Commentary Sports

Review: Phi Slama Jama documentary is an all-around well-dunk


In an article on Jan. 3, 1983, Houston Post sportswriter Thomas Bonk coined the term Phi Slama Jama for the Cougars’ basketball team. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Initially, I thought “Phi Slama Jama” must have been the hottest, must-hear album of a previous decade through which I had not lived.

That said, UH’s iconic basketball team is, in some way, music. The jolting and feisty, but always encore-worthy, kind. For this documentary, director Chip Rives has marvelously remastered the tune. If it really had been an album, it would deserve to be on everyone’s playlist again.

This episode of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series follows two story lines: The almost-supernatural rise of the team in the ’80s and the search for Benny Anders, a player who went off the grid. While the former eats up most of the 78-minute running time — as expected — the latter gives this sports documentary an intriguing flair, despite minimal information.

Sure, it’s a fault — but the director seemed to have no control over this.

The production value stands out immediately; members of the team have their names rendered in a theater-marquee style that perfectly matches the star power they possess. Still shots of them appear and stitch together to create a sense of movement, kind of like a pop-up book that highlights the fairy-tale nature behind the creation and growth of Guy V. Lewis’ basketball team.

For instance, one player, Hakeem Olajuwon, has just landed in New York in winter after coming from Lagos, Nigeria with invitations to play for different basketball teams when he asks a baggage handler, also a Nigerian, about which city on the invitations has similar weather to their home.

The answer? Houston. The rest, a dreamy success.

The thing about success, however, is that it’s temporary. A series of losses — in games and team members — soon plagued Phi Slama Jama, but none felt more disheartening than seeing maybe the most grim moment in Cougars’ men’s basketball history: the fall to North Carolina State University.

Documentaries tend to feature an emotional high point ready for viewers to embrace. Phi Slama Jama’s was, unfortunately, two inches out of reach due to the needlessly dramatic soundtrack. Silence, or the audio from the match, might have been more effective.

But this was just a minor flub. In fact, when the film ended, three discoveries had been made clear: There’s more to the school’s athletics than football, the best trophy to win is the fans’ hearts and what makes a team legendary is the relationship between the players. For these reasons, this “30 for 30” entry is worth watching again.

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