The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous seven chapters of this series we recalled the Rochester Royals’ rebirth as the Houston Oilers; the long road to the Oilers’ first NBA championship in 1962; the creation of the IBL and ABA to compete with the NBA for the hearts, minds, and dollars of American basketball fans; Houston’s 1963-66 NBA league title drought and its return to glory with its triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1967 NBA Finals; how scandal tarnished the IBL’s once-bright prospects and opened the way for the ABA to start overtaking the IBL as the NBA’s archrival in the pro basketball world; and the start of the breakup of the Wanzer-Marshall dynasty that had made the Oilers one of the dominant teams in the NBA Western Division during the ‘60s. In this episode we’ll look back at the final demise of the IBL and how the Jerry Lucas trade affected the Oilers in the 1969-70 NBA season.
The Jerry Lucas trade hit Oilers fans like a punch in the stomach. During the Oilers’ climb to the top of the NBA mountain, Lucas had been one of the most important and popular players on the Houston roster; the news that he was being sent to Cincinnati sparked a hue and cry rivaling the uproar with which Red Sox fans had greeted Babe Ruth’s trade to the Yankees in 1919. Not since Clyde Lovellette’s defection to the Boston Celtics had a player’s departure from the Houston organization made Oiler fans so angry. The Houston GM’s office was bombarded with outraged letters and phone calls; at least one group of Oilers fans gave vent to their ire by hanging the GM in effigy outside the team’s front offices.
For that matter, Oilers head coach Tom Marshall wasn’t exactly the most popular guy in the Energy City either. When his team took the court for their first preseason exhibition game of the 1969-70 NBA season, a matinee contest with the New Orleans Bobcats, he had to be escorted to and from the locker room by at least eight Texas Rangers. It got to the point where the Harris County district attorney’s office was investigating death threats against Marshall and the Oilers top brass by the time the regular NBA season started.
To their credit the players on Marshall’s roster didn’t let the controversy distract them; Houston won seven of its first nine games during the 1969-70 NBA season, and within a month of the season opener the Oilers were just a handful of percentage points behind the Los Angeles Lakers in the fight for first place in the NBA Western Division. Right behind the Oilers in the thick of the fight for the division’s top spot were the Cincinnati Monarchs, who with the addition of Jerry Lucas to their lineup were beginning to shed their status as also-rans. In fact, in a breathtakingly short time after Lucas joined the Monarchs the team was leading the Western Division in total points per game, averaging a collective 98.3 points a night. The balance of power in the division was starting to shift, and in time the Oilers would find that the Monarchs were no longer the punching bag they had been when Lucas first entered the NBA.
In the meantime, the IBL’s already terrible situation managed to deteriorate still further. The last-ever IBL All-Star Game, held in April of 1970 in Fresno, California, was a sparsely attended affair; the league literally couldn’t give away tickets to that event. And thanks to the Apollo 13 explosion as well as a US attack on suspected Viet Cong sanctuaries inside Cambodia, the game was so far off the national media’s radar it might as well have never happened.
By this time it was practically a given the IBL would fold; the only questions were when and how. Those who could find jobs in other leagues took them at the first opportunity. As the IBL staggered through its next-to-last regular season a steady stream of players, coaches, and executives flowed from the dying league into the ranks of the ABA, the NBA, or the European professional clubs that often act as a lifeline for American hoop expatriates no longer able to cut the mustard in the US pro ranks or kept for some reason from breaking into those ranks in the first place.
The exodus also affected players who were never on an active IBL roster but had been chosen in the league’s soon-to-be-defunct amateur draft. One of the most famous IBL draft picks of all time was a UCLA alumnus who never spent so much as a minute on an IBL court-- a player who in fact wound up signing with the NBA’s new Minneapolis expansion team. He was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Junior, but the world knows him better today under another name: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem, one of the greatest college players of his day, was one of the few players in pro basketball history ever to be drafted by the NBA, the IBL, and the ABA in the same year; he ultimately chose to go with the NBA because it promised the widest possible showcase for his astonishing talents. After joining the Minneapolis Cyclones he spent three seasons with them before being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would go on to write some dramatic chapters in the Oilers-Lakers feud.
Houston managed to sustain its early momentum until about a week before the NBA All-Star break, when the Oilers dropped three games in a row on the road during an East Coast swing. The trouble started in Atlanta, where the Oilers saw a 16-point third quarter lead evaporate early in the fourth quarter and ultimately lost to the Knights by 10 points; it continued in Baltimore when longtime Oiler adversary and ex-San Francisco Warrior Guy Rodgers lit up the Houston backcourt for 31 points en to a 118-90 Bullets drubbing of Houston; and it reached its apex when the Oilers were blown out by the Philadelphia Flyers 127-105 at the Spectrum in a matinee that saw Oscar Robertson’s usually reliable scoring touch fizzle out like a candle in a monsoon-- the Big O missed at least half of his shots from the paint and was a horrible 2 for 14 from the free-throw line.
That three-game skid was just a sign of things to come for Tom Marshall’s team; the Oilers started out the second half of the 1969-70 NBA regular season by losing five of their first six games after the All-Star break, and things got increasingly worse from there. Before they knew it, Houston had dropped to fourth place in the NBA Western Division standings and was fighting to avoid the embarrassment of missing the postseason for the first time since they’d left Rochester at the end of the 1956-57 NBA season.
Houston did qualify for the postseason, but just barely: it took a twelve-game winning streak and an overtime loss by the Cincinnati Monarchs against the Boston Celtics for the Oilers to edge out the Monarchs for the #3 seed in the Western Division playoffs. And their reward for this struggle? A first-round clash in the Pacific Northwest against the Seattle Mariners.
