Catching up with Tommy Bonk: the man behind Phi Slama Jama

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Houston Cougars: greatest team that didn’t win the NCAA title


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Tommy Bonk

SAN FRANCISCO–Sometimes you do your best work under  pressure. Take my friend and longtime Los Angeles Times colleague Tommy Bonk, who coined the greatest team nickname in sporting history.

On a Sunday afternoon in early January, 1983, Bonk was assigned to chronicle a column for the Houston Post, which is different than posting a column for the Houston Chronicle.

He had just watched the Houston Cougars’ basketball team do a big number on the University of Pacific.

“The final score was 112-56,” Bonk recently recalled over a hamburger he ordered so raw he suggested for it to still be “mooing” when it reached the table. “And I said ‘what the hell can I say about this shit?’ I mean, really. And they were dunking. These guys were really good.”

Bonk wasn’t writing for the Monday paper but was under his own gunpoint pressure.

“It was deadline for me because I didn’t want to work Monday,” Bonk said.

Bonk had become smitten with the Cougars, coached by Guy Lewis and led by the high-flying likes of Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

This week’s Final Four is in Houston, but who really needs a reason to sit down with Tommy Bonk and commemorate the nastiest throw-down college team ever?

Bonk said he stared at his computer screen that Sunday and tried to synthesize what he had just seen, which was young men flying through the air with the greatest of ease.  The NCAA had, thank God in hoop heaven,  reinstated the “slam dunk” after years of draconian darkness caused by Lew Alcindor’s dominance at UCLA. Remember the silliness of Bill Walton laying the ball over the rim like a baby into a bassinet?

So the game is over and Bonk is thinking: “Ok, it’s college, so if you had a college fraternity, what would a dunking fraternity be named? So I thought of a bunch of stuff and came up with Phi Slama Jama. And it worked. It appeared on Tuesday.”

Bonk’s column lede of Jan. 3, 1983, appeared as such: “As members of the exclusive college roundball fraternity Phi Slama Jama, the Houston chapter has learned proper parliamentary procedure.”

All Houston hell broke loose. “Phi Slama Jama” took off faster than Houston players launching off the rubberized court at Hofheinz Pavilion. Bonk’s phrase captured a movement and a moment. It hit home in the talent-rich NCAA era before “one-and-done” stripped the game of its front-line depth.
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Sweet (16) dreams are made of this-who am I to disagree?


Rankman was all set to pen a Pulitzer after last weekend’s scintillating rounds of NCAA pod action before realizing Sunday night he didn’t have a job anymore.

What was the big fuss anyway? Oregon played another late night game no one saw on the East Coast. That sounded just like Pac 12 football.

Yes, Texas A&M overcame a 12-point lead with 40 seconds to topple Northern Iowa, but who hasn’t see that before? Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig also made a three-pointer from the corner to defeat Xavier in St. Louis, so we guess now “X” will always mark that spot.
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Rankman picks his NCAA field and prays for a good harvest.


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College basketball is really two sports. There is a serious regular season where pundits pore over the teams and offer insightful, incontrovertible analysis.

And there is the NCAA Tournament, which is like the dime toss at your church’s harvest festival.

It’s nice to know, actually, that your dog “Spot” is as well equipped to pick the winners as SI’s Seth Davis.

If the NCAA was like the NBA, which produces the best true champion because playoff winners are decided in a best-of-seven series, the tournament would be worth agonizing over.
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NCAA hoops needs a plumber to deal with all of its leaks


The NCAA Tournament will always be a fantastic event so long as gambling remains legal in Las Vegas and ignored in every other state.

Don’t believe me…well, how much you want to bet?

College basketball is still the best three-week sport in America but doesn’t have much more wiggle room after seeing its regular season diminished by late season college football and player poaching by the NBA.
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A tribute to the great George Martin: yeah, yeah, yeah


Rankman  loved the Beatles: John, Paul, George, George and Ringo.

Save your “gotcha emails” because that’s not a two Georges typo typo. There was always talk about the “fifth” Beatle being disc jock “Murray the K,” or early bassist Stu Sutcliffe, or keyboard genius Billy Preston, who added funk and sophistication to the “Let it Be” rooftop sessions.

Let there be no mistake: the “fifth” Beatle was George Martin, the legendary producer who died peacefully Tuesday at age 90 after monumental contributions to society and my world.
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A fever pitch designed to throw you for a curve


A suggestion to those who have recently taken early retirement: get sick.

Please hear me out even if you have an infected ear. Rankman recently welcomed in the flu and has never enjoyed more having his body savaged by viral invaders.  We’re talking the kind of ill where combing your hair hurts and walking up the stairs for bed requires rest stops at three base camps.

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