You can’t really define funky, you just know it when you see it. I’m not talking about the musty odoriferousness of the hipster sitting next to you on the subway right now who smells like he’s been wrasslin’ with an alligator. I’m pontificating on that unquantifiable quality of cool, magnetic, hypnotizing brilliance that only a true artist can conjure.
Watching last night’s dope ESPN 30-for-30 documentary on that wondrous college basketball team brought back memories and reminded me why my passion for basketball became so strong. I clearly remember sitting, frozen, in front of the television and being awestruck by that Cougars team.
Their Final Four game in 1983 against Louisville ushered in the modern evolution of college basketball’s 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!
Houstons roster was a spicy stew of local ingredients, with two major exceptions. The hometown Houston flavor was provided by locals like Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Alvin Franklin, Reid Gettys and Larry Micheaux.
Hakeem Olajuwon was a gift from both heaven and Lagos, Nigeria, and his transcendent 21-point, 22-rebound, eight-block masterpiece of a performance in that ’83 Final Four game against “The ‘Ville” foreshadowed his remarkable transformation from raw prospect into The Dream.
Drexler and Olajuwon were among my favorite college basketball players ever. Another of them also played on that squad, Benny Anders, who brought some serious Machine Gun Funk whenever he took the floor.
An athletic freak of nature, Anders was a native of Louisiana who played on the same summer travel squad in high school as Karl Malone, Hot Rod Williams and Joe Dumars.
Put that last sentence in your pipe and smoke on it for a minute. Now tell me about how good your AAU squad was again. Good-gawd-ah-mighty!!! But I digress, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
At Houston, Anders wasn’t so much of a superstar player like Drexler and Olajuwon, but he was embraced by my Brooklyn basketball crew because of his flight game and penchant for violent dunks.
I’m glad the documentary did justice to his legacy. I always felt that his contributions to that magnificent Phi Slamma Jamma construct were woefully glossed over because of who Olajuwon and Drexler later became in the NBA.
The hoops side of the story was well-known for anyone who followed college basketball in the early ’80s, so the doc was more of a nostalgic walk back to a time in my hoops education that is very meaningful to me. I enjoyed the remembrances that came flooding back, not only about Phi Slamma Jamma, but also of my neighborhood heroes like Pearl Washington, Chris Mullin, Lorenzo Charles and other college hoops favorites from that time like Wayman Tisdale, Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Keith Lee, Sam Perkins, and so many others.
Whenever the topic of Phi Slamma Jamma comes up, my circle of hoops philosophers inevitably focuses on Anders, because his later life and pseudo disappearances lent him such a mysterious aura. So it was a treat to see him at the emotional epicenter of the documentary. I didn’t realize that he’d vanished, that friends and family had not seen nor heard from him in years.
Its like he turned the lights out on his existence,” one of his former teammates says in the film.
It was uplifting to see the joy and love that he and his former teammates still had for one another, and to hear from one of the game’s great cult figures in a voice that was thought to have been self-exiled into anonymity long ago.
The search to bring him out of exile and into the fold was also a journey back for me to have a conversation with my 12-year-old self, to locate him within the recesses of my spirit, to say hello and thank you.
To some, Anders might be an asterisk on the sports landscape. But not over here. To paraphrase my former neighbor with the flavor, Benny Anders had bags of funk back in the day, and sold ’em by the tons.
And despite where his life did and did not take him, that will never change.
The Funk, Baby!!!