"I'm in South Texas, in a crowded courtroom," remembers Gettys. "The judge asks the jury to step out for a moment. I'm thinking, 'Uh-oh, what's going on here?' And the judge looks at me and says, 'Now, about that Louisville game '"
Strap on the short shorts, grab the oxygen tank and soar with the 1983 Cougars and Cardinals
That Louisville game. Or, as it's known in the bluegrass state, That Houston game. The 1983 national semifinal between Houston's Phi Slama Jama and Louisville's Doctors of Dunk. The best damn show anyone had ever seen over 40 minutes. The game that buried stallball forever. The game that ushered in a new era of aerial wizardry.
Hank Nichols, who refereed the game, calls it "The Blitzkreig": "When you were under the basket and they came down with all those thunderous dunks, you looked around for a bomb shelter."
"It was like a heavyweight championship fight," says Billy Packer, who announced the game for CBS. "Two great teams slugging it out above the rim."
Rodney McCray keeps it simple: "The greatest game I've ever been a part of."
But despite the plaudits, and Reid Gettys' experience in federal court, Houston-Louisville has slipped through the cracks of popular memory. That's thanks mainly to the gigantic shadow cast by the game played 48 hours later, the one that turned Jimmy Valvano from slick sideline rogue to sage guru with a ring thanks to an improbable dunk at the buzzer.
Like Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" or Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," Houston-Louisville is an influential piece of entertainment that has remained largely underground. It built on the shards of possibility explored by prior innovators like Julius Erving and David Thompson, and then extrapolated, creating an entirely new paradigm. Now the dunk could be the objective of an offense, not just an occasional happenstance. Now teams could attack the rim at every opportunity, and there would be no purist backlash. John Wooden disdained the dunk as too showy, but a new era had dawned.
Houston and Louisville brought Rucker Park to the Final Four and changed the college game forever.
By 1983, at Louisville, the Cardinals had turned jamming into a group effort. In homage to their spiritual father, they were known as the "Doctors of Dunk." The mastermind was coach Denny Crum. A direct disciple of Wooden at UCLA, his alma mater, Crum brought the Bruins' pressing defense east. Like the Wizard of Westwood, Crum believed in maintaining an even keel, and he set the perfect example. "Denny never changed," says Bill Olsen, Louisville's athletic director from 1980 to 1997. "He was the same every game, not a Knute Rockne type at all. Al McGuire called him Cool Hand Luke."
Crum put together a formidable inside-outside combo. A pair of brothers from Mount Vernon, N.Y., Scooter and Rodney McCray, held down the paint, while Milt Wagner from New Jersey and Mississippi's Lancaster Gordon provided the nation's top backcourt. The McCrays were not only potent scorers but also averaged over six assists per game between them, more than the guards. Wagner and Gordon both averaged about 14 points a game while shooting better than 50 percent for the season from the field, and, like the McCrays, had an almost supernatural ability to connect with each other, on and off the court. "Milt could read me and calm me down when I got mad," Gordon remembers. "We could say things to one another that would upset other people. It was like having a great wife."
But, as good and as unified and as unselfish as they were, the Cards only went six deep, with Charles Jones at center and prize freshman Billy Thompson as sixth man. That lack of depth would come back to haunt the Cardinals.
LEWIS: "Most of the guys came from a 5- to 6- mile radius from the campus."
YOUNG: "I went to Yates High, right across the street. Drexler played in my district. We got letters from other schools, but we all wanted to play for UH."
THOMAS BONK (Houston Post columnist): "Drexler, as a freshman, wasn't very impressive. People were asking 'Why are we wasting a scholarship on this guy?'"
LEWIS: "A lot of people didn't recruit him. Even Rice University didn't want him. But he was made for our team with that great speed."
Other area players, from senior co-captains David Rose and Larry "Mr. Mean" Micheaux to a pair of backcourt underclassmen, Alvin Franklin and Reid Gettys, filled out the Cougars' roster. But there were two key players from outside the 713 area code.
