The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
When one thinks of Texas in relation to sports, the most common images that spring to mind are those of rough-and-tumble rodeo riders clinging to the backs of bucking broncos; high school football players dedicating themselves to their game with a zeal bordering on religious fervor; or baseball greats like Rogers Hornsby or Nolan Ryan stepping out of the sun-baked deserts near the Rio Grande to leave their mark on the national pastime. Few if any people realize that the Lone Star State also has a rich basketball heritage; for some sports fans under the age of 30, in fact, the history of hoops in Texas often seems to start and end with Yao Ming and Tony Parker.
But in reality the roots of basketball in Texas go considerably deeper. The professional elements of the game can trace their foothold in the Lone Star State back to February of 1957, when Rochester Royals owner and general manager Les Harrison finalized a pact with a trio of prominent Texas oilmen to relocate his franchise to Houston for the 1957-58 NBA season. It was a deal both parties were eager to get done: the oilmen knew that having a professional sports club in the Houston area would help boost the city’s economic and tourism prospects, while Harrison saw an opportunity to broaden the scope of the NBA’s appeal. Prior to the agreement between Harrison and the oilmen, the farthest west an NBA franchise had been located was Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Houston deal would put the league west of the Missisippi for the first time in its history. There was also the small but important detail that the team was outgrowing its home arena; the Sam Houston Coliseum, the Royals’ new home court, had a greater seating capacity which meant greater attendance, which in turn translated into higher ticket sales.
With the Royals’ change of cities came a name change as well; two months after signing the deal to move his club to Texas, Harrison announced the franchise would henceforth be called the Houston Oilers in tribute to the Lone Star State’s role in the American oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Accordingly, the soon-to-be- Oilers adopted a blue-and-silver oilrig as their franchise logo and created a new mascot: Wildcat Willie, a cartoon character decked out in hardhat and overalls who appeared in scores of newspaper and TV ads in the summer of 1957 to promote the team’s upcoming debut season at Sam Houston Coliseum.
The Oilers began preseason workouts on the campus of Rice University in October of 1957; that same month the team held its first exhibition game at Sam Houston Coliseum, facing the St. Louis Hawks in a matinee. The Oilers won the game by ten points, thus establishing a toehold for the NBA in the Lone Star State. When Houston notched an upset victory against the defending NBA league champion Boston Celtics in Hartford, Connecticut two weeks after the Oilers’ Coliseum debut, it made the front page of the Houston Chronicle the next morning and ticket demand for the team’s regular season opener, already high to begin with, doubled.
On November 4th, 1957 the Oilers hosted their inaugural regular season game at Sam Houston Coliseum, taking on the New York Knicks in a very physical matchup that saw three players ejected and a fourth foul out before the end of the third quarter. Though Houston lost the game 113-107, the take-no-prisoners style of play the Oilers used that night won them a multitude of fans among Texans, who as popular legend has it always love a good fight. The next night Les Harrison’s team notched its first Coliseum victory, beating the Minneapolis Lakers 97- 83; a week after that the Oilers gained their first road win since moving to Houston, a 122-117 overtime victory against the Nationals in Syracuse.
Once the inevitable difficulties in adjusting to a new home arena had been put behind them, the Oilers wasted little time staking out a position as genuine NBA playoff contenders; by late January of 1958 Houston had climbed into third place in the NBA Western Division standings. After a double-overtime victory against the Pistons in Detroit on Valentine’s Day, Oilers head coach Bobby Wanzer told the Houston Post: "I’m looking forward to coaching my first playoff game in Houston....we’re going to show the people of Texas professional basketball at its finest."1
The Oilers finished the 1957-58 NBA season in second place in the Western Division, and before long the team’s ticket office in downtown Houston began receiving calls and letters from fans wanting to see the first-ever NBA playoff matchup in the Lone Star State. The defending Western Division champion St. Louis Hawks were the third-seeded team in the first round of the NBA playoffs that year, and the Oilers were looking forward to being the David that knocked down St. Louis’ Goliath. They were especially fired up to test their defense against Hawks forward Bob Pettit, one of the top NBA scoring threats of his day.
