The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous twelve 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; the short but fascinating lives of the IBL and the ABA as they tried to supplant the NBA as the dominant force in pro basketball; and the Oilers’ back-to-back 1989 and 1990 NBA league championships. In this segment, we’ll look back on Bill Fitch’s quest for a third consecutive league title.
The most popular word among Houston sports fans in the summer and autumn of 1990 was "three-peat". With back-to-back NBA league championships firmly in hand, the Oilers were now setting their sights on a third straight NBA league championship in 1991-- and few people doubted that Bill Fitch and his players could make it happen. Indeed, one Houston Post NBA beat writer waggishly suggested in a column written just before the start of training camp that the league should cancel the entire 1990-91 regular season and simply hand the trophy to the Oilers outright.
However, that wouldn’t have suited Michael Jordan, one of the most competitive men in the NBA; for him, to use a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play was the thing, and he was itching to get back out on the court the first chance he got. So were his teammates, for that matter...
....and Oiler fans were lined up for blocks outside Harris County Fieldhouse to get their hands on tickets for the ’90-‘91 season opener. Not that there were many to get; most of Houston’s home games for that season had been sold out for months, and the few tickets that were left were selling out fast. Even preseason exhibition games were proving hard to get into; the Houston front office reluctantly turned down something close to 40,000 requests for tickets to a special matinee game between the Oilers and the Lithuanian national men’s basketball team, which was then in the midst of a determined bid to qualify for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
The game with Team Lithuania was a sign of how the NBA had expanded its international profile in the decade since Bill Fitch became Oilers head coach. Once it had been considered a big deal that Montreal and Toronto were in contention to receive their own professional basketball franchises; now NBA teams were regularly making visits to France, Great Britain, Spain, Mexico, Japan, and China and there was even talk of the league sponsoring basketball clinics in Israel. In one of the first major athletic events held in Berlin following Germany’s reunification, a team of NBA all- stars battled a squad of the top German professional players and won(albeit by a somewhat narrower margin than the NBA players had hoped for).
Back in the States, the Oilers would kick off their 1990-91 NBA season with a home-and-home series against one of their old Western Conference foes, the Minnesota Cyclones. The Cyclones had been steadily improving throughout the late ‘80s, and now the onetime conference doormats were considered a possible dark horse contender for the Midwest Division championship. Bill Fitch was determined not to let these Twin Cities upstarts prematurely end Houston’s reign as NBA league champions, so the ’90-’91 season opener would serve as a preview of the months-long battle between the two clubs for divisional supremacy.
And "battle" was exactly the right word for the Opening Night matchup between Houston and Minnesota. Late in the second quarter, Michael Jordan was nearly tossed from the game after he got into a shoving match with seven-foot rookie Cyclones center Felton Spencer; Bill Fitch did get tossed, having wound up on the wrong end of a technical foul during the third quarter. The game almost went into overtime before Chuck Nevitt hit a three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to give the Oilers a 123-120 win to start their 1990-91 season.
Three nights later the Oilers and Cyclones squared off again, this time at the Target Center in Minneapolis. While the players in the drama might have been the same, this time the end was vastly different; the Cyclones jumped out to a fifteen-point lead midway through the first quarter and manhandled the Oilers the rest of the way. The final score: Minnesota 137, Houston 113. Bill Fitch and his players had been served notice that winning a third consecutive NBA league championship would not be the piece of cake some sportswriters had suggested it would, and after that game the Oilers buckled down to get back on the winning track...
....which meant a world of trouble for the rest of the NBA. Houston went on a tear after the Target Center loss, racking up 9 wins in its next eleven games. Following that streak, the Oilers notched six straight home wins against Western Conference rivals; the highlight of the six-game surge was a 37-point blowout of the Kansas City-Omaha Monarchs, then struggling through one of their worst seasons in franchise history and mired in an argument with Kansas City officials over financing of a proposed new arena that would ultimately never be built.
By Christmas the Oilers were 22 games above .500 and it seemed as if the question was less whether they would be able to win a third straight NBA league championship than who they would defeat in the playoffs to claim such a distinction. When Houston notched an overtime victory over the New Orleans Bobcats just after New Year’s Day, the belief that a third consecutive NBA league title lay ahead was further reinforced....
