Prior to the 1983 NCAA Tournament, Phi Slama Jama was largely a regional basketball movement – “Texas’ Tallest Fraternity” – headquartered at the University of Houston.
In fact, neither The New York Times nor Sports Illustrated, the day’s guardians of national sports news in a pre-Twitter, fledgling ESPN world, had penned the words Phi Slama Jama prior to March 1983.
A top 15 team to begin the 1982-83 season, the Cougars had dropped early-season contests to Syracuse and a Ralph Sampson-less Virginia (in Tokyo, no less) and nearly fell out of the AP poll. Then, they got rolling.
After Houston demolished Pacific 112-58 on Sunday, Jan. 2, 1983, Houston Post sports columnist Tommy Bonk assigned the Phi Slama Jama nickname to the Cougars, a nod to the squad’s athletic, high-flying, and powerful style embodied in its stars: Hakeem – then Akeem Abdul – Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and “Mr. Mean” Larry Micheaux, an ahead-of-his-time soul who sported an airplane tattoo on his right arm and a love sign on his left.
The Cougars embraced the moniker as did their fans. The players’ warm-up jerseys carried the Phi Slama Jama name in red script. Fans donned Phi Slama Jama t-shirts. And a courtside banner at Houston’s Hofheinz Pavilion welcomed visitors – who would soon be treated rudely – to the home of Phi Slama Jama.
The Cougars smashed #4 Arkansas by 15. They thrashed Texas by 43. They steamrolled the entire SWC, rattling off 20 straight wins to close the regular season and securing an unblemished 14-0 league mark before taking the conference tournament crown to boot.
Though the Cougars would climb the AP rankings and enter March Madness as the nation’s #1 team, their greatness was largely known through black ink on newsprint. Much of the nation had yet to see Guy Lewis’ squad firsthand, so Phi Slama Jama was more idea than reality. Twelve days before Houston’s NCAA Tournament opener against Maryland, however, Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick provided a you-just-wait teaser to the nation’s college basketball fans.
“Houston is as legitimate as any of the other six teams that have reigned as No. 1: Virginia, Indiana, Memphis State, UCLA, North Carolina, and Las Vegas. And the explosive Cougars are more entertaining than those six put together,” Kirkpatrick wrote on March 7, 1983.
After downing Maryland, Memphis, and Villanova to open the NCAA Tournament, Houston was on college basketball’s biggest stage and preparing to face Louisville in the Final Four. The dynamic Cardinals brought their own well-deserved nickname into the game: The Doctors of Dunk.
“The greatest thing in basketball is going to the Final Four and we’re just happy to be a part of it,” Lewis said upon arriving in Albuquerque. “It’s going to be some kind of game against Louisville.”
That it was.
In a 94-81 victory over the Cardinals on April 2, 1983, Phi Slama Jama introduced itself to the nation. Dramatically. Emphatically. With 14 dunks, including six in a row at one point in the second half. It was must-see TV.
Official Hank Nichols compared the game to the “London Blitzkrieg.”
“When you were under the basket and those guys came down, you just got out of the way. They threw them down so hard that if it didn’t touch anything, it would kill you. It was just one after another,” Nichols said.
Louisville head coach Denny Crum called Houston “awesome.”
“We just couldn’t wear them down,” the Hall of Fame coach said post-game. “They kept running in fresh people and never did fatigue. They overpowered us.”
Added Louisville forward Scooter McCray of Phi Slama Jama’s dunkfest: “We put on a display like that for our fans in the preseason, but I’ve never seen one quite like that in a real game.”
When a reporter asked Lewis if the Louisville game had a been a “normal performance” for Phi Slama Jama, the veteran coach laughed.
“We didn’t have near enough dunks,” Lewis quipped.
That night against Louisville the nation got initiated into Phi Slama Jama and it was hard not to be dazzled.