Published on March 16, 2021

The View from my Seat

Tommy Bonk’s Phi Slama Jama jettisoned him around the world

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I was watching a television special on Tiger Woods when a former colleague appeared on the screen.

It was Tommy Bonk, the nationally respected sports writer.

Tommy and I began our journalism careers at the Houston Post in 1972. Tommy is now semi-retired and does some free-lancing. I am retired after 45 years at newspapers.

As I watched Tommy talk about Tiger, I realized that, although I had followed his career by reading his stories as he bounced from dateline to dateline, it had been years since we had spoken.

I felt sad about that. Where had the time gone?

I knew he was living in California, but I didn’t have a phone number. I did some research, got his number and called him to catch up on the past 30 years.

Boy, does he have some stories.

While I spent my career editing stories, designing front pages and worrying about personnel and budgets, Tommy was having a career that would be the envy of sports fans everywhere: He was traveling the world covering sporting events and developing relationships with famous athletes.
To most Houstonians, Tommy will be remembered for three words he wrote in a Houston Post column.

It was a January Sunday in 1983, and Tommy had just watched Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the University of Houston basketball team slam dunk their way to a 112 - 56 trouncing of the University of Pacific. Tommy was enamored with the Cougars and their fast-breaking style of play.

He struggled, however, to capture in writing the high-flying explosiveness of what he had just witnessed.

He was under a self-imposed deadline. His column wasn’t scheduled to run until Tuesday, but he wanted to finish it that Sunday. He had a scheduled day off Monday and didn’t want to work.
So, he sat in Hofheinz Pavilion after the game staring at his computer and hoping for an idea.
“O.K., it’s college, so if you had a college fraternity, what would a dunking fraternity be named?” he thought to himself.

Thus, Phi Slama Jama was born.

This is how if appeared in the lead of his Tuesday column:

“As members of the exclusive college roundball fraternity Phi Slama Jama, the Houston chapter has learned proper parliamentary procedure.”

The Phi Slama Jama nickname was quickly adopted by the players and the city. It appeared on billboards, warmups and T-shirts all over town. It became the greatest nickname in sports history.

Years later, fellow sportswriter Chris Dufresne wrote: “All 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.”

Tommy says almost 40 years after writing the column, people still ask about it. And you can’t listen to UH basketball games today without hearing a Phi Slama Jama reference. ESPN even featured the nickname’s history on a “30 for 30” program.

Tommy does point out, however, he has never made a penny from coining the nickname. As much attention as he received for the Phi Slama Jama column, Tommy’s career was just beginning.

Within months of the column being published, the Los Angeles Times hired Tommy to cover the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Denton, Texas native has lived in California ever since. He’s been a sports writer, a columnist, hosted a call-in radio show, served as a commentator on pro tennis matches and hosted ESPN shows on golf. He’s also written for Golf Digest and Augusta National.

Asked by Landis Communications about his dream assignment, Tommy rattled off several.

He covered the Los Angeles Lakers during the “Showtime” era of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

This was back in the days when writers traveled with the players, rode the same buses and stayed in the same hotels.

The Lakers seldom lost so the players were usually in a good mood. Tommy says he and Kareen formed their own book club. Kareem talked about jazz, civil rights and Persian rugs. Tommy talked about travel, barbecues and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Then there was the time he was covering a celebrity golf tournament in Palm Springs. He wound up a friend-of-the-week for baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Tommy says the Yankee Clipper must have thought he was good company because they had breakfast together every day,
Tommy also spent five years covering the pro tennis tour. He says it was the equivalent of getting an all-expense paid trip around the world.

Do I sound envious? I am a little bit.

As much as I am proud of my career, would I have liked to discuss books with Kareem or had a breakfast with Joe?

Darn right.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)