The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous ten 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 cash of American basketball fans; the Houston 1963-66 NBA league title drought and the Oilers’ return to glory with their triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1967 NBA Finals; how scandal ruined the IBL’s once-bright prospects and opened the way for the ABA to surpass the IBL as the NBA’s archrival in the pro basketball world; the end of the Wanzer-Marshall dynasty that had made the Oilers one of the dominant teams in the NBA Western Division during the ‘60s; the IBL’s final collapse in 1970; the postseason dry spell the Oilers had to endure in the wake of Oscar Robertson’s departure to Cincinnati; Larry Brown’s rather star-crossed coaching tenure in Houston; and the Oilers’ thrilling run to the 1982 NBA Finals championship under Brown’s successor Bill Fitch. In this installment, we’ll look back on Houston’s 1983 NBA Finals rematch with the Flyers and the up-and-down fortunes of the Oilers in the late 1980s.
After a quarter-century in Houston, the Oilers had so thoroughly integrated themselves into the Energy City’s civic landscape that people were finding it increasingly harder to remember a time when the team wasn’t always a major topic of conversation among Houston sports fans. In fact, with both the NFL’s Titans and Major League Baseball’s Astros having each had a season disrupted by players’ strikes and the city’s NHL club, the Spacemen, having a hard time catching on with Houston sports fans, the Oilers became more important than ever to the Houston pro athletic scene.
The Oilers started their 1982-83 NBA season with a bang, winning seven of their first eight road games and nine of their first ten home games to assume a comfortable lead in the NBA Midwest Division standings. Before the season was a month old, Houston had already racked up twenty-seven victories on their overall record and conventional wisdom among sportswriters who covered the NBA on a regular basis held that the Oilers were a lock to make the NBA Finals for a second straight year.
Houston’s performance as the 1982-83 NBA season progressed did a lot to encourage that impression. By the All-Star break, the Oilers were a whopping thirty games ahead of their nearest challenger in the Midwest Division; only a nine-game slump in late February and early March of 1983 kept them from becoming the first team in NBA history to record 70 regular season victories. The Oilers finished the 1982-83 NBA regular season with a team- record 66 wins...
....and in the 1983 NBA Western Conference playoffs, they proceeded to vindicate those who had predicted Houston would make the NBA Finals for a second straight year. The Oilers swept the Kansas City-Omaha Monarchs in the first round; they dispatched the Denver Rockies in five games in the second round; and in the 1983 Western Conference finals they triumphed over the Lakers in six games. All the pieces seemed to be in place for Houston to take home a second consecutive Larry O’Brien Trophy.
However, in the 1983 NBA Finals the irresistible force of Houston ran into the immovable object of a Philadelphia Flyers team that had made it their mission to avenge their 1982 NBA Finals defeat. Flyers guard Maurice Cheeks dealt the first blow to the Oilers’ league title hopes with a 42-point performance in Game 1 which helped cement a 118-96 Philadelphia win; in Game 2 Andrew Toney made 10 out of 14 second-half free throw attempts to help the Flyers pull out a 122-105 victory and take a 2 games- to-0 lead in the series.
A sick feeling started churning in the guts of Houston fans after the Oilers’ loss in Game 2 of the 1983 NBA Finals. That particular defeat stirred up grim memories of Houston’s 1963 NBA Finals demolition by the Boston Celtics and its evisceration at the hands of the Seattle Mariners in the first round of the 1970 NBA playoffs. With the ’83 Finals switching to the Philadelphia Spectrum for Games 3 and 4, an air of foreboding seemed to hang over Fitch and his players-- their hopes for repeating as NBA league champions were in major jeopardy, with some sportswriters already talking about the possibility of the Flyers sweeping the Oilers to avenge Philadelphia’s NBA Finals defeat by Houston 26 years earlier.
The beginning of the end for Houston came early in the third quarter of Game 3, when Julius "Dr. J" Erving and Flyers center Moses Malone started a scoring torrent that steadily ate away at, and soon erased, Houston’s lead in that game. By the start of the fourth quarter Philadelphia was leading by ten points and Houston fans were watching in dismay as their team, which had seemed all but invincible just a few weeks earlier, self-destructed to hand the Flyers a 142-119 victory. History was about to repeat itself for the Oilers in the worst possible way some two decades after their humiliation in the ’63 NBA Finals-- and to add insult to injury, this repetition was coming at the hands of the same team Houston had beaten for the league title just a year earlier.
Houston’s last glimmer of hope for retaining the NBA league championship died halfway through the second quarter of Game 4 when Calvin Murphy was assessed a technical foul and ejected from the court after arguing a possession call with the referees. From that point on, everything just went to pieces for the Oilers; the Flyers squashed them like cockroaches, going on to beat them 137-99 to clinch Philadelphia’s first NBA league title since 1967. It was a depressing end to a year which had held out so much promise for Bill Fitch and his players.