On March 15th, 1958 a capacity crowed filled the Coliseum for the opening game of the Oilers’ best-of-three series against the Hawks. They got their money’s worth and then some: Houston’s defense held Bob Pettit to just twenty points while Oilers center Clyde Lovellette and his teammate Jack Twyman combined for eighty-five. Houston won 110-89, and as the Oilers flew to St. Louis for the second game of the series some of their fans were even dreaming of a series sweep.
St. Louis dashed those dreams with a 121-96 blowout of the Oilers at Kiel Auditorium in a game Hawks fans would dub "Pettit’s Revenge" and Houston sportswriters would remember as "the Saint Patrick’s Day Massacre". That contest would end with Houston forward Maurice Stokes sidelined by a season-ending knee injury, Jack Twyman having missed a crucial free throw that would have tied the game in the final seconds of regulation and sent it into overtime, and Bobby Wanzer accorded the dubious distinction of becoming the first head coach in NBA history to be ejected twice in the same night. After having already been kicked out of the game once for arguing with the referees about a traveling call on Clyde Lovellette, Wanzer got the heave-ho a second time when he charged into the stands to berate a Hawks fan who had been verbally abusing him and his players for most of the night; the NBA’s league disciplinary office tagged Wanzer with a stiff fine and warned him in no uncertain terms that any further such outbursts would be regarded by the league as grounds for suspension.
Not that anyone in Houston minded what he’d done; indeed, in the eyes of some Oilers fans Wanzer’s only real sin was not beating the heckler to a pulp. With the Oilers and Hawks returning to Sam Houston Coliseum for the rubber match of the series, anticipation ran high as to whether Houston would vanquish the St. Louis juggernaut or the Hawks would send the Oilers packing and return to the Western Division finals. The eyes of Houstonians had been opened once and for all about the NBA-- and judging by the long lines of people that were waiting at Houston’s main airport to greet Wanzer and his players on their return from St. Louis, it was clear they liked what they saw.
Anyone who’d come to Sam Houston Coliseum for the finale of the Oilers-Hawks playoff series and expected a repeat of the blowouts the two previous games had been was in for a major shock. The third and deciding matchup was one of the closest games in NBA history; it went into two overtimes and might have reached a third if Houston had hit fewer of its free throw attempts, or St. Louis hit more of theirs. The largest lead either team held during that game was a ten-point edge by St. Louis early in the third quarter of regulation.
With just three minutes to go in the second overtime, a foul on Oilers center Dave Pionzek put Jack Twyman at the free throw line with Houston and St. Louis tied at 106-all. As Twyman himself said in an ESPN interview 45 years later: "My knees were shaking like you wouldn’t believe....I knew I had to make at least one of those free throws or we were going home."2 As it turned out, Twyman would make both his shots to give the Oilers 108-106 lead as the clock ticked down to 2:30; Houston then went on a 15-3 surge to expand their lead to 123-109 only to have St. Louis close the gap to 124-118 with only a minute remaining in the second OT and then 124-122 with just thirty seconds left.
Hoping to force a third overtime, Bob Pettit tried to throw an inbounds pass to teammate Cliff Hagan in the final ten seconds of the second overtime. However, his gambit backfired: Oilers guard Jim Paxson stole the ball and dished it to Clyde Lovellette, who banked a textbook jumper to stretch Houston’s lead to 126-124 as the last five seconds counted down. When the final buzzer sounded, the ecstatic Coliseum crowd burst into a spontaneous chorus of "The Yellow Rose of Texas". Their Oilers had done what most people outside Houston thought the team couldn’t do and sent the Hawks home for the winter; now it was time to take on the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Western Division finals.