Before the two NBA titles, before the "Dream Shake," even before the "H," he was Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, the son of a Lagos cement maker. When he showed up on campus in 1980 at 7-foot, 190 pounds, Akeem was just an extremely thin project.
LEWIS: "Akeem was a long shot as a recruit. He couldn't do anything but run and jump. And, boy, his shooting needed work. I worked with him for 30 minutes, every day, just on his shooting."
BONK: "Lewis thought so little of Akeem that when Akeem got to Houston, he had to take a taxi from the airport. No one was there from the university to meet him."
LEWIS: "By 1982, Akeem still hadn't done anything in a game. Then we played TCU, and beat them by three points. Akeem had three points in the game, and I told him those points had won the game for us. From then on he blossomed; it all clicked."
In contrast to the callow but hard-working Olajuwon was a cocksure all-state swingman from Louisiana named Benny Anders. If Houston brought an ABA ethic to the NCAA, Benny was their Marvin Barnes.
MICHEAUX: "Benny was easily the best athlete on the team."
GETTYS: "I'm 6-6, Benny's 6-5, and the tip of my fingers came to the middle of his forearm. Then throw in a legit 40-inch vertical. A freak, I mean, just incredible."
YOUNG "We called him 'The Outlaw' because his freshman year he came to practice wearing a shirt reading 'Outlaw' on it. He said it was his high school nickname 'cause he would just kill you. I'm pretty sure he meant on the court."
BONK: "I'll never forget Benny getting off a plane in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wearing an unbelievable amount of jewelry, and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. What man carried a Louis Vuitton bag in those days? He got onto the tarmac, looking like J-Lo, and just looked around, blinking like 'What am I doing here?'"
ANDERS (discussing Houston's offense in 1983): "When I drop a dime to the Big Swahili, he better lay it in the hole."
GETTYS: "Clyde will concede Benny tore him up in one-on-ones. Now, Clyde won't concede Michael Jordan tore him up, but he concedes Benny would get him."
The team was molded to fit Lewis' style. As he once put it, "I like the dunk. It's a high percentage shot."
BONK: "I needed a line for a column. It was after a game when Houston beat, I think it was University of the Pacific, like 112-56, and they had 29 dunks in the game! So I wondered, what would a college dunking fraternity be called? And it just hit me Phi Slama Jama. Then Sports Illustrated picked it up and ran with it, except they spelled it with two Ms, and then told me I had misspelled it!"
The team now had a gaudy nickname, but they earned their way back to the Final Four and No. 1 national ranking with sweat equity.
LEWIS: "We ran the hell outta them three hours a day of practice, running the whole time. We'd run the steps at Hofheinz [Pavilion], 38 steps, up and down, over and over, and we'd never let them sit down."
BONK: "People ripped Guy for being too laissez faire, but he was perfect for that team. I went to every practice that year, and all Guy ever said was 'Red ball out.' But he didn't have to say anything else they killed each other in practice."
DAVID ROSE: "We'd split into Red and White teams and go at it. The first four or five guys were always on the Red team, and then the next four or five guys would switch around. We all tried hard to get on the Red team because they won all the time."
GETTYS: "We realized how special it was. We'd watch Drexler dunk over somebody, or see Akeem pin the ball on the white square above the rim, and just go, 'Whoooaaaaa.' David Rose would shake his head and go, 'Do you realize who you're playing with?' And I would just nod."
BONK: "Covering that team was an absolute ball. They were such a bunch of knuckleheads. Larry Micheaux once gave himself a tattoo of an airplane with a ballpoint pen. After that, his nickname changed from 'Mr. Mean' to 'Mr. Dumb.' You could write a column on them every single day."
For most of the country, the final is the most memorable game of the 1983 tournament. In Louisville, it is the regional final against Kentucky that resonates. The tournament committee got the intrastate rivals together, something Kentucky coaches Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall had refused to do for decades. In the ensuing years, the game has become a roundball version of Auburn-Alabama, but no meeting was as intense as that first one.The game went to overtime, when the Cardinals crushed UK with a vise-like press, and advanced to the Final Four.