For the 1983-84 season the Oilers made it their goal to recapture the NBA championship; they fell conspicuously short of that goal, however, as they had to struggle to claim the number three spot in the 1984 Western Conference playoffs and were knocked off in the second round in five games by the eventual Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers. (The Lakers were themselves defeated by the Boston Celtics in seven games in the 1984 NBA Finals).
1984-85 was only slightly better for Houston: that year the Oilers managed to make it as far as the Western Conference finals before once again being sent home by the Lakers, this time in six games. Game 5 of the ’85 Western Conference finals would become notorious for an incident in which Oilers rookie Ralph Sampson, a University of Houston alumnus who had been signed by the team as much for his hometown drawing power as for his scoring talents, dumped beer over the head of a Lakers fan who’d been mercilessly heckling him since the beginning of the second quarter.
The 1985-86 NBA season saw Houston get off to a horrendous start; the Oilers lost eight of their first ten games, and by the time the season was three weeks old they were already eleven games under .500. After the team dropped to the bottom of the NBA Midwest Division standings, rumors began to circulate that Bill Fitch’s head might be on the chopping block. But the team’s fortunes began to turn around after an overtime win against the Miami Marlins a week before Thanksgiving, and by the middle of December the Oilers had managed to claw their way back into the playoff hunt.
The real test of their mettle that year, however, would come during a Christmas Eve matinee visit to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Knicks. The Knicks were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference that season and were fighting the Celtics for the top spot in the conference standings; they were expected to have an easy time in dispatching Houston that afternoon. One Las Vegas oddsmaker, in fact, had the Knicks favored to win by at least thirty-five points.
The Oilers proceeded to rewrite the script, though, clinging to New York’s belts for the first three quarters and then taking a respectable if slim lead in the fourth quarter. When the final buzzer sounded, Houston would escape MSG with a hard-fought 117-114 win which put them in a tie for second place with the Dallas Mavericks in the Midwest Division standings. From that point on, Houston would record a highly respectable .712 winning percentage and just miss claiming the Midwest regular season championship.
Houston earned the number two seed in the 1986 Western Conference playoffs-- and made the most of that position. In the first round, the Oilers knocked off the Golden State Warriors in five games; in the second round they recorded a highly satisfying sweep of the Seattle Mariners; and in the conference finals, they survived a dismal Game 1 performance to dispatch the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games and set up another NBA Finals clash with the Boston Celtics.
When the Oilers pulled off a dramatic overtime win to kick off the 1986 NBA Finals, some sportswriters thought it might well signal the beginning of the end for the Celtics’ long-standing tradition of dominating Houston in the Finals. That assessment, however, would turn out to be dead wrong; Boston avenged its Game 1 setback by eviscerating Houston in Game 2 before a raucous and devoted hometown crowd at Boston Garden, then proceeded to take all three games at Harris County Fieldhouse to clinch another NBA league championship for the Celtics. In a press conference after the Celtics’ series-ending Game 5 triumph, a highly frustrated Bill Fitch admitted: "We just couldn’t seem to do anything right after we lost the second game."
For that matter, the Oilers had trouble doing much right in the early half of the 1986-87 NBA regular season. In fact, in only their fifth game that year Houston suffered one of the worst regular season losses in NBA history, a 145-103 drubbing at the hands of the normally inept San Diego Clippers. Everyone knew the loss would adversely affect team morale, but few had even a vague clue things would get as bad as they later did. The Clippers game marked the beginning of a long slide which saw the defending NBA Western Conference champions slip to fourth place in the Midwest Division; by New Year’s Day, the Houston sports media was abuzz with rumors of dissension in the Oilers locker room and hints of one or more resignations or even firings among Bill Fitch’s staff of assistant coaches.
Fitch himself was also rumored to be skating on pretty thin ice. Fed up with the gossip, Oilers GM Bobby Wanzer held a press conference in mid-January of 1987 to assert that Fitch would stay as the team’s head coach for the rest of the 1986-87 season and return for the 1987-88 season. Even after the press conference, however, there was still some speculation that Fitch was going to be replaced before the season ended.
Yet it wasn’t all gloom and doom for the Oilers. There were also a lot of high points for Houston during the regular season. A few days after Wanzer’s press conference, the team embarked on a win streak which put them back in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference; in the midst of that surge Houston had a pair of critical wins over conference foes Dallas and Seattle. In February of 1987 the team held a series of gala events to mark the 30-year anniversary of the Oilers’ arrival in the Energy City and the 20-year anniversary of Houston’s 1967 NBA championship. A month or so later, Houston tied Kansas City-Omaha for the number two spot in the Midwest Division.
The Oilers finished the 1986-87 season with a respectable 54 wins and went into the first round of the ’87 Western Conference playoffs riding a wave of momentum. It was a wave which came to a screeching halt, however, when they dropped the first two games of their series against the Golden State Warriors, who they had been expected to beat easily. They managed to recover in time to win the series three games to two, but the final game proved so physically and emotionally exhausting Houston had very little gas left in its tank when it advanced to the second round to take on the Portland Trailblazers.