....but this belief would be shaken two weeks later when the Oilers traveled to Boston Garden to take on the Celtics. It wasn’t exactly the kind of game that would remind people of the classic Boston-Houston showdowns of the past; in fact, one Boston sports media outlet would later rank the matchup as one of the 10 ugliest games in Celtics history. Nonetheless, it served to shake the Oilers’ collective morale as Boston came away with a 107-98 win; with the Celtics’ 80s-era "Big Three" frontcourt nearing the twilight of their respective NBA careers, Bill Fitch and company had expected to make short work of their archrivals. Instead, the Celts clung to the Oilers’ jerseys for most of the first half and established a modest lead early in the second half; Larry Bird, in one of the last great game performances of his NBA career, hit ten of eleven free throws in the final minutes to seal the Boston victory.
By early February the Minnesota Cyclones were just three points behind Houston in the race for the NBA Midwest Division crown. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle just after the Oilers lost a tough road game against the Utah Saints, Michael Jordan admitted that "things are starting to get kind of tense... we need to straighten up and fly right if we’re going to win the title again."1 But that would prove easier said than done as the team got caught in a five game slump that at one point briefly put them behind the Cyclones in the Midwest Division standings and threatened to cost them the top seed in the ’91 NBA Western Conference playoffs.
It would take something big to snap the Oilers out of their funk...
....and that something turned out to be a visit to Anaheim to face the Los Angeles(formerly San Diego) Clippers. Hoping that a change of scenery might help turn their fortunes around, the Clippers had left San Diego in the mid-‘80s and relocated to the Los Angeles area, but unfortunately for their fans the franchise irreverently dubbed "Coupon Clippers" by the national sports media because of their owner’s tightfisted budget policies had no better luck in their new digs than they’d experienced in their old ones. In fact, when they faced the Oilers it would seem as if their misfortunes had gotten ten times worse. Houston shredded the Clips like a buzzsaw splitting a log; in the first quarter, Michael Jordan had more points alone(44) than the entire Clippers roster could manage put together(29). The Oilers went on to win that game 136-107, and from there they reclaimed first place in the NBA Midwest with a surge of 10 wins in their next 12 games.
The Oilers officially clinched the division title with an overtime win against the New Jersey Nets in early March of 1991. With the top Western Conference playoff seed in hand, Houston could now focus directly on doing what needed to be done to get to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year. They compiled a 95.2 winning percentage in the final weeks of the ’90-’91 season, closing out the year with a 116-114 home victory over the Chicago Bulls in what some sportswriters felt might have been a preview of the 1991 NBA Finals.
Given how many no-holds-barred clashes there had been between Houston and Minnesota during the fight for the NBA Midwest crown in the regular season, it seems highly fitting that the Cyclones and the Oilers should wind up facing each other in the 1991 NBA Western Conference finals. And both clubs endured some ferocious battles along the way. Houston opened its 1991 playoff run with a first-round clash against a familiar foe, the Seattle Mariners. It was one of the most intense best-of-seven series the Oilers had ever played in, with the Mariners nearly pulling off an upset by winning three of the first four games in that series; it took a double overtime win in Game 5 to keep the Oilers’ postseason run from going up in smoke right out of the gate. And from there, they needed a nailbiter of a victory in Game 6 to advance to the second round.
Their second round series, pitting them against a Phoenix Suns team which was(to put it generous) not quite up to their caliber, was somewhat easier; it took them just five games to send Phoenix packing. But the Oilers-Suns matchup saw its share of physical battles too-- Suns guard Jeff Hornacek, fouled out of the second game with ten minutes still left in the third quarter, and after the fourth game Michael Jordan had to have three stitches in his lower lip after accidentally tripping over the scorer’s table in pursuit of a rebound.
