“Phi Slama Jama” was the frat-like moniker coined by sportswriter Thomas Bonk to describe the Guy Lewis coached Houston college basketball teams of the early 1980s, squads that helped usher in the sport’s sped-up, shot clock era by running relentlessly up and down the court and making their infinitely entertaining dunks the point rather than a mere byproduct. But despite the title, director Chip Rives frames his story not through the team itself but through the search for one of its players – fabled eccentric Benny Anders, who we are introduced to through a daguerreotype-ish portrait, in which he wears a suit and stares semi-irreverently into the distance.
After the rise of Anders as slam-dunking savant off the Houston bench, however, he fell quick, literally vanishing. Literally literally. People penned odes to trying to find Anders, though even his closest family seemed unsure of his whereabouts. That search jumps in and out of an otherwise fairly standard sports documentary telling of those grand Cougar teams which reached three consecutive Final Fours but never won the championship, most famously falling short in 1983 when they were stunned in the last second by the heavy underdog North Carolina State Wolfpack.
Game clips and newspaper headlines alternate with a slew of rather uninformative talking heads, ranging from various sportscasters to the team members themselves, unbelievably managing to the mute the astonishing impact of all those dunks. “Phi Slama Jama” never puts into context what those dunks meant, other than people like the milquetoast Jim Nantz offering milquetoast observations like “they were a cultural phenomenon.” Okay, but why? We never see this from the culture’s perspective and we never see the old guard “critics” who lamented fancypants slams and jams that are so often referred to. Everyone tells us how revolutionary this team was and those simple statements of fact are supposed to suffice.
As a coach, Lewis was famous, or notorious, depending on whom you talk to, for allowing his players myriad individual freedom on the court. In other words, while basketball is theoretically a team game, Phi Slama Jama was composed of individuals, and so rather than trying to fit all these individuals into some rigid system, Lewis simply let those individuals be themselves, for a lot of good but for occasional bad. Yet we rarely get to see this movie from individual perspectives. A player’s nickname is often about all we get to try and comprehend his uniqueness. Even Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon, a Nigerian immigrant with an incredible backstory, is limited to a few anecdotes and not much more. All except Benny, that is, whose legacy the doc returns to throughout.
Former Cougar captains Eric Davis and Lynden Rose follow Anders’s trail from Houston to Louisiana to Michigan. As they do, they discuss that championship game of 1983 and how Anders came but a fingertip away from engineering a steal in the last seconds that undoubtedly would have led to a dunk and to victory and to Anders being a hero. Davis and Rose postulate that had this played out, Anders life would have been completely different, a terribly depressing realization, that only sports heroes can succeed, not goats, though no one here, including the director, seems to really grasp that depression, which is extra depressing.
No one grasps it, that is, except Anders, who when he is finally found at film’s end and interviewed offers next to nothing in the way of explaining where he went and why he went there. I don’t owe anybody an explanation he says, and it’s true. He doesn’t. Still, in that explanation, I suspect, is the real story of Phi Slama Jama.