Hofheinz, Phi Slama Jama, ‘The Dream’: The doors are closed for good
It started off like any other Cougar basketball game.
It began with senior center Kyle Meyer leaping into the air and tipping the jump-ball over to fellow teammates. With possession, the Cougars drove down the court, and the ball found itself in the hands of senior forward Xavier Dupree. Dupree then missed the jumper, collected his own rebound and missed again.
It was a slow start for the Cougars. They didn’t change the big 0 on the scoreboard until Dupree sank in a corner 3-pointer two minutes later.
But this wasn’t just some ordinary University of Houston basketball game. It was the last basketball game to ever be played in the historic Hofheinz Pavilion that had housed the Cougars since 1969.
The end of an era
Announced last April, Hofheinz Pavilion will be renovated following the conclusion of this season at the cost of $60 million. Billionaire and UH Board of Regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta contributed $20 million, earning the naming rights for the arena. Come the 2018-19 season, the Cougars will play in the brand new Fertitta Center.
Because of the closing of Hofheinz Pavilion, dozens of Houston basketball alumni came to watch the final game.
No other UH basketball alumnus drew more attention than the 7-foot superstar who sat courtside. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon came to UH as a soccer player from Nigeria and left to become a two-time NBA Finals MVP.
The game raged on. The Cougar offense surged but defensively, they struggled against the ECU Pirates. Junior guard Wes VanBeck caught fire from beyond the arc, sinking two 3-pointers in one minute. But the Pirates kept the game close on the opposite side of the court.
With 3:01 left in the half and the Cougars with a slight lead at 26-24, the game changed. A miss from 3-point land by VanBeck saw Meyer come down with the offensive rebound, resetting the shot clock. 12 seconds later, Meyer had the ball again and leapt up to the rim.
The Cougar audience erupted at the slam dunk. As Meyer slammed it down, everyone in the audience suddenly remembered the captivating team in the ’80s that revolutionized the game. By halftime, not a single person wasn’t thinking of Phi Slama Jama and a red polka-dot towel.
Live by the dunk
The most successful era in Cougar basketball came from 1982-1984 at the hands of Hall of Fame head coach Guy V. Lewis and Phi Slama Jama, “Texas’ Tallest Fraternity.”
Phi Slama Jama made popular an above-the-rim style of play that centered on slam dunks — or as coach Lewis liked to call them, “high percentage shots.” They were flashy, talented. Audiences around the country loved them.
“Phi Slama Jama gives a new meaning to the phrase that everything is bigger and better in Texas,” said then–Texas Governor Mark White.
Led by Olajuwon and homegrown talent Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, Phi Slama Jama included players like Michael “Silent Assassin” Young, Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux and Benny “The Outlaw” Anders.
During the three seasons from 1982-1984, the Cougars made three consecutive Final Four appearances and played in the championship game twice.
In the 1982 Final Four, the Cougars found themselves against the No. 1 UNC Tar Heels and freshman Michael Jordan. Olajuwon being in his first year, the Cougars fell 68-63.
With most of the Cougars’ talent returning for the next season, however, the days of Phi Slama Jama’s dominance came to be.
The Cougars roared to a No. 1 ranking atop the AP poll on the back of a 22-game winning streak in the regular season. They entered the NCAA tournament as clear favorites to win it all.
Easily storming into the Final Four and storming past the Louisville Cardinals to compete in the championship game, the Cougars matched up against the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
The stage was set. Phi Slama Jama had made it to the finals.
Not only was this a momentous occasion for the University, but for the entire city of Houston. Up until that point, no Houston sports team had ever won a national title. Not the Oilers, not the Rockets and not the Astros.
The Cougars had the chance to finally write Houston’s name down as a champion’s city.
Die by the dunk
In what was supposed to be an obvious Houston victory, the Cougars struggled. Fouls plagued Drexler as he found four in the first half alone. He didn’t foul out in the end, but his contribution proved minimal, putting up only four points.
The Cougars trailed 33-25 at halftime.
In the second half, the Cougars made a comeback. They erased the eight-point difference and looked to take the game into overtime at 52-52.
But things didn’t pan out. Five seconds were left on the clock. NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg lobbed the basketball toward the goal. Lorenzo Charles took it, and he put down the go-ahead dunk. The clock reached zero before the Cougars could do anything.
54-52, North Carolina State wins.
The Cougars and the entire city of Houston were devastated. The team returned to Houston and all pledged in front of a crowd at Robertson Stadium that next year, they’d bring back the title.
“I wish we could have brought this thing back this year,” Benny Anders said. “Next year, we will.”
“This is not the end,” Lewis said. “We’ll be back next year.”
But the Phi Slama Jama ranks took a hit. Drexler skipped his senior year to declare for the draft, and Micheaux graduated.
The Cougars retained Olajuwon and Young, however, and the two kept Phi Slama Jama alive. Houston ended the 1983-84 regular season at No. 5 in the AP poll and battled their way to another championship appearance.
