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Full-Court Press:

The Story of the Houston Oilers


By Chris Oakley


Part 12


adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com



Summary: In the previous eleven chapters of this series, we traced the history of the Rochester Royals’ transformation into the Houston Oilers and the Oilers’ subsequent triumphs and setbacks in their new home; we also looked at the short but fascinating lives of the IBL and the ABA as they tried to overtake the NBA as the dominant force in pro basketball. In this segment we’ll look back at Houston’s run to the 1990 NBA Finals and the role of Michael Jordan in their regular season and playoff successes during the 1989-90 campaign.




     From the moment that the Houston Oilers selected Michael Jordan with their first pick in the 1984 NBA amateur draft, Bill Fitch had viewed him as the ace in the hole for the Oilers’ quest to repeat as NBA league champions. Indeed, even before Jordan was drafted by Houston there was a huge amount of hype surrounding the University of North Carolina alumnus; Jordan had been a major part of UNC’s 1982 NCAA Final Four championship squad and a gold medalist on the United States men’s basketball team at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

      In the 1986 NBA Finals, Jordan turned in a great individual performance in what was ultimately a losing cause for Houston. If just one or two things had worked out differently, he might well have walked away with the Finals MVP award. As it was, Air Jordan (as Houston sportswriters had dubbed him for his amazing vertical leap) left an indelible stamp on NBA playoff history by setting a postseason scoring record for most points by an individual player in a single game: in Game 2 of the ’86 Finals, Jordan racked up a jaw-dropping 64 points against the Celtics.

      But for a quirk of fate Jordan might have worn the uniform of one of the Oilers’ Western Conference rivals-- the Portland Trailblazers originally owned Jordan’s draft rights. However, in a miscalculation the Blazers are still paying the price for 25 years later, they decided to pass on the future NBA Hall of Famer and use their first pick in the ’84 draft(second pick overall) to take Sam Bowie, a University of Kentucky alumnus who the Portland front office thought could fill their scoring and defensive needs more readily than Jordan could. Bowie, alas, never came anywhere reaching his NBA potential and left the league after ten largely injury-marred seasons.

     Jordan, on the other hand, would display almost Lou Gehrig-like endurance and gain a reputation for coming through big-time in the NBA postseason. Just as baseball great Reggie Jackson’s admirers had once dubbed him “Mr. October” for his ability to deliver critical runs for the Yankees during the ALCS and the World Series, Jordan would start being tagged with the moniker “Mr. June” for his habit of coming up with rebounds and baskets in the Western Conference playoffs at exactly the moment when the Oilers needed them most.

      The 1989 NBA Finals marked Jordan’s official arrival as a bona fide superstar in the pros; as great as that moment was for him and his fans, though, still greater moments lay ahead...




     Many Houston sports fans consider the 1989-90 NBA season the greatest in Oilers history. The Oilers broke their franchise season attendance record, tied their franchise wins record, and averaged close to 102 points per game. But what truly made the year stand out was that it saw the Oilers finally accomplish the three-decades-plus-old dream of back-to-back NBA league titles after years of “one and done” seasons where Houston won the NBA championship one year only to be dethroned the next.

      Michael Jordan was a veritable one-man wrecking crew for Houston during the ’89-’90 season, racking up an average 47.8 points and 33.2 rebounds per game; on at least three separate occasions during the first half of the year he made heads-up plays on defense that enabled the Oilers to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in overtime against Western Conference rivals. When the Oilers faced the Miami Marlins in a matinee at American Airlines Arena just before New Year’s Day, Jordan contributed 51 points to a 127-110 Houston win, prompting one Miami Herald NBA columnist to quip to a colleague: “That’s not a point guard on the floor, that’s the Terminator.”

