The Big E, The Dream, and The Glide: Houston’s all-time college basketball greats

The Final Four is set for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It features two teams from Texas — Baylor and Houston — and two from the west coast — Gonzaga and UCLA.

The east coast, home of the last six champions and 16 this century, has no team in the Final Four. Neither does the Big Ten, which most people considered the strongest conference in the country this year.

The Houston Cougars have had two great Final Four teams: the Elvin Hayes team of the late 1960s and “Phi Slama Jama” in the early 1980s. Both were coached by the legendary Guy Lewis, himself a standout player for the Cougars in the late 1940s.

The Hayes team played what might have been the biggest college basketball game ever — a 1968 clash against mighty UCLA before around 52,000 people at the Astrodome. This was the first nationally televised regular season college game ever. It helped put college basketball on the map. ( Texas Western’s victory of Kentucky in 1966 had more historical importance, but did not receive as much attention at the time).

Houston defeated UCLA at the Astrodome, but the Bruins got revenge with a decisive win over the Cougars in the Final Four later that season.

A decade and a half later, the Phi Slama Jama edition of Houston came within a whisker of winning the national championship, only to be denied when N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles put in Derek Whittenburg’s air ball to break the Cougars’ hearts.

These two teams dominate the top tiers of my all-time great Houston players, as presented below:

First Team:

Don Chaney (1965-68)

Chaney didn’t put up gaudy numbers at Houston, but he was a great defender and the floor general for the team that defeated UCLA in the Astrodome. Red Auerbach saw the merit in Chaney, drafting him in the first round in 1968. Chaney rewarded Auerbach by becoming the starting point guard on some excellent Celtics teams, including the NBA champions of 1974.

Clyde Drexler (1980-83)

Clyde “the Glide” is arguably one of the top ten shooting guards in NBA history. Before that, he was the star of “Phi Slama Jama.” Drexler averaged around 15 points and 10 rebounds for that team. He made 57 percent of his shots in 1981-82 and 54 percent the following season.

Drexler is also Houston’s all time leader in steals.

Otis Birdsong (1973-77)

Birdsong actually had a better college career than Drexler (and a good pro career, as well). He ranks second on the school’s all-time scoring list and second in all-time scoring average (24.4 points per game).

As a senior, Birdsong averaged 30 points per game and shot 57 percent from the floor. I’ve seen few sweeter jump shots than Birdsong’s.

Elvin Hayes (1965-68)

“The Big E” is certainly one of the top ten NBA forwards of all time. Arguably, he’s one of the top five.

In addition, I consider him one of the top ten college players of all time. His numbers are astounding.

Hayes is the all-time Houston Cougars leader in points, point per game (31 over his full career), rebounds, rebounds per game per game (17.2), scoring average in a season (36.8), and rebounds per game in a season (18.9). He holds the Houston single-game scoring record (62) and seven of the ten highest point totals in a game for Houston are by Hayes.

In the Astrodome showdown with UCLA and Lew Alcindor, Hayes had 39 points and 15 rebounds. Alcindor had just 15 points. In the rematch, Hayes scored 25 points, but needed 31 shots to do it. Hayes grabbed 24 rebounds in that game, second most by anyone in a Final Four game, behind only Bill Russell.

Hayes wasn’t always easy to like as a pro. However, he holds a special place in my heart for having been the best player on Washington, D.C.’s only NBA championship team.

Hakeem Olajuwon (1980-84)

“Hakeem the Dream” is certainly one of the top ten NBA centers of all time. Arguably, he’s one of the top five.

Olajuwon wasn’t the same player in college as in the pros. The former soccer goalie was still learning the game. Those great, fluid post moves (second only to Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s, in my estimation) weren’t part of his college game.

Even so, Olajuwon was a dominating force for the Cougars. He’s their all-time leader in blocked shots and blocked shots per game (4.5). He ranks second in rebounds in a single season, behind only Hayes’ best year.

In the last of his three seasons, Olajuwon averaged 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 5.6 blocks per game.

Following that season, the Houston Rockets made Olajuwon the first pick in the NBA draft, ahead of Michael Jordan. As a pro, he led the Rockets to two NBA championships plus an appearance in the Finals in just his second season.

Second Team:

Rob Williams (1979-82)

Williams averaged 21 points per game in his three seasons at Houston. He shot 51 percent from the field.

He’s fifth all time in points for the Cougars and eighth in assists.

Williams went on to play two seasons in the NBA.

Dwight Davis (1969-72)

“Double D” is the seventh leading scorer in Cougars history. He averaged 20.7 points in his college career making slightly more than half his field goal attempts. He’s fifth on the all-time rebounds list with 11.4 per game.

Davis was a high flyer who would have fit perfectly on the Phi Slama Jama team. He played in the NBA for five seasons, averaging 8.6 points over that career.

Michael Young (1980-84)

Another Phi Slama Jama alum, Young flew as high as anyone. He’s third on the Cougars all-time scoring list and averaged 15.2 points per game during his four years as a starter. His career shooting percentage is 49 percent.

Young played three years in the NBA. His son Jacob averaged 14 points per game for Rutgers this season. Houston defeated Rutgers on its way to the Final Four.

Louis Dunbar (1972-75)

Dunbar averaged 22.3 points and 7.7 rebounds during his career at Houston. He’s sixth on the all-time scoring list for the Cougars. Dunbar went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Don Boldebuck (1954-56)

His scoring average (22.8) during the two seasons he played for Houston is third behind only Hayes and Birdsong. His rebounds per game average (16.9) is second only to Hayes.

Third Team:

Reid Gettys (1981-85)

The point guard for Phi Slama Jama, Gettys is Houston’s all time leader in assists and assists per game. (6.2). He had 17 assists in a game against Rice.

Gettys later became an attorney and an assistant coach for the Cougars, under his former teammate Clyde Drexler.

Quentin Grimes (2018-present)

Grimes is the star of this year’s Final Four team. He averaged 18 points per game and made 41 percent of this three-point shots.

He also averaged 5.8 rebounds per game and plays tenacious defense.

Rob Gray (2015-18)

Gray is eighth on the Cougars’ all-time scoring list. He averaged 18.9 points per game during his three year career. In his best season — his junior year — Gray averaged 20.6 points per game.

Craig Upchurch (1987-92)

Upchurch is fourth on Houston’s all-time scoring list and tenth in career rebounds. He shot .556 from the field in his four year career as a starter. In his best season — his sophomore year — he averaged 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while shooting .583 from the floor.

Greg “Cadillac” Anderson (1983-87)

He’s the third leading rebounder all time for the Cougars. During his last two seasons with the team, he averaged around 18.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, while making close to 60 percent of his field goals.

Anderson had a productive ten year NBA career. In 1988, he averaged 13.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In 1992, he averaged a double-double — 11.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

Honorable mention:
Guy Lewis (1945-47)
Ted Luckenbill (1958-61)
Greg Phillips (1958-61)
Ken Spain (1966-69)
Dwight Jones (1970-73)*
Ken Ciolli (1975-79)
Larry Micheaux (1979-83)
Alvin Franklin (1982-1986)
Ricky Winslow (1983-87)
Carl Herrera (1989-90)
Bo Outlaw (1991-93)
Tim Moore (1993-96)
Damon Jones (1994-97)
Andre Owens (2002-05)
Robert McKiver (2006-08)
Aubrey Coleman (2008-10)
Damyean Dotson (2015-17)

* I inadvertently left Dwight Jones, an outstanding center, off my initial list. I don’t how it happened, because I considered the late Mr. Jones for the third team.

I saw Dwight Jones and Dwight Davis play against Stanford when I was in law school. Both were very impressive.

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