“Phi Slama Jama” documentary is ‘personal’ for director
It’s the early 1980’s in Houston and the sports scene is thriving.
Running back Earl Campbell is barreling over defenders every Sunday in the Astrodome, the Moses Malone-led Rockets are coming off of an appearance in the ’80-’81 NBA Finals and the Astros are riding a wave of success thanks to the arms of Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard.
But perhaps the most entertaining team in Houston can be found on Cullen Boulevard. The Cougar basketball team is the most popular in the nation and is transcending the way basketball is played forever.
ESPN Films is set to debut their 30 for 30 documentary entitled “Phi Slama Jama” on Tuesday. Five-time Emmy winning director Chip Rives takes viewers through the rise and demise of Texas’ Tallest Fraternity, as well as on a manhunt to find the legendary Benny Anders, whose intentional disappearance has baffled college basketball fans for decades.
“I’ve been trying to pitch this thing to (ESPN) for years,” Rives said. “I’m a little biased because I feel like we always got shortchanged, not just with this story but other stories that are near and dear for us as Houstonians. I always felt like Phi Slama Jama was much more than an agony of defeat highlight.”
With little documenting the team’s success—or lack thereof—during that magical four year span, Rives is ready to change this.
As an 11-year-old boy growing up in Houston, this iconic Cougar basketball team is one of the earliest heartbreaks he remembers experiencing. Rives is now a decorated filmmaker on a mission to remind the world of just how special the early 80’s were on the campus of UH and in the city of Houston.
“This is just something really personal. It’s something that I experienced,” Rives said. “On a very selfish level it was important to get a Houston story out there. Akeem (Olajuwon) and Clyde (Drexler) were my heroes, unequivocally. I assumed a great deal of responsibility that came with being a Houstonian and telling the story of a Houston sports team.”
The documentary highlights head coach Guy V. Lewis’ unique coaching style that allowed for players to showcase their creativity and athletic ability on the court. With the help of players like Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Young, the Cougars were one of the first teams to utilize dunking the ball—which was previously reserved for inner-city pickup games.
The prospect of playing in Lewis’ system attracted some of the best players from around the city. Having no shortage of talent in Houston, Lewis fielded a largely homegrown roster that would captivate the nation en route three consecutive Final Four appearances and back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances.
Despite their success, the team came away with nothing to show for it. Rives wants to remind the masses that it wasn’t all for naught.
“We put so much credence in a piece of jewelry and we forget what the journey is all about,” Rives said. “Everything is based on whether or not you got the ring and these guys didn’t. That’s the legacy they have carried with them 30 years later.”
An interesting side plot Rives incorporates into the film is a present-day manhunt that former team captains Eric Davis and Lynden Rose embark on to find their long lost teammate Anders.
Anders was known for his flamboyant personality and quickly became a fan favorite when the team rose to prominence.
Rives says that as a kid he had a keen fondness for Anders.
“I didn’t know much, but I knew that Benny Anders was cool. Like I could just tell. I didn’t even know what cool was but whatever it is, this guy has it,” Rives said. “I didn’t think any film would be complete without at least a chapter on Benny Anders. I did not anticipate that it would become this big but it certainly deserved the attention that we gave to it and then it kind of took on a life of its own.”
It was Anders’ near steal in the final seconds of the ’83 Final that would have likely sealed a championship for the Cougars. Unable to come away with the ball, the North Carolina State Wolfpack scored moments later on their final possession to take home the trophy.
Months later, Anders was dismissed from the team and would go off the grid for decades.
Rives recalls what it was like to be present when Rose and Davis were finally able to track down their old friend after months of searching.
“To see his reaction when he saw his two friends, his mentors, it kind of validated all of the struggles of trying to get to him,” Rives said. “We didn’t know how he was going to react. You see in the footage he loved seeing his guys and that was very rewarding for us.”
After dedicating the last 15 months of his life to producing this film, Rives says he is glad he didn’t give up despite wanting to at times.
He says that he and his crew felt like pursuing a different story, but they decided to push through. Reminiscing on what he learned through this experience, Rives gives a valuable piece of advice.
“My message to someone out there pursuing something they’ve got a passion about, just stay after it. It’s not always easy, it’s not, but in the end if you follow your passion and follow your heart it can be really rewarding.”