Beyond the Boxscore
They are the best team to never win a championship and Clyde Drexler can live with that.
For while Phi Slama Jama inexplicably never cut down the nets, despite rolling to three consecutive Final Fours, this University of Houston juggernaut always had a title or six.
"We attracted more nicknames and fanfare than any team in America," Drexler laughs, recalling the days when dunks ruled. "Those teams had a real aura about them. Everyone always noticed when we walked in a gym."
ESPN recently did an attention-attracting documentary on the legacy of The Fab Five, another title-less team that changed college basketball more than a good dozen champions have. But long before The Fab Five, there was Phi Slama Jama bringing seismic shifts to the game that are still felt today. With the Final Four returning to Houston, the legacy of that run is being celebrated in a New York Times takeout and a number of events, including a Thursday night NCAA Salute-tied-in Jim Nantz-produced dinner at the Wortham Theater Center that will honor the still under-recognized architect of Phi Slama Jama and two other UH Final Four squads: coach Guy V. Lewis.
But to see the full scope of Phi Slama Jama's impact, you have to step back from Houston and note how this group resonated far beyond the Bayou City and even the borders of Texas.
Usually, NBA teams influence the college game. Phi Slama Jama changed the pros.
I'll never forget how Magic Johnson extolled the virtues of Phi Slama Jama in one of my first interviews with him as a young journalist in East Lansing. Mich., after he retired from the NBA.
"I loved those Phi Slama Jama teams," Magic said. "They knew how to entertain."
Magic became the sweet-passing ringleader of the LA Lakers Showtime run in the 1980s, but even as he lived the fast-breaking California high life, he kept an eye on the high flyers in Houston.
And how could he not? If you played basketball, you couldn't help but get into Hakeem (then Akeem), The Glide, Michael Young and Larry Micheaux's traveling show. Not long removed from an era when the dunk was outlawed in college basketball, Phi Slama Jama set all sorts of records for rim rattling and by the time the 1982-83 season rolled around, they were taking apart teams as much as beating them, leading the country in victory margin.
A still somewhat-raw Hakeem Olajuwon would get 10 blocks in a game and then do it again, several games later.
"We intimidated teams," Drexler says. "There was a lot of talent on the floor."
In the 1983 Final Four, Phi Slama Jama would come from eight points down in the second half and explode past Louisville's The Doctors of Dunk squad 94-81 in what's still considered one of the most entertaining Final Four semifinal games of all time. Olajuwon's line? A mere 21 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
A championship seemed like a given. Then Lorenzo Charles' dunk-from-an-air-ball, Jim Valvano's crazy sprint, North Carolina State and — let's be honest — Guy Lewis' stall happened.
If it haunts, Drexler would never admit it.
"You want to win a college championship," Drexler says now. "But making it to three straight Final Fours might be an even greater feat than winning one. Especially back in those days. You only played other really good teams in the tournament."
A Good Guy
Never finishing the deal in college never stuck to Olajuwon or Drexler, but it's certainly impacted Lewis' legacy. Basketball aficionados in Houston understand what a pioneering coach he was, but Lewis still somehow isn't in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
And while the latest Hall of Fame class will be announced in Houston Final Four weekend, there will be no storybook hometown moment. Lewis was not selected as one of the 12 finalists.
You get the idea that proud UH alum Jim Nantz is making one more attempt to right the long-time Hall wrong by choosing to highlight the now 89-year-old coach in what's essentially the college basketball version (or as close as he could get) to the Super Bowl kickoff the CBS commentator held in H-Town in 2004.
"Guy Lewis is one of the great coaches of all time," Nantz told me in one his Houston visits. "If you really step back and look at his legacy, it's mind boggling."
Twenty seven straight winning seasons, 592 wins overall, five Final Fours worth of amazing. Coach of three of the Top 50 NBA players of all time — Olajuwon, Drexler and Elivin Hayes — amazing. Dreamed up The Game of the Century at the Astrodome amazing.
But numbers could never completely define the man who would tell sports writers who denounced Phi Slama Jama's style that the dunk was "a high-percentage shot." The man who'd motivate with stories in an era when so many coaches still relied on fear.
"Coach would tell us at the beginning of every season that he was going to the Final Four no matter what," Drexler laughs, with Lewis referring to the fact that he'd be at the coach's convention held Final Four week whether the Cougars were there or not. "He'd say it was up to us, if we wanted to come along or not."
In a time in America when a coach could make the kind of societal impact that Duke's Mike Krzyzewski only thinks he makes now, Lewis became the first Southern coach to integrate his team. He wanted to win sure. But all coaches want to win and Lewis took one of the first stands when prejudice still ruled in sports.
Should coming up one win short in several Marches overshadow that?
The joys of Phi Jama Slama and Guy Lewis' story will get plenty of Houston run this Final Four week. The problem is, they need more national run.
Phi Jama Slama was never just a Houston story. And it's time to recognize that.
"People talk to me about that team all across the country," Drexler says. Certain teams just capture imaginations.
The best team to never win a championship is much more than just that.
Editor's note: Jim Nantz's Guy Lewis tribute benefits the Nantz National Alzheimer Center at Methodist Hospital. Read the CultureMap story that broke the news of the event.