The Oilers’ series-clinching victory over St. Louis made the front page of the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle the next day; the photo accompanying the Post’s story, which showed a jubilant Bobby Wanzer embracing Jack Twyman at midcourt, was nominated for a Best Photography award by a national photojournalists’ society. The New York Daily News dubbed Wanzer’s team "the Cinderella of the NBA."3
Unfortunately for Cinderella, however, the clock struck midnight in Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in Game 2 of the 1958 Western Division finals. Embarrassed and angered at having lost to Houston by thirty points in the first leg of their best- of-five series, the Pistons channeled their fury into a fierce determination to beat the pants off the Oilers-- and beat the Oilers they did. Two Detroit players in particular, guard Gene Shue and forward Harry Gallatin, lit up Houston’s defense like a nickel cigar, starting a 21-4 scoring run late in the second quarter that paved the way for a 112-97 Pistons victory. After that Detroit never looked back, winning the Western Division finals three games to one. The Pistons wouldn’t have quite such an easy time in the league finals; the Eastern Division champion Boston Celtics would take everything Detroit threw at them and dish it right back in the Pistons’ faces, hanging on to win the league championship series three games to two.
Though the Oilers’ debut season in Houston had ended on a losing note, there was no denying it had on the whole been quite successful. One major beneficiary of that success was Bobby Wanzer, whose coaching contract was renewed through the 1961-62 NBA season; another was Clyde Lovellette, who got a twenty percent salary raise for the 1958-59 NBA season. The Houston Post and Houston Chronicle had both seen their respective circulations spike upward as interest in the team grew, and Rice University was starting to see an increase in its undergraduate applications thanks partly to its new status as the Oilers’ pregame and preseason workout headquarters.
Having reached the Western Division finals, the Houston Oilers now set their sights on making the league finals. For a while, that would prove easier said than done. In their second season in Houston, 1958-59, the Oilers stumbled out of the gate, losing seven of their first ten games and finishing the regular season in fourth place in the NBA Western Division before being swept by the Minneapolis Lakers in the first round of the playoffs; in their third season, 1959-60, they blew a two games-to-none lead against St. Louis in the Western Division finals and wound up losing to the Hawks three games to two.
But their fourth season, 1960-61, would see their fortunes improve with the free agent signing of first-round NBA draft pick Oscar Robertson. Robertson, known to his friends as "Horse" or "the Big O", was a University of Cincinnati standout and former Olympic medalist whose deft scoring touch and aggressive style of defense were seen by Coach Wanzer and the Oilers front office as the missing piece of the championship puzzle...
In the meantime, the rest of the American professional sports world was beginning to take an interest in the Lone Star State. In the early fall of 1959 the fledgling American Football League, which had been formed to challenge the National Football League’s forty- year-long domination of pro football in the United States, awarded one of its twelve charter franchises to Houston; the venerable NFL countered by setting up an expansion team in Dallas. The following spring, Major League Baseball commissioner Ford Frick named Dallas and Houston as two of the four cities that would be awarded expansion franchises for the 1961 baseball season.4
And while it would take more than a decade before the NHL would formally establish an expansion club in Texas, the league was already expressing an interest in staging preseason exhibition matchups there. By the late summer of 1960, plans had already been finalized for an exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs in San Antonio and negotiations were in progress for a Montreal Canadiens-Chicago Blackhawks game to be held at Sam Houston Coliseum.
Last but not least, a group of Dallas business tycoons were busy putting together financial backing for a new summer basketball league. They’d taken notice of the Oilers’ success in Houston, and rather than wait around for the NBA to give them an expansion slot they had opted to start their own pro association; the result of their efforts was the Intercontinental Basketball League(IBL), a ten-franchise league that would operate mostly in the Deep South and the Southwest during the summer months when the NBA was in its offseason.
The IBL’s life would be a short but eventful one. Many of the plays now familiar to basketball fans, like the slam dunk and the three-point shot, were first introduced to the sport by IBL players; the fact that the new league chose to base most of its franchises in Southern cities would prove useful as pro basketball worked to expand its national fan base during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The IBL crowned its first league champion on September 7th, 1961 when its Atlantic division champions, the Miami Stingrays, overcame a fourth quarter deficit to beat the Gulf Coast division-winning San Antonio Heat 110-103 in the rubber match of the best-of-three IBL league finals. That game-- and the league’s very existence --wiped away the last fragments of doubt that a definite market for pro hoops was present in the southern US.