    If anyone still needed proof that Jordan belonged in the same class of all-time greats as past NBA legends like Bob Cousy and Wilt Chamberlain, they got it when he was unanimously voted 1990 All-Star Game MVP. The UNC alumnus carried the Western Conference All-Stars through much of the first half and all of the second half of a blowout victory over the Eastern Conference All-Stars; the photo of Jordan leaping above the head of Atlanta Knights forward Dominique Wilkins to execute a gravity-defying reverse 360 lay-up made the front cover of Sports Illustrated the week after the NBA All-Star Game.

     The Oilers essentially cruised to the NBA Midwest Division title and officially clinched the #1 overall seed in the 1990 NBA Western Conference playoffs with a comeback win against the New Orleans Bobcats at the Louisiana Superdome in early April; their primary focus now was on fulfilling Bill Fitch’s preseason pledge of back-to-back NBA league championships.



    Their first step on the road back to the NBA Finals was a sweep of the Denver Rockies in the opening round. From there, the Oilers made short work of the Phoenix Suns in the second round, dispatching them in five games. But it would be in the 1990 NBA Western Conference finals that Houston would face, and conquer, their toughest obstacle to repeating as NBA league champions: the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers had surprised a lot of people, themselves included, by beating the Lakers three games to one in the first round and winning four games to two over the Mariners in the second round; now Blazers coach Rick Adelman and his team wanted to make lightning strike a third time and send the Oilers home for the summer.

    But the Oilers would have none of it. Michael Jordan was the (no pun intended)point man for Houston’s quest to reach the 1990 NBA Finals; he had been one of the key ingredients in Houston’s sweep of the Rockies and scored the winning basket in the sixth and deciding game of the Oilers’ series with the Lakers, and now he would be a major agent of the Blazers’ playoff demise. After a disappointing 117-95 loss to Portland in Game 1, Houston rode Air Jordan’s rim-shaking slam dunk and rapid-fire defensive moves to a 124-118 win over the Blazers in Game 2.

    When the series shifted to Portland Memorial Coliseum for Game 3, the Blazers hoped that home court advantage might help them to turn the momentum of the series around. For a short time that optimism seemed justified as the Trailblazers drubbed the Oilers 132-108 in a game which saw Jordan confined to the bench for much of the first half due to mild flu symptoms. But Portland was brought back to earth with a thud in Game 4; in that matchup Jordan, back at full strength and chasing rebounds like the fate of the universe depended on it, torched the Blazers for 58 points in a 146-123 Houston victory.

     Game 5 was make-or-break time for both Houston and Portland. The Blazers dominated the entire first quarter and most of the second quarter; it seemed to the more optimistic Portland fans in the crowd that if they could just keep up the momentum the rest  of the way the Blazers would be in position to clinch the Western Conference title with a win at Harris County Fieldhouse in Game 6. But with just 3:30 left before halftime, Houston reasserted itself and clawed its way back into a tie with Portland and then took a slim lead on a Hakeem Olajuwon three-pointer just before the buzzer.

     In the third quarter the Oilers began to pull away from the Blazers for keeps. Rookie Houston guard Vernon Maxwell was fouled while going for a layup and hit both of his free throws; on the Blazers’ next possession Houston center Chuck Nevitt capitalized on a Portland turnover to steal the ball and lob it to forward Anthony Bowie, who sank what would turn out to be a backbreaking three-point shot. Michael Jordan blocked seven Portland shots in a row, exhilarating Houston fans and giving Rick Adelman Excedrin headaches number 1 through 725. The fourth quarter would be all Oilers, with Portland’s defense coming unglued and the offense barely able to even reach the basket-- much less get the ball in it. When the final buzzer sounded, the Blazers found themselves on the wrong end of a 143-112 Houston victory. It was with great foreboding that Adelman and his players returned to Harris County Fieldhouse for Game 6...




     ....and that foreboding would prove highly justified. The Oilers shredded Portland like an Enron internal memo in Game 6, jumping out to a 20-point lead early in the first half and never looking back. In the second quarter what may have been Portland’s last chance to keep the series alive vanished when Blazers point guard Drazen Petrovic was hit with a technical foul and ejected after arguing a traveling call with one of the referees. After that, there was nothing left for the Oilers to do but hold off Portland’s sputtering front court and sink basket after basket until the clock ran out to officially wrap up Houston’s 137-109 series clinching victory.

