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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1983 Houston
The 1983 Houston Cougars basketball team went 31-3, but lost to North Carolina State on a last second shot in the NCAA Championship game. Forward Clyde Drexler said “You’ve never seen such a confident team as this one.” Houston sportswriter Thomas Bonk called the high flying Cougars the dunking fraternity of Phi Slama Jama. Hall of Fame Coach Guy Lewis loved the dunk so much that he kept track of dunks as a separate statistic. Center Akeem Olajuwon, who led the Cougars in dunks with 68, said “We figure the team with the most dunks will win.” It wasn’t just confidence and dunks, however, Houston was a great team. Guy Lewis said of the 1983 Cougars, “This is the best team I’ve ever had at getting ready for people…. This team plays to its potential.”
In 1982, Houston was 25-8 and went to the Final Four, but lost to eventual champion North Carolina 68-63. Rob Williams, the Cougars’ point guard, led the Cougars in scoring with 21.1 per game. The next three leading scorers, Clyde Drexler (15.2 pts., 10.5 reb.), Larry Micheaux (12.4 pts., 7.6 reb.) and Michael Young (10.9 pts., 5.4 reb.), were all coming back for the 1983 season. Also returning was Akeem Olajuwon. After redshirting in 1981, Olajuwon scored 8.3 points and pulled down 6.2 rebounds per game off the bench in 1982.
The 6’11” Olajuwon was from Nigeria and grew up playing soccer, not basketball. Olajuwon discovered basketball in Nigeria and hoped it would lead to a college scholarship in the US. Houston did not offer him a scholarship sight unseen. They invited him to Houston only for a workout in front of the coaches. “Think he was a player?” coach Lewis said. “I didn’t even meet him at the airport. I told him to take a cab. That’s how much I thought he was a player.” When he came to the US, Olajuwon was very much a diamond in the rough. “He was 6’11”, Lewis said. “He could run and he could jump. But he knew absolutely nothing about basketball.”
Olajuwon was offered a scholarship, but was redshirted for the 1980-81 season. In 1981-82, he was a reserve who received limited playing time. Olajuwon asked the coaches what he could do to improve. The coaches told him to spend the summer of 1982 working out with Houston resident and NBA superstar Moses Malone. Olajuwon’s game improved. “When you play against a guy like Moses, it can’t help but make you better,” Olajuwon said.
“We really spent time working with all our post people,” Lewis said. “But after a year of working with Olajuwon, it still wasn’t there yet.” After a dismal 2 point, 1 rebound game against Texas Christian on January 12, 1983, Lewis called the big man out. “I told him he had gotten more publicity and done less than any player in the history of Houston basketball. From that point, he seemed determined to show me. He just became dominating.” Legendary coach Pete Newell agreed. “The best footwork I’ve ever seen from a big man,” Newell said of Olajuwon.
Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon ended up averaging 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 5.1 blocked shots per game in 1982-83. Olajuwon was an All American in 1984. His 175 blocked shots in 1983 set the all-time Houston record (although blocked shots weren’t recorded when Elvin Hayes played for the Cougars in the late 60s). He broke his own record the following year with 207 blocked shots—5.6 per game. Olajuwon also holds the Houston record for career blocked shots, with 454. So who was a better shot blocker, Olajuwon or Elvin Hayes? According to Hayes, Olajuwon was better. “I really couldn’t compare with Akeem,” Hayes said. “He’s got the quickest jump of any 7-footer I have ever seen.”
Olajuwon was the number one draft pick in the 1984 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, ahead of Michael Jordan. Olajuwon led the NBA in rebounding twice and shot blocking three times. He is the NBA’s all time leader in blocked shots. In 1993-94, he was the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP. He won two NBA championships and was a 12-time NBA All Star. Olajuwon is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1996, Olajuwon was picked as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 blocked shots and 1.8 steals during his 18-year NBA career.
Olajuwon wasn’t the only future NBA superstar on the Cougars in 1983. Forward Clyde Drexler (15.9 pts., 8.8 reb., 3.8 ast., 3.3 stl.) was also on the team. Like Olajuwon, Drexler was a bit of a dark horse. Drexler grew up in Houston. He didn’t try out for the basketball team in High School until his junior year, and he was cut during tryouts. He was recruited by the Cougars only after Cougar guard Michael Young told an assistant coach that Drexler was the best player he faced in High School. Guy Lewis was criticized for recruiting Drexler, because alumni and fans didn’t think he was good enough to play for Houston.
Drexler was extremely athletic. “He was a super defensive player,” coach Lewis said. “He had great quickness, good hands and great anticipation.” His leaping ability earned him the nickname Clyde “the Glide.” Drexler holds the all-time Houston records for career steals (268) and for steals in a season (113 in 1983). He was an All American in 1983. “I guess I’m kind of a legend around here,” the brash Drexler said.
Drexler was the 14th pick in the 1st round of the 1983 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers. He went to the NBA Finals in 1990, 1992 and 1995, winning the NBA Championship after being reunited with Olajuwon on the Houston Rockets in 1995. In his 15-year NBA career, Drexler averaged 20.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game. Drexler was a 10-time NBA All Star. Like Olajuwon, Drexler is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Drexler is one of only three players in NBA history to score more than 20,000 points and have more than 6,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists. The other two are Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek.
