The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous nine 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 formation 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 overtake the IBL as the NBA’s archrival in the professional basketball world; 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; the final collapse of the IBL in 1970; the long playoff drought the Oilers had to endure in the wake of Oscar Robertson’s departure to Cincinnati; and the somewhat star-crossed coaching tenure of Larry Brown in Houston. In this chapter we’ll look back at how Brown’s successor, Bill Fitch, led the Oilers to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1967.
Bill Fitch wasn’t exactly what one would call cuddly-- but the title-starved Oilers didn’t need cuddly. They needed someone who could push, drive, and cajole them to get over the roadblocks standing in the way of their efforts to attain a third NBA league championship. Tantalized and then heartbroken by the abbreviated playoff runs of the Larry Brown era, Houston basketball fans were understandably getting impatient for their team to ascend to the NBA mountaintop once more. It had been almost fifteen years since Houston’s last appearance in the NBA Finals and fourteen years since they’d last made it to a conference championship series; to borrow an analogy from another sport popular with Houstonians, the rodeo, many of the players in Fitch’s lineup were heading for the last roundup of their NBA careers and wanted a championship ring before they hung up their uniforms for good.
In his Houston coaching debut, a road game against the New Orleans Bobcats two days after the blowout Oilers loss to Atlanta that had sealed Larry Brown’s fate, Fitch called a closed-door pregame meeting of his players and told them what was at stake in the days and weeks ahead. His words made quite an impression: the Oilers decimated New Orleans that night and proceeded to win nine of their next eleven games to climb into a tie for second place with Kansas City in the Western Conference’s Midwest Division. As the 1981-82 NBA season neared its halfway point, it was gradually becoming apparent that some of the old fire which had defined the great Houston lineups of the Wanzer-Marshall era was returning to the locker rooms of Harris County Fieldhouse.
Further proof of this revival came just before the NBA All-Star break when Bobby Wanzer, whom the new Oilers ownership had re-hired to the team in 1980 as a special consultant on player development, was named as the team’s new general manager. In a symbolic sense this constituted a much-needed washing away of the last traces of bad blood left over from Wanzer’s 1963 resignation as head coach; in practical terms it gave Wanzer the opportunity to put his experience and talents to work shaping a new Western Conference powerhouse in Houston.
By the final month of the ’81-’82 regular season the Oilers had assured themselves of at least the #2 seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs. By winning at least three of their remaining ten home games in the regular season, they might even have a good crack at passing the Lakers to take the conference’s top seed. As students of past NBA history in general or past Oilers history in particular could have warned Fitch and his crew, however, nothing would come easy: after giving a good account of itself in a pair of home tilts against the Kansas City-Omaha1 Monarchs and the Chicago Bulls, Houston proceeded to drop three games in a row at Harris County Fieldhouse and it began to look as if the Lakers would yank the top seed right out of the Oilers’ hands. It would all come down to the final five games of the year for Houston-- and two of those games, appropriately enough, would be against the Lakers and the Mariners respectively.
Harris County Fieldhouse was jammed to the rafters when the Oilers took to the court to face the Mariners for the 77th game of the 1981-82 NBA season. Seats for this matchup, which had already been scarce enough in the first place, had virtually disappeared when it became clear that a possible first-place slot in the NBA Western Conference playoffs was riding on the outcome. And these being the first days of the home video revolution that would soon transform personal entertainment, many Houstonians watching the game on TV would tape on their newly bought VHS or Betamax video recorders.2
Seattle had the early advantage, taking a six-point lead in the game’s opening minutes and stretching that lead to thirteen points midway through the first quarter. But Houston turned that around in a hurry, and by the start of the second quarter the Oilers had eked out a four-point lead against the Mariners. Wes Unseld, then in his final season in the NBA, helped keep Seattle at bay by hitting a pair of critical free throws just before the end of the first half; in the opening minutes of the second half he sparked a 17-3 Houston run that put Seattle away for good and clinched a 142-126 win for the Oilers.
Houston followed up that victory with a double overtime win against the Miami Marlins and a 20-point dismantling of the Golden State(formerly San Francisco) Warriors3; when the Oilers took on the Lakers in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Los Angeles was a half-point behind Houston in the NBA Western Conference overall standings, and though both teams had already clinched their respective divisions the outcome of this particular Oilers-Lakers clash would mean the difference between first and second seed in the 1982 Western Conference playoffs.
That game turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the no- holds-barred confrontation that would erupt between the Lakers and the Oilers during the Western Conference finals. There were some angry verbal jousts between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oilers forward Cliff Robinson during the first half, and at the start of the second half Houston police had to intervene to rescue Bill Fitch from a near-mugging at the hands of a Lakers fan who had, by hook or by crook, somehow managed to make his way down to the Oilers bench and sucker-punched Fitch in full view of TV cameras.