     Only one more hill remained to be climbed on the way to fulfilling Bill Fitch’s promise of a second straight NBA league championship-- the Detroit Pistons, the Oilers’ adversaries in the NBA Finals the previous year. One Detroit player especially eager to rain on Houston’s parade was point guard and former Dallas Maverick Mark Aguirre, who’d come to the Pistons in a trade late in the ’88-’89 season which Chuck Daly had hoped would help his team attain the NBA league title; however, in the ’89 NBA Finals Houston’s defense practically made Aguirre invisible-- he barely managed 35 points the entire series, while some Houston players managed to rack up that many in a single quarter.

      Bill Laimbeer also had a few scores to settle with the Oilers; though his NBA archnemesis Ralph Sampson had left Houston long before the Oilers and the Pistons advanced to the 1990 NBA Finals, Laimbeer’s hate for the defending league champions hadn’t diminished one iota. If anything, it had mushroomed to almost Gibraltar-sized proportions in the months since Detroit lost the 1989 Finals. And if he despised the Houston players that much, he hated the fans at Harris County Fieldhouse even more for the way they had constantly and mercilessly razzed him during the first two games of the ’89 Finals. He wanted in the worst way to shut up the Houston crowd.

     After a frustrating 96-93 loss against the Oilers at the Palace in Auburn Hills in Game 1 of the ’90 NBA Finals, Detroit evened up the series with a 110-109 overtime victory in Game 2. Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson sealed the win by nailing a three- pointer with just two seconds left in the OT period. As the NBA Finals shifted to Houston for the next three games of the series, hopes ran high in the Detroit locker room that the Pistons could avenge their ’89 Finals defeat. Conventional wisdom in the Motor City’s sports media said that at worst Chuck Daly’s team could put itself  in position to return to the Palace with a 3-games-to-2 series lead, and at best it could take all three of its games on the road to clinch the Larry O’Brien Trophy in Houston.

     But more than once conventional wisdom had been wrong in the past when it came to the Oilers in the NBA playoffs, and it would be stood on its head again in Game 3 of the ’90 NBA Finals. In a turn of events even Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted, forward Dennis Rodman was forced to sit out Game 3 due to a serious case of intestinal flu; in one stroke the Pistons offense lost almost half of its scoring punch. Rodman’s teammates did everything they could to make up the difference, but it was to little avail-- the Oilers finished the evening with a convincing 122-104 victory and took a 2 games-to-1 advantage in the Finals. Reserve forward(and amateur musician) Wayman Tisdale won the day for Houston with a 17-point fourth quarter scoring surge that would be remembered in the annals of Energy City sports history long after many of the other details of the series had been forgotten.

     Game 4 marked the beginning of the end for the Piston’s hopes of dethroning the Oilers. Michael Jordan, Wayman Tisdale, and Hakeem Olajuwon all recorded triple doubles against Detroit in that game; late in the second half Chuck Nevitt sank a free throw which effectively squelched a fourth quarter rally that might well have turned the game(if not the series) around for Detroit. The icing on the cake came when Nevitt stole a Vinnie Johnson inbounds pass with barely thirty seconds remaining in the game and hit a jump shot to put Houston ahead by at least 31 points. The final score: Oilers 136, Pistons 102. After 33 years, 4 months, and an indeterminate number of days Houston was on the brink of finally achieving the goal of back-to-back NBA league championships.

    All that remained was to take Game 5...




    June 14th has traditionally been designated as Flag Day in the U.S., so it was eminently appropriate that it would also be the same day the Oilers concluded their NBA Finals rematch with the Pistons-- because many Detroit fans had already started to wave the white flag as far as this series was concerned. Whatever flicker of optimism might have survived Games 3 and 4 was, if not gone altogether, certainly well on its way out. Houston had just been too dominant, and the odds against Detroit making a comeback at this point were longer than a cattle drive to Oklahoma.