By the time IBL commissioner and former Stanford scoring ace Angelo Luisetti presented the Stingrays with the inaugural IBL league championship trophy, the Oilers had been part of the Houston sports scene for at least four years and the Houston city council was ready to approve the sale of several parcels of city-owned land to the team on which the Oilers planned to build a 60,000-seat basketball arena to serve as their future home. Bobby Wanzer looked forward to decking the rafters of that home with NBA Western Division and league title banners.
The 1960-61 NBA season saw Wanzer take a giant step forward towards fulfilling that dream; the Oilers won seven of their first games in the regular season, finished that season with another seven-game win streak, and marched through the Western Division playoffs like General Sherman through Georgia, sweeping the Pistons in the first round and dispatching the Lakers-- who by then had moved to Los Angeles --in four games in the Western Division finals. Not until they took on the Eastern Division champion Boston Celtics in the NBA league finals did Houston encounter any serious opposition, and even then they proved a handful for Red Auerbach’s crew.
The third game of the 1961 NBA finals planted the seeds of a rivalry that would help shape the next three decades of professional basketball in America. The Celtics, having lost Game 2 a few days earlier on the Boston Garden parquet they normally ruled with an iron fist, were in the foulest of foul moods when they took the floor at Sam Houston Coliseum for the critical third leg of the series-- and that foul mood set the stage for a fierce confrontation between Oscar Robertson and Celtics center Bill Russell. After Russell’s teammate Bob Cousy was fouled by Robertson, an incensed Russell rushed halfway across the court and got in the Big O’s face, provoking Robertson to get right back in his. One harsh word led to another, then to pushing and shoving, and right after that to a vicious fistfight which soon escalated into a Pier 6 rumble. Robertson, Russell, Auerbach, and Wanzer were all ejected from the game along with Celtics guard K.C. Jones and one of Robertson’s Oiler teammates, future Cleveland general manager Wayne Embry.
The Celtics, full of fire and vinegar after the brawl, tore into Houston like rabid dogs in the second half, walloping the Oilers 123-107; Boston then went on to win the series three games to two, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of Oilers fans. When the last buzzer sounded at the end of the fifth and deciding game of the NBA league finals, Bobby Wanzer promised himself that one way or another he’d avenge what had happened in Game 3. The glory of Houston’s first Western Division championship had been a bit tarnished by the debacle that ensued in the wake of the Russell-Robertson melee, and Wanzer didn’t like that at all. From that day on, and up until the early 1990s at least, Celtics-Oilers games wouldn’t just be basketball-- they would be unadulterated blood feuds. Not even the San Antonio Heat and the Dallas Steamers, the two IBL franchises set up to compete with the Oilers for the minds, hearts, and dollars of basketball fans in Texas, were as disliked-- even despised --by Oiler fans as the green and white-garbed juggernaut from Boston.
And the Celtics-Oilers war would only escalate during the 1961-62 NBA season...
The Oilers’ first road trip of the 1961-62 season started out pleasantly enough with a twenty-point blowout of the Detroit Pistons in Cobo Hall and a tense but glorious overtime victory against the Bullets in Baltimore. From there they earned a comeback win against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, and they looked to be the NBA Western Division’s 800-pound gorillas-- that is, until they ventured into Boston to face the Celtics in a rematch of the 1960-61 NBA league finals.
Not surprisingly, the Oilers were just as detested in Boston as the Celtics were in Houston; Celtic fans had by now come to see the NBA league championship as almost a birthright, and they deeply resented these Texas interlopers for having tried to take it from them. When Wanzer and his players took the court for their pregame warmups, the chorus of boos that greeted them was almost deafening; at least twice before the game Boston police had to break up fights between Celtics and Oilers fans. Oscar Robertson came within a cat’s whisker of getting ejected early in the second quarter when he got in an argument with a courtside heckler.
That incident along with a subsequent third quarter tussle between Sam Jones and Oilers guard Jerry Lucas threw Houston off its stride; they ended up losing 115-100, after which an irate Bobby Wanzer blasted Red Auerbach and his players as "goons". The Celtics coach/general manager, not the type to mince words, leveled some harsh comments of his own at Wanzer, calling him "a spineless jerk" and accusing him of instigating the Lucas-Jones confrontation. If it hadn’t already been clear the Celtics and Oilers were mortal foes and would be for years to come, it was certainly clear now.
