Directed by Chip Rives
In the current college basketball landscape, the University of Houston Cougars basketball team is fairly irrelevant, playing its conference games in the American Athletic Conference. In fact, its football team, lead by young head coach Tom Herman, seems to steal the headlines from a basketball team that has failed to make it to the NCAA tournament since 2010, and not since 1992 before that. But there was once a time when Houston was a powerhouse in college basketball, and with the college season about a month away, ESPN decided it was time to tell the story of “Texas’ tallest fraternity”, Phi Slama Jama. The latest in Volume III of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Phi Slama Jama brings back some the teams brightest stars, while searching for one of their lost brothers.
Phi Slama Jama, a nickname coined by Houston Post reporter Thomas Bonk after a sleepy blowout win over a Pacific team in 1983, was a team in the early to mid 1980s that consistently made noise in college basketball, but what I didn’t know (and I suspect many casual fans of the game as well) is that the University of Houston basketball program was quite good in the late 1960s as well, lead by head coach Guy V. Lewis who steered the Houston program to 5 Final Fours in his Houston career, which spanned 30 years. The three consecutive Final Fours from 1982-1984 are what everybody remembers. Unfortunately for the Houston Cougars, that three year span pre-dated the unfortunate streak of the Buffalo Bills (as seen in Four Falls of Buffalo), as the Cougars failed to cap off their Final Four runs with a championship, even having the heartbreak of being the unfortunate victim of the infamous 1983 NC State Championship team chronicled in Survive and Advance.
As the antithesis to Survive and Advance, witnessing the players, accomplishments, and shortcoming of Phi Slama Jama leaves a lasting impression. In the vein of much of the 30 for 30 series, Phi Slama Jama does not take very many chances and crafts a fairly straight forward documentary film which recaps the glory years for Guy V. Lewis and his star-studded teams that included Basketball Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Reliving the heights of the program creates for soaring experiences, but just as quickly as the program rose, it fell into obscurity after its marquee players graduated or left for the NBA. The fact still remains that Guy V. Lewis took chances on guys other programs wouldn’t touch, and the result was fantastic basketball teams that provided their town and fans across the country with a lot to cheer about.
The film’s major downfall is its attempt to weave the story of the team in the 1980s with the search for one of its brightest players, Benny Anders. His whereabouts unknown to his teammates in present day, former captains Dave Rose and Eric Davis follow any lead they can to find Anders and reconnect. The search is a clunky add on to the story being told and feels like a separate story entirely, and one which is not given enough time to fully evolve into something worthwhile in telling the story of Phi Slama Jama. There aren’t enough details included for me to decide how/why Anders disappeared, and how/why his teammates long to find him apart from the obvious pre-assumed answers which may or may not be true. Perhaps Anders doesn’t want to be found by his teammates. Regardless, the film is unable to integrate this part of the story into the recap of Houston’s glory years, making Phi Slama Jama an uneven documentary experience.
That being said, the moment of reunion is quite moving, even if the human emotions alone create this sentimental moment without the help of the storytelling of the filmmakers. Phi Slama Jama plays out as a fairly standard, middle of the road entry into the 30 for 30 series. There are better films, there are also worse. It doesn’t take many risks, other than the miscalculated Anders search. We meet the players, hear them relive the great moments, see the highlights and lowlights. We gain an appreciation of how good and entertaining this team was and how great a coach Guy V. Lewis was. Houston fans should appreciate this coach and this team, as they have not come close to reclaiming the success they saw under Lewis. Hopefully 30 for 30 will walk a different path and find greatness once again after this fairly mediocre film.