The leading scorer on the 1983 Houston Cougars was 6’6” guard Michael Young (17.3 pts., 5.7 reb.). “I kind of gave him a free hand to shoot it whenever he wanted to,” coach Lewis said. “A great shooter needs to have that confidence. And with his size, he could rebound too.” Young was drafted as the 24th pick in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft and played in the NBA three years. He also played two years in the Continental Basketball Association, where he was named the CBA’s Player of the Year in 1986 after averaging 26 points per game.
The most feared player on 1983 Houston Cougars was 6’9” forward Larry Micheaux (13.8 pts., 6.8 reb.). When Ralph Sampson was asked who the better player was, North Carolina’s Sam Perkins or Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, he answered, “Neither. That guy Micheaux is.”
“Micheaux was a tough, tough guy,” Lewis said. “He was our enforcer. They nicknamed him ‘Mr. Mean,’ and he liked that.” Micheaux twice shaved his head to look even meaner. “Since then everything started being wonderful,” Micheaux said. “I don’t take no mess from nobody under the boards.”
Like Drexler and Young, Micheaux grew up in Houston. “He came to the program with no post moves whatsoever,” coach Lewis said. “But he really worked to learn the drop step and spin moves.”
Micheaux was drafted in the second round of the 1983 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. He played two seasons in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in limited playing time.
What the Cougars lacked in 1983 was a consistent point guard. Rob Williams, who led the team in scoring in 1982, left early for the NBA. The Cougars used a number of different players at point guard before settling on Freshman Alvin Franklin (4.8 pts.).
Coming off the bench, 6’7” sophomore guard Reid Gettys (3.4 pts., 6.1 ast.) led the team in assists. “He gets the ball where we want it—to the post, to the studs,” Lewis said. Gettys holds the Houston records for most assists in a career (740) and in a season (309 in 1984). Swingman Benny “and his jets” Anders (5.9 pts.) provided a scoring boost. “All I get is some vicious pine,” Anders said, “but I got the utensils. I drop a dime on the big Swahili, he got to put it in the hole.” Translation: “I pass it to Olajuwon and he scores.”
The Cougars started off the season with a 104-63 drubbing of Arizona. Houston blocked 12 Arizona shots. In their second game, Houston crushed Lamar 106-72. Lamar’s coach, Pat Foster, said “I’ve never seen so many stars play so well together. The front line is better than the one for Kentucky’s ’78 NCAA Champs. Lewis could put a nun out there with them and win.”
After three more easy wins, Houston traveled to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse. In a 92-87 losing effort, Houston had 24 steals. Clyde Drexler alone had 11.
Five days later, on December 16, 1982, Houston traveled all the way to Tokyo to face Ralph Sampson and the #1 Virginia Cavaliers. Virginia won 72-63. The following day, Houston stayed in Tokyo and beat Utah 82-57. It was the beginning of a 26-game winning streak.
The winning streak wasn’t easy for the Cougars. They were very inconsistent. They barely squeaked by at Pepperdine, 93-92, then blew out Pacific 112-58 while nabbing 19 steals. The Cougars pounded SMU 105-71 while dishing out 35 assists, but then almost lost to Louisiana Lafayette, 79-78, despite 11 blocks by Olajuwon. Right after that 11-block performance, Olajuwon scored only two points in a 54-51 victory over TCU. Less than two weeks later, Olajuwon had 11 blocks again in a 75-60 victory over #4 Arkansas. “Houston is a good team,” Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton said, “but Olajuwon makes them a great team.”
Although they may have been inconsistent, Houston kept on winning. “The one thing about this team is that we very seldom have a bad game,” coach Lewis said. “We may have a bad first half or a bad second half, but we don’t have bad games.” Houston won the rest of the regular season games and the Southwestern Conference tournament to head into the NCAA Tournament ranked #1 with a 27-2 record and a 22-game winning streak.
Houston got to play their first NCAA Tournament game at home. Houston’s first opponent, Maryland, tried to stall, but lost anyway, 60-50.
In the second round, Houston traveled to Kansas City to play #17 Memphis, led by Keith Lee. Houston won 70-63. Lee was held to just 13 points on 6 of 15 shooting. Olajuwon had 21 points and 6 rebounds inside and Young had 17 points and 5 rebounds outside. Drexler filled up the box score with 8 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 6 steals.
In the Regional Championship, Houston faced #13 Villanova. Micheaux (30 pts., 12 reb., 4 blks.) and Olajuwon (20 pts., 13 reb., 8 blks.) were deadly inside. When Villanova collapsed on Micheaux and Olajuwon, Michael Young (20 pts., 6 reb.) beat them from outside. Houston led 37-27 at the half. Villanova came out pressing Houston’s young guards at the start of the second half. Houston exploded for 52 second-half points and won easily 89-71. “Our philosophy,” coach Lewis said after the game, “is that if you press us, we’ll try to stuff it to you at the other end.”
