30 For 30 has been around long enough now to start contradicting itself. One of the series’ best and most popular episodes is “Survive And Advance,” the inspiring story of how Coach Jim Valvano willed an underdog North Carolina State basketball team to a national championship in 1983. A big part of the myth of the Wolfpack has to do with who they beat in the finals: the fast-breaking, monster-dunking Houston Cougars, led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. The scrappy little guys ground down the legendary Phi Slama Jama juggernaut, in one of the most famous games in NCAA tournament history—one of the “shining moments” that turned March Madness into a cultural phenomenon.
That’s one heck of a story… unless you’re from Houston, that is. The latest 30 For 30 episode, “Phi Slama Jama” (airing on ESPN tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern), looks at the 1983 championship game from the point of view of the other bench. Or, to be fair to the Cougars, it looks at the University Of Houston’s entire early ’80s run of success, and what many college hoops aficionados consider to be one of the greatest NCAA basketball teams ever assembled. The NC State game is really just a small part of that story. No matter how much the sports-talk world might prefer to focus on one bad night in the history of a storied program, “Phi Slama Jama” has a bigger picture in mind. It doesn’t quite fit within the sub-category of 30 For 30s that raise a glass to the losers.
For one thing, director Chip Rives puts an unexpected frame around the Houston Cougars’ 1981-1984 heyday, by considering the mystery of what happened to the team’s unsung hero. The mercurial Benny Anders helped define Houston’s swagger, providing a contrast to the unflappable Drexler and the hulking Olajuwon. But after those two left for the NBA draft—along with some of the Cougars’ other stars, like Rob Williams—Anders struggled, on and off the court. Post-college, he played a little overseas and then effectively disappeared, losing touch with his teammates. Throughout “Phi Slama Jama,” Anders’ former teammates Eric Davis and Lynden Rose try to track him down.
The search for a lost player serves as a useful metaphor. Rives positions “Phi Slama Jama” as an elegy for a great team that’s missing just a little something. Specifically, what the Cougars alums lack are championship rings. The team played in the Final Four in 1982 and the title game in 1983 and 1984, and each time they didn’t reach their potential. They were out-shot by Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tarheels in 1982, and out-muscled by Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in 1984. But the real letdown came with NC State, in the same year that Houston had started promoting the Phi Slama Jama nickname, bestowed on them by sportswriter Thomas Bonk.
Rives’ documentary puts that name and its meaning into a larger context. Coach Guy V. Lewis was among the first Southern coaches to recruit black players in the ’60s, and he especially liked to find the local high schoolers who played a faster, showier, more aggressive kind of ball. “Phi Slama Jama” touches on Lewis’ first wave of success in the late ’60s—including a high-profile defeat of John Wooden’s powerhouse UCLA team in the newly opened Astrodome—and explains how his teams thrived in the early ’80s with a style that some of the more conservative old-guard coaches found too splashy.
This episode, though, falls well short of the sort of social criticism or Xs and Os analysis that 30 For 30 has excelled at in the past. There’s just a little here about the subtly racist undertones to the complaints about the Houston Cougars’ style—and the sense of smug satisfaction that some commentators expressed when the team couldn’t close out their seasons with the big win. And while Rives has some of the players from ’83 watch the closing seconds of the NC State game again, to talk about what went wrong, they don’t have much to offer except for a few lingering regrets. Even the quest for Anders fails to provide “Phi Slama Jama” with the kind of Citizen Kane “Rosebud” moment that could properly punctuate the Cougars’ story. There’s a lot of material crammed into this episode, and not all of it fully gets its due.
Still, as always with 30 For 30, there’s pleasure to be had just in seeing old clips of some remarkable athletes and in getting a glimpse at some of the long-forgotten ephemera they inspired—from a freestyle rap hit to the early work of then-fledgling broadcaster and U Of H grad Jim Nantz. And it is notable how different “Phi Slama Jama” is from the likes of “Four Falls Of Buffalo” or “The Best That Never Was.” There’s plenty of acknowledgment here that Houston’s legacy is diminished somewhat by the lack of championships, but at the same time, Rives understands that the Cougars today are mostly remembered as winners, thanks to their cool nickname and the subsequent NBA excellence of their two biggest stars.
This episode mostly takes its cues from an anecdote about the arrival of Olajuwon, who says that he landed in New York from Lagos with invitations to try out for several teams, and chose to go to Houston because a Nigerian baggage-handler told him that city was the hottest, temperature-wise. One of his teammates marvels at how lucky they were that Olajuwon happened to talk to that particular airport employee. Maybe it’s hard for any of the Cougars to be mad about losing a few key games when they all know that they were one chance encounter away from losing an entire player. Fate gives, fate takes.