By Daniel Melian with Steven Miller
Beginning in 1981, the University of Houston (UH) basketball team with its ground-breaking style of play drew sold-out crowds and became must-see TV. The team’s performance on January 4, 1983, sparked Houston Post writer Thomas Bonk to give the team a fitting name – Phi Slama Jama – based on its ability to dunk over its opponents. Bonk thought, “It’s college, so if you had a college fraternity, what would a dunking fraternity be named?” After considering several possibilities, he landed on Phi Slama Jama, “and it worked.” The term became a sensation as people nationwide tuned in to watch the leading Houston Cougars, and it has remained as iconic as the team itself.
The UH basketball team rose in popularity for two reasons: the team’s talent epitomized the caliber of many professional teams, and their style of play was fast. In general, basketball teams at the time played more deliberately than today and ran a half-court offense. By contrast, the Cougars tried to score in under ten seconds, leading to many fastbreak points – especially dunks. This was significant because the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned dunking from 1967 to 1977, stating the dunk “was not a skillful shot.” The Cougars made it a hallmark of their success.
Team Building (1981-82)
In 1981, UH Athletics set its sights on building a contending NCAA Division I basketball program, not yet knowing the Cougars’ future potential. Coach Guy Lewis, a former UH player (1946-48), was in his twenty-fifth year as head coach, and big-name players like Clyde Drexler, Rob Williams, Larry Micheaux, and Michael Young led the team to numerous victories. The team’s more notable wins that season included a game against the sixth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes on December 19, 1981, that the Cougars won comfortably, 62-52, elevating them to the eighteenth-ranked team in the Associated Press (AP) Top 25. On February 8, 1982, the Cougars played at The University of Texas at Austin where they defeated the twelfth-ranked Longhorns, 77-63. The Cougars triumphed five days later at home in Hofheinz Pavilion against the eighth-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks, revenge for Arkansas’s domination over Houston earlier in the season.
After putting up a 20-6 record in the regular season, UH advanced to the Southwest Conference (SWC) tournament in Dallas versus the Texas A&M Aggies on March 3, 1982. Rob Williams led the team and went 9-13 with twenty-five points from the field, meaning all shots excluding free throws. One element that took their opponents by surprise was the play of Hakeem Olajuwon, who came off the bench early in the first half. He finished the game with ten rebounds, twelve points, five blocked shots, and two steals in just twenty-two minutes of play. After an 89-76 win, the Cougars advanced on a nine-game winning streak.
The consecutive UH tournament victories ended against Arkansas. After the teams split two games in the regular season, the Razorbacks implemented a defensive game plan that prevented the Cougars from making any layups in the first half. Houston kept the game close until the 7:55 mark in the final half, when Arkansas extended its lead, and the Cougars fell 84-69.
Despite the loss, Houston qualified for the NCAA March Madness Tournament. As a sixth seed in the Midwest region, UH went on an improbable run as the team beat eleventh-seeded Alcorn State, third-seeded Tulsa, and second-seeded Missouri before making it to their first Elite Eight since 1969. Two days later, the Cougars defeated Boston College 99-92 in the Checkerdome, St. Louis, Missouri. Williams led the team with twenty-five points while shooting 9-17 from the field.
This victory propelled the Cougars into the Final Four against the daunting, top-seeded North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels team that included future basketball great, Michael Jordan. UNC jumped off to a 14-0 lead and never looked back. Although Houston tried to claw its way back, the team only shot 36.8 percent from the field in the second half. Lynden Rose led the team going 10-15 while Young and Olajuwon shot a combined 2-10. After the game Coach Lewis emphasized that the team had several returning players, and UH would be back the next year.
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