Watching the extent of the speed, power, grace and above-the-rim artistry in today’s college basketball landscape, I’m always taken back to 1983. Most college hoops fans associate ’83 with Jim Valvano’s sprint across the court as North Carolina State defeated the heavily favored Houston Cougars with a buzzer-beating dunk to capture the National Championship.
But for me, ’83 will always be about the Final Four game between the nation’s Tallest Fraternity and the Doctors of Dunk, who were responsible for furthering the evolution of the aerial game. It was a contest that was so scintillating in its elevation, it prompted a courtside scribe to pass a note down press row that read, “Welcome to the 21st Century!”
The Louisville Cardinals and the University of Houston’s astonishing Phi Slamma Jamma crew bridged the expansive divide and connected the dots from the original sky-walker Elgin Baylor and early progenitors like the Baltimore Bullets’ Gus Johnson, the trailblazing American Basketball Association and the singular geniuses of David Thompson, Darrell Griffith and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, to the flight-time genius of Vince Carter, Shawn Kemp, Kobe, LeBron, Blake Griffin and numerous others.
“The ‘Ville”, as they were known in my New York City neighborhood, was a pedigreed program of national recruits. Cardinals coach Denny Crum boasted the brothers from ‘Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon’, Rodney and Scooter McCray, who could both get buckets and dish the rock with equal aplomb.
In the backcourt, Mississippi’s Lancaster Gordon formed an intimidating duo with Camden, New Jersey’s Milt Wagner, both of whom could post 20-point offensive outbursts with regularity. The Cardinals also featured Wagner’s former teammate from the powerhouse Camden High School program, the ballyhooed 6-foot-8 freshman sensation, Billy Thompson.
Houston’s roster, on the other hand, was a spicy stew of local ingredients, with two major exceptions. Hakeem Olajuwon was a gift from both heaven and Lagos, Nigeria, and Benny Anders, an athletic freak of nature, was a native of Louisiana. The hometown Houston flavor was provided by locals like Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Alvin Franklin, Reid Gettys and Larry Micheaux.
When the smoke cleared, Olajuwon’s transcendent 21 point, 22 rebound, eight block masterpiece foreshadowed his remarkable transformation from raw prospect into “The Dream.”
The majestic Final Four matchup between Louisville and Houston that brought college basketball into the 21st century, however, has faded into the obscurity of a national sporting consciousness, forever marginalized by N.C. State’s incredible upset win over Houston in the Finals.
But Phi Slamma Jamma and The ‘Ville in ‘83 was one of the most awe-inspiring, paradigm-shifting displays of raw athleticism, speed, power and hops ever witnessed. It was a sustained, Russell Westbrook-like, full court sprint that transported us across time and space to the doorstep of today’s game.