The Houston Cougars are a No. 1 seed in the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. They’ve won 33 games this season and are in the March Madness Sweet 16. BetMGM Sportsbook has the Cougars at +400 to win the tournament, the second-lowest odds, next to Alabama.
Yet, as talented as Houston basketball has been the last few years, this is not the golden age of Cougars hoops. For that, we’d need to turn the dial back to the early 1980s, when the school boasted a high-flying, rim-rattling group of players that came to be known as “Phi Slama Jama.”
Let’s take a look back at one of the most exciting and successful college basketball teams in the history of March Madness. In three straight seasons, Houston advanced to the Final Four.
It was Houston Post sportswriter Thomas Bonk who coined the phrase “Phi Slama Jama.” Bonk observed that the Cougars played “above the rim” as the team won 25 games and finished second in the Southwest Conference in 1981-82. That season, two freshmen, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young, entered the starting lineup. Both of those young men played like they had rockets attached to their sneakers. But more on that later.
Most college teams were still focused on slow-tempo, fundamentals-first style of play in the early 1980s. The Indiana Hoosiers won the NCAA tournament in 1981 under head coach Bobby Knight, who coached any individuality and performative athleticism out of his players. Most schools played basketball the old fashioned way, with bounce passes, jump shots, and strict offensive strategy. Playing a game with free-form dunking and mayhem was not encouraged.
But Houston didn’t adhere to those rules. And let’s face it: history is written by the rule breakers. In 1982, 1983, and 1984, the Cougars advanced to the Final Four each March. Over those three seasons, playing way, way WAY above the rim, Phi Slama Jama posted a record of 88-16.
In 1982, the Cougars lost in the national semifinal to Michael Jordan and the Tar Heels. On the bench for much of that game was a wide-eyed kid from Nigeria, who wasn’t quite ready for prime time college hoops. That would change the following year.
How does a gangly, awkward soccer goalkeeper from Africa become one of the greatest players in basketball history? Hard work is the best answer.
Hakeem Olajuwon played basketball for the first time when he was 15 after entering a new school in Nigeria. Based on his limited appearances, Guy Lewis invited him to Houston. A few years later, Olajuwon was a key member of the Cougars.
Olajuwon helped the Cougars to the NCAA title game as a sophomore in 1983, and back to the Final Four in 1984. In those seasons, the 7-footer averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds per game. Many of those points came on dunks. His interior defense was also critical in the success of the Cougars.
In the 1983 Final Four, there was an epic #1 vs. #2 clash of titans between Phi Slama Jama and Louisville's "Doctors of Dunk." The Cougars won, but lost to North Carolina State in the finals. They would also lose to Georgetown in the 1984 national championship game.
But even though Phi Slama Jama never won a title, their legacy lives on.
It’s hard to believe now, but the NCAA banned dunking from 1967 to 1976. That’s right, the NCAA was once a major downer. Like "you kids get off my yard” downer. Why did college basketball prohibit the dunk for more than a decade? Because it was seen as unskilled.
Can’t anyone just jump in the air and stuff a round ball through a round hoop? Where’s the skill in that? That’s what the powers that be in NCAA hoops believed back in those days.
But by the 1980s, helped by the altitude-defying talent of Julias “Dr. J” Erving, the dunk was back in vogue. Enter Clyde Drexler, a guard who played high school ball in Houston. Drexler started to get attention after he scored 34 points and grabbed 27 rebounds in a high school playoff game. Clyde loved his mom’s cooking, so he accepted a scholarship from Houston to play for the Cougars.
At 6’6 with a wiry, athletic build, Drexler was a tremendous leaper with “power-boost game controller” style quickness. At Houston he joined a former high school opponent, Michael Young. For the Cougars, Drexler and Young were bookends: leapers and dunkers the BCAA had rarely ever seen.
Drexler preferred to slash to the hoop and dunk than take a jump shot he might only make half the time. That March Madness strategy, and his style going to the rim, caused the smooth Drexler to earn the nickname “Clyde The Glide.”
At Houston, Drexler became the leader of Phi Slama Jama. He came up with an initiation ritual for any new player who arrived on campus: they had to stand under the basket and not flinch as Clyde jumped and dunked over them. BOOM!
Drexler ended up becoming an NBA superstar like Hakeem, both earning induction into the Hall of Fame.
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