Game 1 of the Oilers-Mariners series in the 1970 NBA playoffs marked the beginning of the end for the Houston juggernaut which had decimated so many Western Division postseason foes and been the Boston Celtics’ most formidable challenger in the NBA Finals. King County Arena, the Mariners’ home arena since the franchise’s relocation from St. Louis four years earlier, was jam-packed with fans eager to witness the first NBA postseason contest ever held in the Emerald City.
There was no NHL franchise in Seattle and the city’s first crack at Major League Baseball had ended abruptly when the Pilots left at the end of the 1969 MLB season to become the Milwaukee Brewers; as for the NFL, the city was still almost six years away from gaining an expansion team. The Oilers-Mariners series had more riding on it than just a berth in the 1970 Western Division finals-- it would also serve as a test of Seattle’s viability as a professional sports town.
The Mariners rose to the challenge and then some; they stayed close to the Oilers throughout the first two quarters and started taking control of the game early in the third quarter, using zone defenses to neutralize the scoring capabilities of Wes Unseld and Oscar Robertson. By the start of the fourth quarter the Mariners were leading Houston by nine points and the Oilers were treading water. Then Willie Naulls fouled out with 7:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, and at that point Seattle launched a 19-4 scoring run which left Houston in the dust.
The Oilers lost 133-119, and from there things would only get worse for Tom Marshall and company. Desperately needing a victory in Game 2 at Harris County Fieldhouse to keep their playoff run alive, the Oilers instead suffered one of their most humiliating defeats in franchise history. Seattle put Houston in a hole early on and kept pouring dirt on that hole as the game progressed; the Mariners defense smothered the Oilers’ scoring efforts like a pea soup fog, while the Mariners offense picked Houston’s backcourt to shreds. By halftime of Game 2 Houston was trailing by a mind-blowing 41 points, and the rest of the way they never got closer to Seattle than 27 points. The most painful moment for the Harris County Fieldhouse crowd came when Oscar Robertson fouled out of the game with 9:37 still remaining in the fourth quarter; with the Big O ejected, Houston’s last chance to extend the series to a third game was gone. Some fans in attendance even had the grim suspicion this might be the last time they saw Robertson play in an Oilers uniform.
The final score: Mariners 145, Houston 129. David hadn’t just slain Goliath, he’d cremated the body and scattered its ashes to the winds. In the thirteen years they had called the Energy City home, the Oilers had never before been swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs. To have the sweep happen at all was terrible enough-- it brought back painful memories of the Oilers’ 1963 NBA Finals collapse against the Boston Celtics. But to have it happen on their own home court was nearly intolerable. The Fieldhouse was silent as a mausoleum as the few fans who’d dared to stay to the bitter end filed towards the exits.
The Mariners would face the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1970 NBA Western Division finals, losing that series in six games.1 That defeat, however, paled in comparison to what Seattle had accomplished by overthrowing what had been for years one of the most powerful forces in professional basketball. Houston’s days as one of the top dogs in the Western Division were, if not at an end, certainly dwindling.
While Marshall and his players were licking their emotional wounds from their drubbing by the Mariners and looking ahead to the 1970-71 NBA season, last rites were being given to the IBL. Shortly after the 1970 NBA regular season ended, the IBL-- by then in almost terminally bad shape --cut a deal with the ABA under which the two leagues would merge by April 30th, 1971; as part of the merger agreement, the ABA would pay the financial strapped IBL $70 million to enable it to play out its full 1970 regular season schedule and would integrate the IBL’s four most successful remaining franchises into the ABA once the merger was complete. The rest of the IBL’s surviving assets would be sold off to pay outstanding debts and records pertaining to the 1962 Gulf Coast playoff scandal turned over to the Justice Department to enable federal authorities to tie up the final remaining loose ends from that case.
The IBL’s troubled history came full circle on September 10th, 1970 when the Miami Stingrays and the San Antonio Heat, the same two teams that had battled for the first IBL league championship back in 1961, faced off in the deciding game of the last-ever IBL league finals. The Stingrays won the game 110-109; for IBL league commissioner Charles Wolf, soon to be out of a job, it was a very bittersweet moment when he presented the Stingrays with the IBL league championship trophy. At least one former Stingrays player would later remember that he thought he could see Wolf trying to blink back tears during the presentation.
But though the IBL was gone, it would leave lasting imprints on basketball history both for good and for ill. Seeking to avert the kind of scandals that had been the primary cause of the IBL’s downfall, the NBA and ABA both tightened their playoff and draft rules and gave their respective disciplinary committees greater authority to punish transgressions of said rules; the three-point shot, pioneered by the IBL and subsequently adopted by the ABA, would become part of the NBA’s scoring repertoire for the 1971-72 NBA season.
The 1970-71 NBA regular season began for the Oilers with a rare Opening Night loss; they fell to the Minneapolis Cyclones 99-92. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar single-handedly accounted for 45 of those Cyclones points, and in so doing further proved himself to be a bona fide NBA superstar. Two days later, when the Milwaukee Bucks came to Harris County Fieldhouse for Houston’s first home game of the season, the Oilers lost again, this time succumbing to the Bucks in overtime 111-104. Many Oilers fans suspected that their team would have a rough season, but few imagined that Oscar Robertson would be leaving the team before the season was over-- and none thought that it would conclude with the Oilers missing the playoffs for the first time since their relocation to Houston in 1957.
But times had changed in the NBA; the core lineup which Tom Marshall had inherited from Bobby Wanzer was finally showing its age and many of the new players the Oilers had drafted to meet the team’s future needs hadn’t yet fully matured, which meant that Houston’s Western Division rivals had an opportunity to change the balance of power in the division. And they would be quick to capitalize on this opportunity...
To Be Continued
 The Lakers in turn lost to the New York Knicks in the 1970 NBA Finals.