As Fitch was being helped to his feet and his attacker being arrested for assault and battery, the Oilers clung to a slim lead over Los Angeles. That lead would grow like King Kong on steroids as Houston went on a 27-5 scoring run that left the Lakers in the dust by the start of the fourth quarter. Pat Riley, the Lakers’ head coach at the time, inadvertently helped the Oilers’ cause by getting himself ejected midway through the fourth on a technical; without Riley’s steadying influence on the sidelines, the Lakers lost whatever focus they had left and Houston rolled to a 133-119 victory, effectively sealing up the number one spot in the 1982 NBA Western Conference playoffs. An air of cautious optimism took hold at Harris County Fieldhouse as the Oilers geared up to host the Denver Rockies in the first round; it was seldom mentioned by Fitch or his players if they could possibly avoid it, but for the first time since 1970 the Oilers were daring to hope they might finally regain the NBA league championship...
The Oilers charged through the first round of the 1982 Western Conference playoffs with the greatest of ease, sweeping away the Rockies as easily as the Fieldhouse cleanup crews swept away the spilled popcorn and empty beer cups from under the seats at courtside. The conference semifinals, which pitted Houston against the Seattle Mariners, were a bit more challenging but the Oilers still prevailed, dispatching the M’s in five games. Not until the Oilers met the Lakers in the 1982 Western Conference finals would Houston be confronted with anything even close to a fight.
And "fight" is the operative word here. Even before the Lakers returned to Harris County Fieldhouse for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oilers center Moses Malone had been verbally sparring with each other via the sports pages of America’s newspapers; a charter flight of Laker fans who came to Houston to see the first two games of the series were accosted at Hobby Airport4 by a particularly rowdy gang of Oiler boosters and a fight broke out which could only be halted by the intervention of airport security.
Game 1 itself was no Sunday picnic either-- Kareem managed to foul out midway through the third quarter, and his teammate Earvin "Magic" Johnson was gone by the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Wes Unseld was tossed from the game shortly after Johnson left, and Oilers backup center Jawann Oldham spent much of the final ten minutes of the game on the bench thanks to a combination of foul trouble and a sore right foot. But when the smoke had cleared, Houston had scratched and clawed its way to a 107-98 victory.
After the Lakers had tied the Western Conference finals with an overtime win in Game 2, the drama shifted to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood for the next three games of the series. Game 3 was a 29-point rout in favor of Houston; Kareem missed 11 of his first 12 shots that night and 47 of 52 overall. Game 4, however, was an altogether different story as Kareem hit 60% of his shots from the floor and 51.3% of his free throw attempts to allow Los Angeles to tie the series once more.
Game 5 was all Lakers. Los Angeles staked itself to a double digit lead early on and basically left Houston in the proverbial dust; that night marked Magic Johnson’s NBA playoffs coming-out party, with the Michigan State alumnus racking up 51 points and 36 rebounds. When the Lakers and Oilers reconvened over at Harris County Fieldhouse for Game 6 of the series, an air of pea soup- thick tension hung over the Fieldhouse crowd; with Houston down three games to two in the Western Conference finals, this would clearly be a make-or-break moment for Bill Fitch’s squad.
At first it seemed Game 6 would simply be a repeat of Game 5-- in fact, the Lakers finished the first quarter of Game 6 with a 22-point lead and maintained an edge of at least 18 points well into the second quarter. But the best-laid plans of mice and NBA franchises can often go astray, and with just over six minutes left until halftime Los Angeles saw its season begin to unravel. Guards Calvin Murphy and Robert Reid turned into human Hoover Dams, blocking Lakers shots as casually as if they were throwing away beer cups; Cliff Robinson and fellow Oiler forward Kenny Dennard hit critical perimeter shots with such accuracy one could be pardoned for thinking they’d been Marine snipers in a past life; and Wes Unseld made what may have been the greatest defense play of his career, stealing a Bob McAdoo inbounds pass intended for Michael Cooper just before the halftime buzzer.
The second half of Game 6 was an unmitigated disaster for the Lakers. Houston essentially did whatever it wanted to do, raining points on a beleaguered Los Angeles and making Pat Riley’s ever- so-carefully styled hair turn gray. The Lakers had morphed into a walking example of Murphy’s Law, and the Oilers were taking full advantage of it; by the time Calvin Murphy tossed up an air ball to end the game, Los Angeles had been handed one of its worst NBA playoff defeats ever-- a 35-point drubbing that made Lakers fans nervous about what would happen in Game 7.
