The Houston Cougars have garnered a lot of attention as of late for their football program’s success on the field. They have also become known for their very public push to join a Power Five conference. The Cougars have been relegated to second tier conferences since the Southwest Conference disbanded but have positioned themselves as one of the most attractive options for whenever the next round of expansion arrives.
Part of their pitch explaining their value to prospective conferences is not just their current success in athletics but their tradition rich history from those very Southwest Conference days. ESPN Films and director Chip Rives do a masterful job of shining a light on one of Houston’s brightest eras in athletics, one that came on the hardwood instead of the football field—and one that still is simply known as Phi Slama Jama.
The early 1980s were a high point for the Cougars basketball program with names like Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Rob Williams, Michael Young and so many more roamed Cullen Boulevard and grabbed the city’s attention.
For Rives, the project was one about his evolution as a young sports fan in a city filled with some great sports teams.
“I grew up in Houston and I had been pitching this story to ESPN for years,” said Rives. “Phi Slama Jama influenced me a lot. For those that were there and experienced it, it was kind of the golden era in Houston sports. In the late 1970s you had Earl (Campbell) and Bum (Phillips) for the Oilers; there was Nolan (Ryan) and what was going on with the Astros in 1980; the Rockets with Moses Malone making the NBA Finals in 1981; and Houston Cougar football was even doing great then too.
Then you have this magical moment that happened with this basketball team. For me as a young kid and a huge sports fan, Houston was the place to be. The only thing we were missing was a championship, we had suffered through these heartbreaks with the Oilers and Astros and Rockets and then finally in 1983 with this Cougars basketball team and this run, you just knew that all of these years of torment and suffering as a sports fan was going to be resolved…until Lorenzo Charles dunked the basketball. I spent a lot of time at Hofheinz like a lot of people then. I remember crying when Lorenzo Charles dunked the ball.”
For Cougars fans who lived through the brief but white hot era of Cougars basketball in the early 1980s, which was led by now Hall of Fame head coach Guy V. Lewis, the imagery will surely stir some emotion of a time when the Cougars came so close to that elusive championship.
In 2016 which has Cougar sports fans enamored with football’s “H-Town Takeover”, a newer generation of fans get a glimpse back at what could in hind sight be called the original H-Town Takeover and some of the brightest moments that build into the school’s history.
As great as the subject of the Cougars’ basketball accomplishments is covered in the film, the film is taken over by two key players from the time, Eric Davis and Lynden Rose. Their journey across the country, as just the latest to try and find enigmatic former player Benny Anders who disappeared shortly after the Cougars run, is well documented.
“I’ve always been enamored with Benny Anders,” He was every bit a hero of mine as those other Houston sports figures were at the time. I can’t really describe it any other way there than to just say he was cool. I didn’t really know what cool was but I remember seeing Benny Anders at Cougars basketball games and thinking that he was cool. He represented so much to that team and era that it would have been disservice to not include him. Initially there was some back and forth on how much we would go into the Benny Anders story, but I kept getting validation as we were doing the research. Big time people like Brent Musburger, Dick Vitale, Jim Nantz, these authoritative figures in college basketball all kept asking what we were doing with Benny. There was some back and forth and I told ESPN that we had an opportunity to really do something special. We extended production with the original idea of doing a companion piece, an ESPN Film Short, that would have come out simultaneous to the film. The reality is we didn’t think we were going to find him but still thought we should tell the legend of Benny Anders.”
Sports fans, and more specifically Houston Cougar fans get their first look at the new film Tuesday October 8 at 8 p.m. ET.