Boston wasn’t the Oilers’ only significant NBA nemesis, however; they also had a running feud with the Hawks, whose fans were still bitter over St. Louis’ 1958 Western Division playoff loss to Houston, and before the 1961-62 NBA season was over they would be engaged in a major row with the Los Angeles Lakers, who were intent on supplanting both the Oilers and the Hawks as the dominant team in the Western Division. Indeed, in some respects the Oilers’ beef with the Lakers was even more intense than their feud with the Celtics-- Bobby Wanzer and his players sometimes had to be escorted from their hotel to the Olympic Auditorium5 by a full detail of LAPD motorcycle cops when they came to Los Angeles.
But there were also a number of positive developments for the franchise as the Oilers neared the end of their fifth season in Houston. In early December of 1961 the team held groundbreaking ceremonies to mark the start of construction on their future home arena, Harris County Fieldhouse; a week later Bobby Wanzer was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story profiling Houston’s role in the growth of professional basketball in America. In January of 1962 the team established a philanthropic fund in memory of Maurice Stokes, who had died three months earlier in a car crash on the eve of the Oilers’ last preseason exhibition game. Last but not least, the Oilers wrapped up the 1961-62 regular season with a twelve-game win streak that clinched them the top seed in the NBA Western Division playoffs for the second consecutive year.
As the Oilers were gearing up for the first round of the 1962 NBA playoffs, both the NBA and the IBL were preparing to extend their respective brands into markets which either had never known pro basketball before or were seeking to fill the void left behind when their old team left for another city. In the spring of 1962 the IBL awarded expansion franchises to Fort Wayne, Syracuse,6 Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.; the league was only in its second season and still finanically struggling, but its owners had grand ambitions of matching and eventually exceeded the NBA’s breadth and popularity.
The NBA was hardly sitting idle, however; the same week that the IBL was unveiling its new franchises the NBA granted expansion teams to Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, and-- in an unmistakable direct challenge to its IBL rivals --Miami. The Miami club was of particular interest to the American sports media, given it would be sharing a home arena with the Stingrays for at least its first NBA season.
There had briefly been an NBA franchise in Toronto during that league’s inaugural season in 1946-47, but it had quickly folded for lack of interest; now, however, as the Oilers’ success in Houston continued to transform basketball in general and the NBA specifically a groundswell was starting to build up for the league to re-establish its presence in Toronto. By the end of the 1963-64 NBA season league officials would be actively courting some of Canada’s largest business companies to find sponsors for the new Toronto franchise; not to be outdone, the IBL would seek to obtain its own foothold in Canada by starting up an expansion club in Montreal.
Back in Houston, Oilers fans gave less thought to the various expansion moves being made by the NBA and IBL than to their team’s efforts to reach the NBA league finals for a second consecutive year. After the Oilers’ 1961 playoff run had reached its heartbreaking conclusion, their players and fans had resolved that this time nothing less than an NBA league championship would suffice. In order to attain that championship, however, they would first have to neutralize their traditional first-round foes the Pistons, and if they survived that clash a possible showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers awaited them.
On the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, Detroit showed up at Sam Houston Coliseum to battle the Oilers in what sportswriters were already predicting would be a bruising, physical start to the 1962 NBA Western Division playoffs...
To Be Continued
1Quoted from the February 15th, 1958 Houston Post.
2Quoted from the 2003 ESPN Classic documentary Three-Minute Drill: The Legend of the ’58 Houston Oilers.
3Quoted from the story "Oilers Drill Hawks" in the March 20th, 1958 edition of the New York Daily News.
4The other two were Minneapolis, which had once been home to the Giants’ Triple A minor league affiliate, and New York City, which had been promised a new National League ballclub to fill the void left by the Giants’ departure for San Francisco in 1958 and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ relocation to Los Angeles a year later.
5The Lakers’ home arena during their first few years in southern California.
6At the end of the 1960-61 NBA season the Syracuse Nationals had moved to Philadelphia to become the Philadelphia Flyers.