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.