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.
Houston raced to the 1983 championship game after an exhilarating semifinal win over Louisville that Bonk still calls “the best game I’ve ever seen.”
Houston fell short in the championship only because North Carolina State made a fluke shot at the buzzer that sent Jim Valvano screaming across that Albuquerque court like a lost toddler at Walmart. “Phi Slama Jama” would become the greatest NCAA team to never win the title.
Olajuwon and Drexler moved on to NBA stardom and Bonk moved on to stardom at the L.A. Times, where he offered his witty, pithy prose for 25 years.
I was privileged to caddie for Tommy at 20-or-so professional golf majors, during the hammer-down Tiger Woods era. From Bonk, a lanky veteran scribe from North Texas, I learned about golf, country music (who knew there was a Brooks AND Dunn?), wine, managing hangovers and reconciling expense reports.
Once, in Minneapolis, before the PGA at Hazeltine, Bonk asked for a wine list at a local coffee shop. The waiter told him they served Fetzer. “If you ever see me drinking Fetzer,” Bonk said, “take out a gun and shoot me.”
Bonk got me into more fun on the road than any two people deserved. Driving back to Milwaukee from Whistling Straits after a PGA Championship practice round, Bonk jerked the rental car off road after seeing a small sign for a winery. I was on deadline with an Ernie Els story to write. Bonk said relax, it would just be a minute. Next thing I know we’re eating cheese and drinking wine on a picnic bench.
Ernie Els, a big wine lover himself, would have to wait.
Bonk did two things I still can’t believe happened. He once convinced a media shuttle bus driver to stop at a liquor store on the way back from the golf course. Bonk also found a way for us to run up a $150 bar tab at a Denny’s (in North Carolina, as Mike Downey as my witness).
The Times sports section lost a lot of its swagger when Bonk retired a few years ago. It was fun to catch up with him recently in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife Robin.
The shame of “Phi Slama Jama” is that Bonk never made a penny off the phrase. “Not one cent,” he said.
That’s like the top guy in advertising getting a pat on the back for “things go better with Coke,” or “American Express, don’t leave home without it.”
Bonk takes it all in his long, lanky stride. I thought Bonk couldn’t cash in because he wrote “Phi Slama Jama” for the newspaper.
“That’s not the way it works,” he said. “Had nothing to do with the paper. It was the way copyright laws work. If you create a slogan or a marketing campaign for the purpose of making a marketing campaign, that’s a different story. I didn’t do that though. So it didn’t work. I thought about assigning a tax value to it and charging it off on my income tax but that didn’t work. So the best way was to donate it to the university. It’s a state school, my dad worked at a state school, he was an educator at a state school, just a better way to do it. and I’m happy the way it worked out. It’s OK.”
Bonk has, at least, been given proper credit for the phrase and will soon be featured in an upcoming ESPN “30 for 30” on Phi Slama Jama.
“They said they wanted more of me in that,” Bonk said of the ESPN special. “They said they wanted more Bonk, and who could argue with that?”
Bonk said he remains tight with his fraternity mates at “Phi Slama Jama” and was close with Guy Lewis before his death last November.
Bonk says covering Phi Slama Jama “was the most fun I’ve had,” which is saying something if you’ve been with Bonk while he was negotiating with a restaurant owner to keep the bar open.
Bonk, now 66, doesn’t mind that Phi Slama Jama will be in the first line of his obituary when he passes on in 20 or 30 years.
“It’s probably going to be that, and I’m happy about that.” Bonk said between sips of a Justin Cab while overlooking the Bay Bridge at Perry’s at the Embarcadero. “I can’t believe I thought about it on a Sunday afternoon in January.”
Thank you, Thomas, for that. Let’s all celebrate with a double Dewar’s.
Please, though, no Fetzer.