The anticipation over the showdown built to a fever pitch. The other semifinal, NC State-Georgia, was relegated to junior varsity status. The oft-repeated refrain of the week was "I wish it was the championship game." "Matchup is perfect, but early," read a New York Times preview. Only the players didn't succumb to the hype.
RODNEY McCRAY: "In retrospect you have to ask, why did the committee pit Houston and Louisville in the semifinals? They knew the rankings everyone had us 1-2."
MICHEAUX: "One of the assistant coaches told me they were called the Doctors of Dunk. I had never really heard of them until he mentioned it. We knew no one was better than us at dunking, so we wanted to show them we could dunk, too."
YOUNG: "Nowadays, we would have all the scouting reports. Back then, the coaches told us who we would wind up guarding, and then we watched them on TV and figured it out."
GETTYS: "No one believes me, but we didn't build up that game at all. We were in a team meeting during the week, and someone read in the paper that Louisville was saying they were going to run with us. We all said, 'Suuuure you will.'"
CRUM: "They weren't in the NBA yet, so we weren't afraid of them."
WAGNER: "Even in practice, people came to see who had the best dunk line. I'm going to say we had a better one, even though I didn't get to see theirs."
Houston gave in to the occasion in one respect snazzy new red warm-ups emblazoned with the "Phi Slama Jama" logo.
GETTYS: "Larry Micheaux's dad paid to have those warm-ups made. We were at a team breakfast the day of the game. He walked in with a smirky grin and showed one of them to the team. There was a long pause, then Guy V. pipes up, 'I liiiiiiiike those.' So Mr. Micheaux starts throwing them out to everybody. Now how many coaches would get all the way to the Final Four and be cool with brand new warmups?"
LEWIS: "I outcoached myself in the 1982 Final Four. I got to thinking how smart Dean Smith was, and I backed off the press. And North Carolina took a 15-point lead. This time, I was more worried about keeping us fresh in the Pit.
WAGNER: "I had some success shooting over that zone early."
Indeed, star guards Wagner and Gordon combined for 20 points in the first half. Defensively, the Cardinals managed to stifle Phi Slama Jama. A keynote play came 2½ minutes into the game, when 6-8 Charles Jones rejected Akeem, leading to a fastbreak and a vicious two-hand stuff by Rodney McCray. But the careful observer might have noted an ominous sign for Louisville. Houston's freshman point guard, Alvin Franklin, wasn't turning the ball over, despite Louisville's trademark up-in-your-grille pressure.
GORDON: "We tried to front the post and come with a whole lot of weakside help. That was successful against Akeem. But our priority was pressure on the ball. That wasn't as successful."
Houston only managed three dunks in the first half, but a pair by Drexler foreshadowed later events. Both were classic mixtures of speed and strength, with The Glide swooping down the court and powering home right-handed monsters. The second left Billy Thompson sprawled on the floor, having unsuccessfully challenged Drexler's forceful intentions.
SCOOTER McCRAY: "We really didn't mind the dunks. When shotblockers go for blocks, they get dunked on. It happens."
In that entertaining first half, the game was tied 10 times. Houston held the largest lead of the half four points.
HANK NICHOLS (referee): "They were just playing their rear ends off. The competition was fierce you could see it in their eyes. But nothing dirty, nothing nasty."
Houston would trail for more than 15 minutes.
A few minutes later, Wagner hit Scooter McCray with a perfect feed for a dunk. On Houston's ensuing possession, Scooter McCray stole a pass at midcourt and took off. This fast break was stopped in a most bizarre manner Lewis throwing his towel at Scooter as he raced by.
SCOOTER McCRAY: "I had stolen the ball, my brother was with me on a break, and a checkered towel came my way. Lewis said it slipped. He was pretty frustrated that we had forced another turnover."
