ESPN 30 for 30 'Phi Slama Jama': TV Schedule and Preview

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2016

Hakeem Olajuwon (left) and Clyde Drexler
Hakeem Olajuwon (left) and Clyde DrexlerBill Baptist/Getty Images

In the early 1980s, "Phi Slama Jama" became part of the college basketball lexicon as the Houston Cougars reached three straight Final Fours.

In ESPN's next entry in the 30 for 30 series, director Chip Rives will detail the program's return to prominence and failure to win a national championship in the documentary Phi Slama Jama. The program will air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

As the 1970s ended, it looked like Houston was beginning to stagnate under head coach Guy V. Lewis. With Elvin Hayes leading the way, the Cougars made the national semifinals in 1967 and 1968. A little over a decade later, with the end of the 1979-80 season, the school missed out on the NCAA tournament altogether for the sixth time in seven years.

Things began to turn around when Houston native Clyde Drexler arrived ahead of the 1980-81 season, with Hakeem Olajuwon coming the following year. They joined a talented core that also featured Robert Williams and Larry Micheaux, who were freshmen on the Cougars team that went 14-14 in 1979-80.

In 1981-82, Houston won 25 games and lost to the eventual national champion North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four. The following season, another school from the Tar Heel State, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, beat the Cougars in one of the most memorable moments in NCAA tournament history.

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Disappointment followed the next year as well, with Houston falling to the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas.

Olajuwon left for the NBA in 1984, and the Cougars' chances of contending for a national championship left with him. They won 30 games over the next two years, and Lewis retired in 1986.

Much like the Michigan Wolverines' Fab Five, the early-'80s Houston teams are perhaps remembered most for the impact they left on the game rather than their inability to reach the college basketball summit. The Cougars were anointed Phi Slama Jama for their flashy style and thunderous dunks.

At the time, the slam dunk was a much smaller part of the college game. The NCAA banned the dunk in 1967, which was dubbed the "Lew Alcindor Rule" after the UCLA Bruins star dominated underneath the basket. Watching a team like Houston attack the rim so relentlessly was a refreshing experience for fans.

"We strived for dunks," center Greg Anderson said, according the Houston Chronicle's Joseph Duarte. "If we get out on the break, we're running for a dunk."

In an April interview with Vice Sports' Larry Burnett, Drexler explained the genesis of the team's unique approach:

It was a whole new breed! Guy Lewis, our coach, envisioned it. Then he had to get the players who could play that style of basketball. Guy Lewis was all about efficiency. He was a great motivator. He got real talent and taught his players how he wanted them to play: hard and aggressive!

"Don't give up anything defensively. Offensively, we are going to be efficient. We are not going to shoot bad shots. I'd rather see you just go up and dunk it as much as you can."

That's where it became Phi Slama Jama. We were working on efficiency. We were not trying to be flashy. We were trying to score points.

Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins were two of the most prominent dunkers of the 1970s and 1980s, and their exploits were entertaining fans well before the Phi Slama Jama Houston teams. The Cougars, however, were one of the first examples of a collective unit utilizing the dunk to devastating effect.

"I think we were right at the turning point the way the game changed and evolved into the game it is today," forward Michael Young said, per Duarte.

Especially for younger fans, the documentary Phi Slama Jama will be a great look back at one of the pioneers for the way basketball is played today.

For Houston fans, it will be an opportunity to reminisce about happier times. After the Cougars lost in the 1984 national championship, they have reached the NCAA tournament on four occasions, losing in the first round each time.

Current head coach Kelvin Sampson appears to have the program headed in the right direction. Houston won 13 games in his first season and then 22 last year en route to a first-round exit in the NIT.

Of course, a return to the halcyon days of Phi Slama Jama will almost certainly never happen for the Cougars, which makes those early-1980s teams all the more special.