The Blazers took full advantage of their foes’ weakened state; they dispatched Houston in five games in the 1987 Western Conference semifinals and advanced to the conference finals to take on the Los Angeles Lakers, who in turn bounced Portland in six games and would later beat the Boston Celtics in seven games in the 1987 NBA Finals.
There may be considerable argument among sportswriters and fans about what was the highest point of the Bill Fitch era in Houston, but they agree unanimously on the lowest-- the 1987-88 NBA season. It was a train wreck of a year that saw Fitch ejected from the season opener; Ralph Sampson spend so much time in the hospital he could have been made an honorary member of the AMA; Houston earn the dubious distinction of becoming the first team in NBA history to go the entire month of December without winning a single game; and the Oilers miss the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1977.
The Oilers spent most of the ’87-’88 season in or near the bottom of the Midwest Division standings. One of their worst moments that season was when the team blew an eighteen-point fourth quarter lead against the New York Knicks at Harris County Fieldhouse in an early January matinee game; Fitch had been in desperate need of a win against the Eastern Conference to turn Houston’s season around, and the Knicks game looked like his best chance for that turnaround. But Murphy’s Law had kicked in, leaving the Oilers on the short end of the stick once again.
Houston finished its ’87-’88 campaign with a twelve-game losing streak which saw the Oilers get hammered by two of the NBA’s best teams(a 117-92 thrashing by the Celtics and a 102-85 smackdown at the hands of the Lakers) and embarrassed by one of the league’s worst(a 99-84 defeat by the Clippers). Fitch’s job seemed to be hanging by the proverbial thread...
....but all of that was forgotten when the ’88-’89 NBA season rolled around. In one of their biggest turnarounds ever, Houston compiled 63 regular season victories and steamrollered their way through the 1989 Western Conference playoffs; when Oilers center and old Ralph Sampson college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon drilled a three-pointer to clinch a Houston sweep of the Seattle Mariners in the conference finals, it kicked off the wildest celebration the Energy City had seen since the Oilers won the ‘82 NBA Finals.
The 1989 NBA Finals would see Houston facing an unfamiliar Eastern Conference foe-- instead of another rematch against the Celtics or the Flyers, this time the Oilers would be taking on Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons, then regarded as the "bad boys" of the NBA. They were widely accused of being dirty players-- none more so than Pistons center Bill Laimbeer, whose rough conduct on the court was matched only by his outspoken attitude off it.
It was crystal clear this was going to be a highly physical series-- and sure enough, early in the second quarter of the ‘89 NBA Finals’ opening contest, Laimbeer got into a shoving match with Ralph Sampson. One of Laimbeer’s teammates, forward Dennis Rodman, rushed to his defense and immediately got into a full- tilt fistfight with Oilers reserve center Chuck Nevitt; a bench- clearing brawl might have ensued had the referees not intervened to break up the melee and send Laimbeer back to the locker room.
That confrontation lit a fire under the Oilers; they whomped the Pistons by twenty points in Game 1 and rallied from a nine- point fourth quarter deficit with less than a minute remaining in Game 2 to beat Detroit in overtime. When the series moved to the Palace at Auburn Hills for Games 3 and 4, Pistons fans hoped that having home court advantage in those games would help Detroit to turn things around. And to be sure, the Pistons did hand Houston a pretty serious beating in the third game. But during Game 4, with the Pistons poised to tie the ’89 NBA Finals at two games apiece, the bottom abruptly dropped out from under Detroit when Pistons point guard and future New York Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas had to leave the game midway through the second half with a sprained ankle. With Thomas out of the lineup, the Pistons were effectively dead in the water; the Oilers took Game 4 132- 110, then proceeded to win Game 5 97-91 to claim their fourth NBA league championship in franchise history and second title under Bill Fitch.
The Oilers 1989-90 NBA season opener was a gala event; after the team’s ’88-’89 championship banner was raised to the banners of Harris County Fieldhouse, Houston commenced their ’89-’90 regular season with a pulse-pounding win against the newly established Charlotte Hornets. In a post-game press conference, Fitch laid out his agenda for the season in no uncertain terms: he wanted Houston to repeat as NBA champs. Other Oilers coaches, including Fitch’s boss Bobby Wanzer, had taken that same pledge before and been unable to make good on it. But Fitch had a little something the others didn’t-- a trump card by the name of Michael Jeffrey Jordan...
To Be Continued
 Formerly the Hartford Whalers(see Part 4).
 That particular triumph would be reserved for the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
This was Kansas City’s final NBA postseason matchup with Houston before the Monarchs became the Sacramento Kings.
 That particular outburst would get Sampson fined and suspended for the sixth and deciding game of the ’85 Western Conference finals.
 “Fitch perturbed over Oilers’ Finals breakdown”, Houston Chronicle, June 6th, 1986.