NICHOLS: "I hear Guy make this noise, like a strangled cry. I couldn't really make out what he said; he just yelled something in disgust. And this polka-dot towel comes out. It looked like a magic carpet. It just floated down, kind of in slow motion. Then he looked up at me and said real quick, 'Haaaaaaaaank, I didn't mean it!' Guy was a prince, everyone loved him, and I felt bad, but I said, 'Guy, I hate to do this to you, but that's a technical.'"
LEWIS: "What do you say in a situation like that? It didn't hurt too much because they missed their technicals. It was stupid, but I was frustrated."
Gordon actually made one of two technicals, giving Louisville the 41-36 lead they would take to the locker room. Despite having no starter taller than 6-9, the Doctors of Dunk were controlling the glass, outrebounding Houston 24-14.
The Cardinals controlled the opening portion of the second half. Rodney McCray dunked off a Gordon dish, then stole the ball and scored on the break. Seconds later, Micheaux was called for a charge. It was his fourth foul, a fact everyone seemed aware of except the Houston bench.
LEWIS: "I had a bench full of assistants, and none of us noticed."
Three minutes later, with 13:28 to play and Houston trailing 55-49, Micheaux picked up his fifth foul. Seconds later, Wagner drilled a jumper from the top of the key to give Louisville an eight-point lead. It appeared that the team wearing red was in command. But that moment was the turning point, thanks to two factors Benny Anders and thin air.
GORDON: "The Pit is an ungodly place to play. They should never have a tourney game in there. It's so humid, and the effects of the elevation are worse when it's humid. During the timeouts, we were fighting for oxygen more than listening to the coaches."
RODNEY McCRAY: "You hear the stories about the elevation, how it's all mental. But I got so winded I just couldn't get where I wanted to go. My mind was saying 'get back on D,' but my legs were like I was running on the beach."
GETTYS: "In the first five minutes, my arms and legs went totally numb. But we were deeper and didn't wear down."
CRUM: "I always thought if we'd had played at sea level, we would have won."
Meanwhile, when Micheaux fouled out, The Outlaw replaced him. He'd been quiet until then, with only three points, but immediately lifted the team with his energy. Phi Slama Jama had dunked four times in the first 27 minutes now they slammed on three straight plays. First, Drexler tossed an alley-oop to Young, who put it down one-handed. Next, Franklin drove and dished to Drexler for another "slam stuff," as the official play-by-play described the throwdown. Then, it was Benny's turn. He stole a pass and broke upcourt alone.
GETTYS: "Benny's was so nasty. He set Jones up, swung wide on purpose just to let him catch up, and buried him."
YOUNG: "He curved out to the right and told Jones, 'Meet me at the basket.'"
ANDERS (describing his method at a postgame press conference): "Take it to the rack, and stick it on them."
MICHEAUX: "I hate to say it, but my fouling out was a blessing."
Anders' sledgehammer brought Houston within 57-55, and tired Louisville defensive gropes resulted in free throws that put the Cougars up a point. Then came the piece de resistance. Anders came up with another steal, and this time he dished to Drexler, elegantly striding down the wing. The Glide proceeded to bring the house down with a one-hand-nah-let's-use-both jam, posterizing the unfortunate Jones.
DREXLER (postgame): "I wanted to make him think first that I was going to dunk it. Then, if he thought that, I would bring it down and pass it. Then I went on and dunked it. Then we were both confused."
GETTYS: "That Clyde dunk was just ridiculous. He came down, got the pass, looked left, looked right, goes up and two-hand dunks, then looks left and right again."
The Pit, which was already crazed, went to a new level of berserk after Drexler's dunk.
BONK: "People were falling out of their chairs. A college kid doing that?!"
The Cougars were not only electrifying the nation, they were reversing Louisville's domination of the backboards. Anders, Akeem and Drexler all had putbacks following Drexler's huge dunk, and the exhausted Cardinals had no answer. The Cougars reeled off a 21-1 run to take the lead 70-58 with 7:30 to play, and left all who witnessed it with their jaws on the floor.
As the Cougars were firing off their Gatling gun of dunks, someone passed a note down press row. The author is lost to history, but the message resounds:
"Welcome to the 21st century."