The Cyclones, for their part, had their own rocky road to hoe on their way to the 1991 Western Conference finals. Minnesota’s first-round clash against the Dallas Mavericks went the distance, with the seventh and deciding game of the series nearly heading into overtime before Felton Spencer hit a three-pointer with only .5 seconds left in regulation to give the Cyclones a 117-114 win. Then there was the Cyclones’ second round battle with the Lakers, one of Los Angeles’ last great postseason runs during Pat Riley’s tenure as head coach. It took Minnesota six long, grueling games to dispatch the Lakers, and during the third quarter of Game 5 of that series the Cyclones lost a valuable weapon in their scoring arsenal when forward Sam Mitchell went down with a sprained right ankle while battling Los Angeles center Vlade Divac for a rebound at midcourt.
By the time the Cyclones arrived at Harris County Fieldhouse for the first game of their ’91 Western Conference finals battle with the Oilers, they were running on fumes; the Oilers, although a bit ragged themselves, were in somewhat better shape than their opponents...
....and they capitalized on that edge to the fullest. The Oilers swept the Cyclones in four straight, clinching the 1991 Western Conference championship with a 31-point drubbing of Minnesota at the Target Center in Game 4 in which Michael Jordan recorded 47 points, 26 rebounds, and 8 assists. Only one more obstacle stood between Houston and a third consecutive NBA league title: the Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks, who would be making their first NBA Finals appearance since 1973.
Most sportswriters around the country figured New York to be easy pickings for the Oilers, not only because Houston had won three of the four regular season meetings between the two teams but also because Knicks star Patrick Ewing, normally one of the NBA’s most effective scorers, could seldom if ever outdo Michael Jordan as the ace point guard frequently blocked his shots and had also developed a seemingly infallible knack for stripping the ball out of Ewing’s hands just when he thought it was safe. As if that weren’t enough to make Knicks fans nervous, there was also the fact that Ewing had been in a bit of an offensive slump since Game 5 of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. Who could doubt the Oilers would prevail under those circumstances?
Knicks head coach John MacLeod, for starters. In an ESPN interview on the eve of Game 1, he confidently predicted Ewing would break out of his scoring slump with a vengeance when the Finals got underway2; he was sure that the arduous pace of the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs had worn the Oilers down to the bone, and he also felt the extended down time in between the end of the Western Conference finals and the start of the NBA Finals would leave them somewhat rusty. Ergo, MacLeod thought, New York would seize the advantage early on and not let go until the league championship was in their grasp.
Naturally, Bill Fitch and his crew thought otherwise. From their perspective, history and momentum were on Houston’s side. As for Patrick Ewing, the Oilers’ defense in general and Michael Jordan in particular were deemed more than capable of containing him. It was a classic case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object...
....and the immovable object prevailed in Game 1 of the ‘91 NBA Finals. To the shock of Oilers fans, John MacLeod’s forecast about Ewing proved to be right on the money, as the Georgetown alumnus combined with guard Mark Jackson for 74 of New York’s 108 total points that evening as the Knicks coasted to a 108-99 win over Houston at Madison Square Garden. "KNICKED TO PIECES" gasped the headline in the Houston Chronicle the next morning. Few had expected the Knicks to win the Finals opener; none had thought it possible the Oilers might lose the series altogether. And yet for the first time since their 1983 title showdown with Philadelphia, Houston found themselves trailing the NBA Finals 1 game to 0.
The Knicks’ Game 1 victory had radically altered the equation of the 1991 Finals. Houston had gone into the Finals expecting to be able to split the first two games at Madison Square Garden and then head back to Harris County Fieldhouse to eliminate New York by winning Games 3, 4, and 5 in succession to clinch their third straight NBA world championship. Instead they found themselves behind the proverbial eight-ball, faced with the possibility that they might be the ones to lose the Finals in five games; some of the more pessimistic members of Oilers fandom even expressed fear their team might be headed for a repeat of the nightmare of 1963, when Houston was swept by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Game 2 did little to discourage such pessimism; the Oilers gave a solid accounting of themselves in the first half only to come apart at the seams in the second half, done in once again by the Ewing-Jackson combo(with a bit of help from Knicks center Jerrod Mustaf) as New York cruised to a 117-86 win and took a 2- games-to-0 edge with them when they traveled to Houston for Game 3.