     Trying to find a seat for the climax of the 1990 NBA Finals was a task only slightly less frustrating than Diogenes’ search for the proverbial honest man. In fact, most of the tickets for Game 5 had been sold out since the opening tipoff of Game 4; even VIPs who could normally get anything they wanted just by picking up the phone were finding it next to impossible to get a seat for what promised to be one of the biggest sports nights Houston had seen in years.

      Game 5 of the ’90 NBA Finals served as an unofficial class reunion for the Oilers alumni of the Wanzer-Marshall era. former Oilers GM Les Harrison, who six months earlier had been elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, joined Wanzer in one of the VIP luxury boxes at Harris County Fieldhouse to watch Houston and Detroit duke it out one more time; Wes Unseld, Jerry  Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman could all be seen mingling with the fans while Clyde Lovellette did color commentary down at courtside for ESPN.

     The Oilers wasted little time establishing dominance over the Pistons, who had regained the services of Dennis Rodman just in time to see the Houston front court run circles around him in the first half. As if that wasn’t enough of an ego-bruiser for Rodman to endure, he had also had to bear the indignity of having a seemingly guaranteed three-pointer clatter off the rim of the basket and bounce into the hands of Michael Jordan, who in his typical fashion took off down the court like a runaway locomotive and buried it with a dunk that nearly broke the backboard glass. By halftime Detroit was already trailing by 35 points and Pistons fans were bracing themselves for the worst.

     They got it and then some. John Salley and Bill Laimbeer both fouled out midway through the third quarter; Vinnie Johnson missed 10 of 13 free throw attempts in the second half; Rodman got ejected after making an obscene gesture to the senior referee early in the fourth quarter; and Joe Dumars had an inbounds pass stolen by Chuck Nevitt and shoveled up the court to a ready and waiting Hakeem Olajuwon for a spectacular layup. The Oilers were playing iceberg to the Pistons’ Titanic, and Chuck Daly had all he could do to get the lifeboats into the water before his ship sank.  

     Back in the Motor City fans watching the game on their TVs were feeling just like their town’s auto industry: depressed. For the second straight year the Pistons had tried to grab the brass ring only to have the Oilers yank it out of their hands at the last minute. With the Tigers six years removed from their last World Series championship, the Red Wings enduring an NHL playoff dry spell that would last until the mid-‘90s, and the Lions being their usual inept selves, some Detroit sports aficionados started to wonder if their city would ever again experience the thrill of winning a title.




    The noise level inside Harris County Fieldhouse, already ear-splitting to begin with, grew to insane proportions as the final seconds of the fourth quarter ticked off the clock. The Oilers had their second consecutive NBA championship(fifth overall) as good as won; all that remained was to listen for the sound of the final buzzer and to pick the Finals MVP. When the buzzer sounded, a human tsunami of Oilers players, coaches, execs, and fans began flooding midcourt. Bill Fitch had made good on his pledge to have the Oilers repeat as NBA league champs, and in so doing staked a claim for himself as maybe the greatest coach in the franchise’s history. During the off-season, basketball buffs in general and Houston fans in particular would begin debating over who was the better all-time Oilers head coach, Fitch(owner of two straight NBA league titles) or Wanzer(who coached Houston’s first-ever NBA championship team)? It was an argument that would continue long after Daly and Fitch had both retired from coaching and most of the players who participated in the ’90 NBA Finals had moved on to other things.

     Michael Jordan got the Finals MVP nod by a fairly comfortable margin, and when he rejoined his teammates for the Oilers’ first pre-season workout of the 1990-91 NBA campaign he did so with the entire basketball world pondering this question: having finally won back-to-back NBA league championships, could Houston make it three in a row in ’91? Only time would tell for sure, but finding  out the answer would make for a very interesting NBA season-- and not just for the Oilers....


To Be Continued


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