(Todd A. Smith)

Houston once dubbed itself “Choke City” when the Houston Rockets collapsed in the first two games of the 1994 NBA Western Conference semifinals after having commanding leads against the Phoenix Suns in both games.

But long-suffering Houston sports fans had experienced many more choke jobs before 1994.

Mike Renfro and the Luv Ya Blue Oilers got cheated, so they get a pass.

But the Run and Shoot Oilers led by Warren Moon completely tanked against the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 NFL playoffs.

That is why the city went so hard when the Rockets, Astros, Comets and Dynamo snagged championships.

But one team (other than the Texans who will get a ring soon) remains without a title and that is especially hurtful for longtime Houstonians.

University of Houston men’s basketball once set the standard for sports teams in the “Bayou City.”

From Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney shocking Lew Alcindor, UCLA and the world in the 1968 “Game of the Century” in the historic Astrodome to the Phi Slama Jama days of the early 1980s, the Cougars have always received the term, “close, but no cigar.”

For many years, it seemed as if U of H had given up on being a college sports powerhouse.

But thanks to people like board member Tilman Fertitta, Chancellor Renu Khator and head coach Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars are once again a powerhouse basketball program.

Although the city is once again behind the Cougars, one must wonder if they do not win the national championship this year, with no great teams in the field, when will they win?

If they win the national championship early next month, it might be a poetic ending to so much past heartache because 40 years ago (1984) marked the end of the Phi Slama Jama glory days when the Cougars lost to John Thompson, Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.

Hall of Fame coach Guy Lewis soon retired, and Hofheinz Pavilion eventually became a wasteland of major college basketball.

But it is not just that the Cougars lost multiple times in the Final Four that hurts Houstonians so much.

It is how they lost.

To lose in 1983 in one of the most iconic March Madness moments in history when North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles slammed home an airball by Dereck Whittenburg at the buzzer still hurts like hell.

The year before was perplexing as All-American point guard and team star Rob Williams had probably his worst game at the worst time as the Cougars lost to Michael Jordan, James Worthy and the eventual national champion North Carolina Tar Heels.

And when a fully healthy Alcindor and UCLA got revenge against the Cougars in the 1968 Final Four, the blowout loss was embarrassing and a reality check.

Regardless, the Cougars have always made the city proud.

But as Rev. Ralph Douglas West of The Church Without Walls in Houston told church member Chaney on March 17, the Cougars need to get that dreaded monkey off their backs.

This Cougars team is not an all-time great squad like Lewis’ teams of the 1960s and 1980s.

But that is not necessary in the modern tournament because all the great players usually play just one college season before heading to the NBA.

Therefore, college basketball is filled with very good players, but not many superstars, especially this year.

The Cougars do not have any transcendent players this year.

But they have gritty winners like Jamal Shead and J’Wan Roberts.

They have sharpshooters like Emanuel Sharp and L.J. Cryer who are deadly if they get hot from beyond the arc.

Unfortunately, they do not have anyone who can take over a game on the offensive end when the team needs a bucket like they did when they had stars like Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Sampson’s tough nose defensive style of coaching might actually prevent big time offensive stars from choosing the Cougars if they do not want to be coached hard.

But stars like that do not always win the ultimate prize.

So maybe, this gritty version of the Cougars is just what the school on Cullen Boulevard needs.

Houston is a city that has its share of stars.

But the heart of a champion is always what made Houstonians who they are.

And this team might have the same type of heart that the Clutch City championship Rockets team had.

When teams thought they were dead in the water, they always rose to the top.

The blowout loss in the Big 12 conference championship game against Iowa State notwithstanding, these Cougars have that needed heart to exorcise all the past Cougars demons.

But it will depend on if those outside shots fall.

However, when the shots do not fall and their opponent is not flustered by the team’s ferocious defense, they can get annihilated like the Iowa State Cyclones proved this past weekend.

In a year in which the men’s college basketball season lacked interesting storylines, especially when compared to the women’s game, the Cougars finally winning it all 40 years after the team’s last appearance in a championship game would make for a great storyline, especially for those in that “H-Town.”

The city has always been a big city with flashing lights.

But at the core, Houston is a city of down-to-Earth, hardworking people.

The city always comes back when others like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith have written us off, like he has done thanks to the blowout loss to Iowa State.

Critics like Smith might think the team choked.

But the city’s past teams have proven that choke jobs often proceed the team coming back in the clutch to claim the ultimate award.

Todd A. Smith
Follow Todd
Latest posts by Todd A. Smith (see all)