They were right to be worried; in the deciding game of the 1982 Western Conference finals Houston tore through the dejected Lakers like Sherman marching through Georgia. Wes Unseld alone notched 46 first half points against Los Angeles; Robert Reid hit a jaw-dropping 9 out of 12 three-pointer attempts. By the end of the second quarter the Lakers were in a 27-point hole, and they wouldn’t get any closer than 15 points the rest of the way. When the clock started counting down the final seconds before Game 7 officially ended, a raucous ovation shook the rafters of Harris County Fieldhouse. The Houston Oilers were going to play in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1967.
The Oilers’ showdown with the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982 NBA Finals was a classic case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object-- and in this case irresistible force won decisively. Philadelphia hoops fans hoping to see their Flyers avenge the team’s 1967 Finals defeat were bitterly disappointed as Houston cruised through the first two games of the ’82 Finals at the Spectrum, then rebounded from an overtime loss in Game 3 at the Fieldhouse to post a ten- point victory over the Flyers in Game 4. Except for Julius "Dr. J." Erving, an ABA transplant whose scoring style had made him one of the NBA’s top shooters since he came to Philadelphia, and Andrew Toney, a promising rookie who hadn’t even reached his fifth birthday when the Oilers won their first NBA league title, the Flyers couldn’t seem to solve the riddle of how to penetrate Houston’s smothering defense.
Nor, for that matter, could Philadelphia’s own defenders contain Houston’s scoring juggernaut for very long; had it not been for a free throw-shooting slump in the overtime period of Game 3 the Oilers might have won the ’82 NBA Finals in a sweep over the Flyers. As it was, Game 3 would stand as the one blemish in an otherwise perfect Houston performance in the Finals-- and the Oilers would make amends for that blemish by hitting an eye- popping 88.7 percent of their free throw attempts in Game 5. One of the key factors in that surge was Calvin Murphy, who made 13 straight free throws in the second quarter and 7 of his first 9 attempts in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was essentially "the Wes Unseld Show"5, as one Houston sportswriter put it the day after the NBA Finals were over. In his NBA swan song, Unseld racked up 31 fourth quarter points and 17 rebounds to slam the door shut on the Flyers’ last fading glimmer of hope for winning the NBA championship. When the buzzer sounded to conclude the Oilers’ 143-129 series-clinching victory, he and Calvin Murphy would end up sharing the Finals MVP award. In a highly emotional post-game interview, the future Hall of Famer thanked Houston fans for their support during his NBA career-- to which those fans responded with a valedictory ovation lasting ten full minutes along with a barrage of letters mailed to the Oilers’ PR office in the days immediately following Houston’s Game 5 win.
It was a fitting sendoff for a man who’d helped carry Houston to its third NBA league championship in team history and first in fifteen years.
During the Oilers’ heartbreaking early playoff exits of the Larry Brown era, sportswriters in and out of Houston were wont to ponder if Houston fans would remember how to celebrate attaining the NBA’s top prize the next time it happened. The sportswriters’ questions were answered with a resounding "Yes" three days after the NBA Finals ended as the Energy City threw one of the grandest parades in its history to salute the Oilers’ success against the Lakers. In true Southwestern style, the floats that carried the Oilers’ players and coaches from Harris County Fieldhouse down to Houston City Hall were accompanied by a full-piece mariachi band; the city’s major colleges and universities were well represented along the spectators lining the parade route, not to mention the kids from Houston’s K-12 school system who turned out to cheer on the champs.
The victory rally turned into an unofficial old home week for Wes Unseld as several of his old teammates from the Oilers’ 1967 championship squad turned out to honor his contributions to Houston’s 1982 title run and wish him well as he headed off into the sunset. Many of the surviving players from the 1962 team also turned out; there were even cameo appearances by two of Houston’s other major sports icons, Astros pitching ace Nolan Ryan and Titans running back Earl Campbell. As for Bill Fitch, if an election for mayor had been that day he probably would have won in a landslide.
Throughout the rest of the summer Oilers fans dreamed of seeing Houston repeat as NBA champions. But as basketball history attests, winning the NBA league title is one thing; retaining it is quite another...
To Be Continued
 Because they shared Kansas City’s Kemper Arena with an indoor soccer team for much of their tenure in KC, the Monarchs were occasionally obliged to play some of their home games in Omaha.
 Not surprisingly, when the Betamax format died out Houston-area video stores did a brisk business transferring tapes of ‘80s Oiler games from Betamax to VHS.
 The Warriors had relocated across the Bay to Oakland by the time the 1981-82 NBA season started.
 Houston’s main commercial airport.
 From an article in the June 7th, 1982 Houston Chronicle.