoes and first pangs of some familiar feelings — aspiration, hope, excitement — as they watched this year’s Cougars progress through the tournament. NCAA.

Houston earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament this month for the first time since 1983, when it lost the Finals in stunning fashion to North Carolina State. On Friday, the Cougars face Miami in the Round of 16 in Kansas City, Mo. — the same city where the 1983 team played its own games at this stage of the tournament.

Also consider that this year’s Final Four is taking place in Houston, and it’s no surprise that Cougars alumni and fans are dreaming about what could happen if everything falls into place next week.

“This is the best chance since 1982 or 1983 or 1984 to land that gold championship ring,” said Clyde Drexler, 60, who played for Houston teams in the early 80s before playing in the NBA. . “The table is set. It would be a great story.

Nicknamed Phi Slama Jama (“Texas Greatest Brotherhood”), the 1983 Cougars gave basketball fans an irresistible look at the shape of what was to come in the sport. Drexler and his teammates — like Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Young, Larry Micheaux and Benny Anders — elevated the dunk, which had been banned in college basketball from 1967 to 1976, into both an art form and a modus operandi under trainer Guy Lewis’ high-octane system. . Their resounding success put Houston on the map, however briefly, as a true basketball city.

But despite three consecutive finals (from 1982 to 1984) and consecutive league matches (1983 and 1984), the team never won a national title. The 1983 Finals, in which Houston was heavily favored, was decided on an unlikely last-second dunk by NC State, and the Cougars became one of the best teams not to win a championship.

Almost exactly 40 years later, Houston has returned to the limelight with a more uncompromising style under coach Kelvin Sampson. The fact that the Cougars advanced to the Round of 16 while battling injuries and playing below their best has been held up by some as a testament to the fundamentals of their approach: defense and rebounding.

The alumni would love to see these young Cougars accomplish what they couldn’t. Still, Reid Gettys, who played the Cougars point guard from 1981 to 1985, dismissed the idea that any of the current players should even think about the program’s past disappointments or feel the weight of its bittersweet history. He doubted the younger players would even know about Phi Slama Jama, anyway, and assumed many of their parents weren’t old enough to have many memories of that time either.

“Is there a redeeming factor for the fact that we didn’t make it? I don’t really think so,” Gettys, the school’s career aid leader, said of a potential championship this season. “Now, are the alumni going to celebrate as hard as a group of 60s can celebrate if we win? Absolutely. One hundred percent.”

Houston was never a consistent basketball powerhouse, but in the early 1980s it was one of the hottest tickets in the game. Lewis assembled a team of mostly homegrown talent and, in a time when most teams preferred to slow their offense, encouraged his players to fly over the edge, run and dive with abandon. In his reasoning, the slam dunk was a high percentage play that fired up the team and its fans and hopefully intimidated opponents.

The team’s amusing nickname originated after a particularly hefty victory on Sunday afternoon, when Thomas Bonk, a sportswriter who writes a column for the Tuesday edition of the Houston Post, started toying with a silly concept: what would a dunk fraternity be called?

Bonk sat in a mostly empty arena pondering the question until it came to mind: Phi Slama Jama. The nickname was immediately embraced by the team and its fans, quickly appearing on T-shirts, coffee mugs and posters, and helping to raise the team’s profile inside and out. out of town.

“This team represented a seismic shift in college basketball,” Bonk said, referring to the burgeoning style that would become much more prominent in basketball in the late 1980s and beyond. “These guys were the first high-flying basketball circus.”

After falling again in the 1984 championship game, the team never came close to reaching those same heights. Lewis retired in 1986 with 592 career wins with Houston, the only team he coached, and the team seemed to go astray. From 1985 to 2017, including two seasons with Drexler as coach, the Cougars only appeared in the national tournament four times and won no games in their appearances.

Gettys, who called Cougars games on the radio for three decades while also working as an attorney for Exxon Mobil, recalled counting the number of Houston fans in the arena during one of his busiest periods. poor.

“We counted 56,” Gettys said with a laugh. “It’s not hyperbole. It’s not exaggerated.

The start of the team’s turnaround coincided perfectly with the arrival of Sampson, who had established himself as one of college basketball’s top coaches during stints with Montana Tech, Washington State, the Oklahoma and Indiana. He was hired by Houston in 2014 after serving a five-year show cause sentence for violations involving inadmissible calls and texts to recruits.

The Cougars have grown steadily since then. In 2018, they won their first national tournament match since the Phi Slama Jama years. Sampson then guided Houston to the Round of 16 in 2019, the Final Four in 2021 and the Round of 16 in 2022. (The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.) Houston fans hope that there will be more to come.

“We always felt like there were programs that looked down on us,” said Jim Duffer, who was one of the team’s student managers during the Phi Slama Jama years. “Now it’s time to stick it in his ear and win the whole damn thing.”

There is still a long way to go. Fans have been closely monitoring the health of senior guard Marcus Sasser, the team’s best player, who has been slowed in recent weeks by a lingering groin injury. They rejoiced in the timely emergence of junior guard Tramon Mark, who helped carry the charge on Sunday with a team-high 26 points as Houston came back from a halftime deficit against Auburn in the second round. .

Gettys noted that nothing was assured for any team, even the most favored, in the Round of 16, where the opponent tended to be either very good or very hot. But the tough road would make a deep run for Houston all the sweeter for those who remember their greatest heartache.

“If the perfect script comes together,” said Jim Nantz, the longtime sportscaster who graduated from Houston in 1981 and remained close to the program, “if the stars are aligned, April 3 will be a magical night.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.

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