Houston traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Final Four. The Cougars’ first opponent was #2 Louisville, the “Doctors of Dunk”, a team that played with the same high-flying style as the Cougars. “They won’t intimidate us,” 6’9” Louisville senior Scooter McCray said before the game. Louisville held Houston to just two dunks in the first half and led 41-36.
Both teams came out running at the start of the second half. Louisville extended its lead to 57-49, but then Houston went on a spectacular run. Three slam dunks in a row by Michael Young, Clyde Drexler and Benny Anders cut the lead to 57-55 in just seconds. Three Houston free throws led to a 58-57 Houston lead when Clyde Drexler electrified the crowd by changing hands in mid-air, double pumping and then coming down with a two-handed slam. Houston was just getting started. In just over five minutes, Houston outscored Louisville 21-1 and took a 70-58 lead that they were never to relinquish.
When the smoke cleared at the end of the second half, Houston had scored 58 points and won the game 94-81. Drexler scored 21, with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Olajuwon scored 21 with 22 rebounds and 8 blocks. Playing in the high altitude of New Mexico took its toll. All players on both teams were exhausted. “Louisville was in worse shape than us,” Guy Lewis said, “because two of their guys had to go to the hospital for dehydration.” McCray said, “We’ve put on a show like that for our fans during preseason, but never in a real game.” Jim Valvano, the coach of North Carolina State, Houston’s next opponent, said “I’ve never seen anything like that in 16 years of coaching college basketball.”
In the NCAA Championship game on Monday night, Houston faced North Carolina State. Valvano said before the game that his team would play a much slower tempo than Louisville. “If we get the opening tip,” Valvano said to the press, “we might not take a shot until Tuesday morning.” In the locker room, Valvano told his underdog Wolfpack players something a little different. “If you think we’re going to hold the ball in front of 40 million people, you’re friggin’ crazy. We’re going to stick it up their ass.”
On offense, NC State’s experienced guards, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, slowed down the pace and worked the ball inside. Thurl Bailey scored 15 first half points for NC State and Clyde Drexler picked up four first half fouls. Defensively, NC State played a tight zone, forcing Houston to take bad shots. Houston didn’t have a dunk for the first 15 minutes of the game and shot just 31 percent in the first half. “They played a controlled game,” Houston’s coach Guy Lewis said, “but they certainly weren’t passing up shots to hold the ball.” NC State led at halftime, 33-25.
At the start of the second half, Houston exploded for a 17-2 run. Houston led 43-35 with 10 minutes left. At that point, coach Lewis felt Houston had to slow down. “I had to take Akeem Olajuwon out of the game to give him oxygen,” Lewis said. Houston power forward Larry Micheaux, who inexplicably played only two minutes in the second half, was not happy with the strategy. “I felt that we should have kept playing the way were playing,” Micheaux said. “Our game is to get up and down the floor and dunk the ball.”
With just a few minutes left, Houston still led 50-44. NC State’s Sidney Lowe hit a long jumper to cut the Houston lead to 50-46. Clyde Drexler was fouled and made two free throws to extend the lead to 52-46. Lowe hit another long bomb. Then NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg nailed two more long shots. The score was tied 52-52 with two minutes left. NC State fouled Houston freshman Alvin Franklin. Franklin missed the front end of a one-and-one. For the game, Houston shot a dismal 10 for 19 from the free throw line.
NC State held the ball for the final shot. Whittenburg tried to get free for an open shot, but Drexler slapped the ball away. Whittenburg grabbed the loose ball 30 feet away from the basket and threw up a prayer. The shot was way short. When Olajuwon saw Drexler slap the ball, he broke to the other end of the court. NC State’s Lorenzo Charles was wide open under the basket. “I knew when Whit let the shot go that it was short,” Charles said. “I didn’t know where Akeem was, just that he was behind me. I knew I was the closest one to the basketball. I just went up and dunked it.” Charles catch and dunk at the buzzer gave NC State the 54-52 NCAA Championship victory.
Olajuwon had 20 points, 18 rebounds and 7 blocks in the losing effort. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
“That game had to be fate,” Clyde Drexler said. “If we played them 20 times, I still don’t think they’d win but that one game. So it had to be destiny.”
Name Pos Class Pts Reb Ast
Michael Young G/F JR 17.3 5.7 2.4
Clyde Drexler F SR 15.9 8.8 3.8
Akeem Olajuwon C JR 13.9 11.4 0.9
Larry Micheaux F SR 13.8 6.8 0.9
Benny Anders G/F SR 5.9 1.6 0.8
Alvin Franklin G JR 4.8 0.7 2.6
Reid Gettys G JR 3.4 1.2 6.1
David Rose G FR 3.5 0.7 0.5
Eric Dickens G JR 2.6 0.4 2.4
Derek Giles G JR 1.5 0.6 2.4
How would the 1983 Houston Cougars do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three-pointer?
The shot clock would certainly not be a problem for the high flying Cougars, but the three-pointer might be. With the exception of Michael Young, Houston had no real outside shooting threats. The bigger, stronger teams of today would probably play a tight zone even more effectively than NC State. That said, Olajuwon and Drexler are two of the greatest NBA players of all time. There is no doubt that Houston would be a great team today, especially around the basket.
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