Refusing to give up on their three-peat dream, the Oilers held a players-only team meeting in their locker room prior to Game 3 and resolved individually and collectively not to let themselves get embarrassed again. Whatever was said during the meeting, it seems to have done the trick: Michael Jordan, his backcourt partner Otis Thorpe, and Wayman Tisdale all scored in double figures on the way to a 132-125 overtime victory; two nights later, Houston evened the series at two games each with a 142-97 blowout of the Knicks in Game 4. The dream of a third consecutive NBA league championship was still very much alive in the Energy City...
....until Michael Jordan went down with a sprained knee with 4:57 left to play in the third quarter of Game 5. Jordan’s value to the Oilers as a player and team leader can’t be overestimated; he’d been one of the linchpins in Houston’s 1989 and 1990 title runs, and with him sidelined their 1991 NBA Finals campaign began to fall apart. Just after Jordan was helped off the court, Knicks guard John Starks drilled a three-pointer that acted as the main catalyst for a 21-5 New York scoring surge. By the start of the fourth quarter, the Knicks had pushed their way to a four-point lead, and from there they opened up their afterburners and never looked back. John MacLeod’s crew finished the night with a 137- 124 victory and took a 3 games-to-2 series lead with them back to Madison Square Garden for Game 6.
As if Oilers fans weren’t anxious enough already with Jordan on the disabled list, they had to swallow the additional bitter pill of veteran Hakeem Olajuwon being suspended for Game 6 due to a shoving match between Olajuwon and Mark Jackson. With him on the sidelines the Oilers’ NBA championship hopes, which had taken a major hit in the first place when Jordan was injured, were even further diminished. Olajuwon, like Jordan, had been a major part of Houston’s playoff successes during Bill Fitch’s tenure as head coach-- with him benched, the advantage in the ‘91 NBA Finals had swung dramatically and irrevocably in favor of the Knicks.
New York sensed this and became even more aggressive on offense in Game 6 than it had been in the previous five games-- and in those five games it had been very aggressive indeed. The decibel level inside Madison Square Garden hit earth-shattering heights even before the Game 6 opening tipoff; for New York City’s hoops fans, who hadn’t seen their team take home an NBA league title in eighteen years, the prospect of their Knickerbockers dethroning the 800-pound gorilla that was Bill Fitch’s Oilers was absolutely exhilarating.
By the eight-minute mark of the first quarter of Game 6, the Knicks were already twenty-one points ahead of Houston and New York’s defense was smothering Houston’s frontcourt like a blanket putting out a fire. At halftime New York held a thirty-point edge on the Oilers, and in the third quarter they were still holding a twenty-seven point advantage over Houston. A feeling of impending and inevitable disaster sank in among Oilers fans back in Texas; the hopes of a third straight NBA world championship they’d been cherishing since training camp were about to go down in flames. When Otis Thorpe had a shot blocked by New York forward and ex- Trailblazer Kiki Vandeweghe 4:19 into the fourth quarter, it felt like the last bullet fired in a battle that was already long since lost. The few Houston fans who had been brave enough to venture into MSG for Game 6 started to rush for the exits as Knicks supporters began to celebrate the end of Houston’s bid for a three-peat.
When the final buzzer sounded and Mark Jackson rushed to embrace Patrick Ewing at midcourt, the atmosphere on the Oilers bench was as gloomy as a morgue. For the first time since 1988 Houston would be going into the offseason without an NBA league championship; the fairy tale ending they’d been hoping to write had instead turned out to be a story of disappointment and dashed hopes. Instead of the lavish celebrations the Energy City had planned to throw in tribute to the Oilers’ victory, there would be a summer of second-guessing and wistful reflections on what might have been.
There would also be weeks of post-op recuperation for Michael Jordan after he underwent surgery to mend his sprained knee-- not to mention questions about whether Houston could regroup from its Finals loss to the Knicks and reclaim the league championship...
To Be Continued
 “Jordan Worried About Oilers Morale After Salt Lake City Defeat”, Houston Chronicle, February 13th, 1991.
 “Knicks Head Coach MacLeod Not Intimidated By Oiler Mystique”, New York Daily News, June 1st, 1991.