Over the past century or so, sports coverage has vaulted from slim-to-none to the meteoric 24/7 place it holds today. One of the things media pundits have done time and time again is to dole out catchy nicknames to infamous teams. Whether it was the Pittsburgh Steelers stingy “Steel Curtain" defense, the “Fab Five" of Michigan, or Rip City's own “Jail Blazers,” some names just stick. For a name to catch on, the team has to have a quality that is unique and groundbreaking in some fashion. The accomplishment doesn’t necessarily have to be positive (Jail Blazers) but usually the team has to do something that hasn’t been done before (Fab Five) or in a particularly dominant way (Steel Curtain).
In January of 1983, Thomas Bonk of the Houston Post referred to the University of Houston basketball team as “Phi Slama Jama” after “Texas’ Tallest Fraternity” in an article recapping the Cougars 54 point drubbing of Pacific. The name worked on a few levels. First, the idea to call them something that connotes exclusivity and institutional longevity worked because the program had a three-year stretch of dominance. Second, dunking was something Houston players did and tried to do every time they had a chance. Lastly, the name is memorable and has a rhythmic flow that rolls off the tongue with ease.
While the name itself is clever, it was Phi Slama’s play on the court that gave it longevity. From 1982-84 the Houston basketball squad was one of the nastiest teams ever to take the hardwood. They played a maniacal and uptempo style that had previously been considered undisciplined. They terrorized their opponents with suffocating defensive pressure, causing turnovers and swatting shots that lead to fast breaks, and eventually, to an onslaught of posterizing dunkage.
In basketball’s modern era we are accustomed to seeing high flyers on a regular basis. Perhaps the games greatest three stars of the last three decades (Lebron, Kobe, His Airness) were all pioneers of flight. This wasn’t the case during the era’s leading up to Phi Slama. In fact, between 1967-76 dunking wasn’t even allowed. College hoops had been dominated by John Wooden's (who personally wanted the dunk outlawed altogether) UCLA teams that played a methodical and fundamental style. The most distinctive characteristic of Phi Slama was how they played above the rim. They played with swagger and dunked on opponents heads every chance they could get. When they attacked the basket, it was if they were saying “f--k you” to their opponent and the rim. They were an intimidating force who sapped their opponents will to compete. They didn’t just set out to beat teams; they set out to destroy.
Their style of play was unique, but Phi Slama had all the talent in the world to execute it. Boasting two of the NBA’s greatest 50 players ever to suit up, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler was a pretty decent core to build on. Aside from the two stars, Reid Gettys, Larry Micheaux, Michael Young (who had a pretty good pro career) and most notably Benny Anders (freakish athlete, a pure shooter, and enigma). This core of players became a national phenomenon and went to three straight Final Fours.
Phi Slama never won the title, but their legend lives on. Their impact on the game can hardly be understated. Basketball programs at all levels and all over the country have tried to mimic the organized chaos style of play they popularized. The very fact that they are maybe one of the two most talked about college hoops teams in history (Fab Five likely being other) without winning a championship speaks to the level of talent, innovation, and excitement they brought to the game.