SCOOTER McCRAY: "Don't remind me! The infamous Dr. J one-hander he had already missed six dunks like that that season, and the seventh I remember like it was yesterday. My brother wanted to kill him. He was cursing, calling him an idiot freshman. It was heated, believe me."
THOMPSON: "The ball just slipped out of my hand. I don't regret it. It just happened. Everyone said, 'Oh, maaaan.' That two points would have helped a lot, but it came down to us stopping them, which we couldn't."
GORDON: "Right before that, Billy had missed a quick jumper. That wasn't a killer, but in combination with the dunk? It just took the rest of our steam away."
The rest of the game belonged to the man with his first name on the back of his uniform Akeem.
CRUM: "A friend of mine said to me, 'I learned something important Olajuwon was still 7 feet tall at the end of the game.'"
Olajuwon powered in four dunks in the final five minutes alone, capping a 21-point, 22-rebound, eight-block effort. Louisville tried to force some turnovers, but the fresher Cougars ran circles around them, jamming at will. The final dunk, appropriately, came from Benny Anders, though it left a sour note for one teammate.
GETTYS: "That was the most selfish play I've seen in all my years of basketball. I was 10, 15 feet in front, but Benny kept it and sent in a reverse two-hander. You can see on the highlights I just stop at the free throw line and stare at him."
Gary Bender, announcing for CBS, had a different response to the game's 19th dunk: "What a show!" Houston won 94-81, and advanced to the final.
BILLY PACKER: "I thought Houston was going to win that game by 40 points."
LEWIS: "We were totally spent afterward. We had a short practice the next day, but we never really snapped back."
BONK: "They respected N.C. State, but in their hearts, they thought it was over."
The final may have become "One Shining Moment," but the semifinal echoed on in a different way.
LEWIS: "I went to a coaches clinic over in Greece in the summer of '83. We had some films, and asked the coaches what game they wanted to see. They all wanted the Louisville game. Even there, it had made an impact."
SCOOTER McCray: "What really stands out were the skills, not the dunks. The passing, the ability to feed the post and defend. The fundamentals on display. You had me, my brother, Drexler, Young tall people for that era being able to handle the ball."
Young players watching the game went on to play for long-limbed, up-tempo teams like the Flying Illini of Illinois, UNLV's Running Rebels and the Syracuse teams featuring Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Stevie Thompson. Those squads and others took aerial displays to new heights, winning games and fans with every alley-oop dunk.
BONK: "It was a college version of the 'Showtime' Lakers. It was a meteor that streaked across the sky."
Rumors abound about Anders, just as people have whispered about every wanted outlaw from Billy The Kid to D.B. Cooper. These are the things one hears while tracking Benny down:
LEWIS: "I think he's staying with relatives in Chicago."
GETTYS: "He's been kicked out of every free country in the world."
RODNEY McCRAY: "He was a one-game wonder."
WIKIPEDIA: "He was last heard from in the 1990s when he was playing in South America."
A call to his old high school in Bernice, La., yields a longtime staffer who thinks Benny's mother and brother still live in town, but don't have a phone. Try calling the only listed "Anders" in the area, a number in nearby Ruston, La., and it just rings and rings and rings. No answer.
We'll have to let this yarn, courtesy of Reid Gettys, be the last word on the enigma that is Benny Anders.
GETTYS: An agent who places players overseas told me this story. He had set up a tryout camp in Louisiana a few years ago. He started with 150 players, narrowed it to 75, then down to 15, then held a full-court scrimmage. So one dude, he's about 300 pounds, is just killing guys. Just busting them up. The agent knew he was too heavy to interest anyone, but had to know more about this guy, and asked him his name. "I'm Benny Anders," he said. The agent was shocked. "The Benny Anders? What do you weigh?" "292." Shaking his head, the agent asked, "What are you doing weighing 292 pounds?" Benny replied, "I'm down from 350."
Come back to us, Benny. Whatever you weigh.
Robert Weintraub is a freelance writer and television producer in Atlanta. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and Play, the New York Times Sports Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.