This time around, the Cougars came in as the underdog against a Patrick Ewing–led Georgetown. But the underdogs lost.
85-74, Georgetown wins.
The Cougars returned and pledged the same as before.
“I wish we could have won this year’s game,” Olajuwon said. “I’m sure next year we’ll win it all.”
But next year never came. Olajuwon declared for the draft, and Young graduated. With Drexler, Micheaux, Olajuwon and Young now all gone, Phi Slama Jama was officially dead.
A declining history
Since 1984, Houston basketball has lived in the shadow of Phi Slama Jama, never coming close to replicating that level of success.
The Cougars went from a 32-5 season in 1984 to a 16-14 season in 1985 and then to a 14-14 season in 1986. Those were coach Lewis’s last seasons before he retired.
Since then, Cougar basketball didn’t win a conference championship until the 2009-10 season. The Cougars have returned to March Madness four times, but each time they lost in the first round.
“We’ve had a great deal of success, but as you look back as we ended the Phi Slama Jama era, that rich history and tradition has waned a little bit,” said Hunter Yurachek, the vice president for UH Athletics. “We just secured our second twenty-win season in a row, which is only the third time we’ve done that since that 1984 Final Four season.”
Time for change
Nowadays, the once top-of-the-line Hofheinz Pavilion is outdated and in need of serious renovations. The ceiling is incredibly low, the lights can’t be turned off and fan amenities are nonexistent. While the last game in Hofheinz against ECU reportedly sold out, hundreds of seats lay vacant in actuality.
“When a young man comes on campus, the first place you should take him is to where he’s going to play his games,” said Head coach Kelvin Sampson. “We haven’t done that since I’ve been here, and I’m sure the other coaches did not either.”
An updated facility is essential to recruiting new players, Sampson said. In order to recruit the incoming generations, there has to be something there to impress them.
“Hofheinz is a facility that has served this University and this community very well, but it’s reached its time for major renovations,” Yurachek said.
The last buzzer
The last game in Hofheinz wound down just like any other game might. The Cougars found their momentum in the second half and made it rain. Six 3-pointers came down, and the Cougars took a commanding 20-point lead by the end.
The band and student section were lively as always. Whenever ECU had to make free throws, the band sang, or screamed, “I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves” or the intro to Spongebob Squarepants. “It’s a Small World” proved most effective as ECU missed both free throws.
Finally, the last points were scored, and the game settled. Junior guard Rob Gray led the team with 24 points.
73-51, Cougars win.
After the game finished, the closing ceremony commenced. Dozens of UH basketball alumni filed onto the court in order from the ’60s all the way to the 2010s. UH legend Elvin Hayes, Olajuwon and other members of Phi Slama Jama walked onto the court to be showered with applause one last time in Hofheinz Pavilion.
The ball started with the current Cougar basketball team, each member rubbing his hands across its orange surface before passing it. At the end of the line, senior forward Danrad “Chicken” Knowles took the ball and passed it to senior guard Damyean Dotson. Dotson leapt up to make an easy layup, and then handed the ball over to the alumni.
“When I was walking down the tunnel and I saw all the different eras of Cougar basketball represented, from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, 2010s, I realized this building represents a lot of people,” Sampson said. “It’s not a team or an era. It’s from 1969 to today. From Damyean Dotson and Kyle Meyer all the way to freshmen on Elvin Hayes’s team.”
Two men stood under the opposite basket: Olajuwon and Hayes. Hayes never got to play in Hofheinz Pavilion as he graduated in 1968, one year before it opened. It had been planned for Olajuwon to pass the ball to Hayes, who would then make a layup. Hayes would finally make a bucket in Hofheinz Pavilion.
“I was thinking, ‘They made this building so famous, Phi Slama Jama,’” Hayes told Fox 26.
Hayes said that Olajuwon replied, “You know, I can still dunk it.”
The ball was handed to Olajuwon. He passed the ball to Hayes as was planned, but Hayes passed it back. The 54-year-old Olajuwon took a few steps forward and jumped up as easily as he would have in 1983. He slammed the ball down, and the crowd went wild.
“It’s Phi Slama Jama,” Olajuwon said. “It had to be a dunk. We had to do it.”
Construction began the next day, and the doors to Hofheinz closed. The building will be gutted. Hayes’s, Olajuwon’s, Drexler’s and Young’s banners will be taken down. They’ll be placed in the Fertitta Center, of course, but the arena these legends played in will be gone.
“This place is old. It should have been done a long time ago,” Sampson said. “But now with the new arena, I just think this is our chance to not only grow but to be really good.”
The Fertitta Center will give the Cougars the opportunity to recruit the best talent possible. Perhaps they’ll find another Clyde Drexler somewhere in Houston or a Hakeem Olajuwon overseas.
But the days of Hofheinz and the tag team of Olajuwon and Drexler are officially over. It’s time for Cougar basketball to stop living in the shadow of Phi Slama Jama. Maybe next year might finally come.