The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous fourteen chapters of this series, we recalled the history of the Rochester Royals’ transformation into the Houston Oilers and the Oilers’ subsequent successes and failures in their new home; the short but eventful lives of the IBL and the ABA as they both attempted to supplant the NBA as the dominant force in pro basketball; Houston’s back-to-back 1989 and 1990 NBA league titles; their painful 1991 NBA Finals loss to the New York Knicks; their premature exit from the 1992 NBA postseason; and their return to the top of the mountain with their 1993 NBA Finals victory against the Chicago Bulls. In this installment we’ll look back at their 1994 NBA Finals rematch with the Knicks and the circumstances which led to Michael Jordan’s departure from Houston.
At the Oilers’ first workout session following their ‘93 NBA Finals win over the Bulls, Houston head coach Rick Pitino took a piece of chalk and wrote out on the nearest blackboard in capital letters his ultimate objective for the ’93-’94 NBA season: "WIN THE 1994 NBA FINALS." While that may have seemed redundant given that every NBA league champion’s goal heading into a new season is to repeat their title success from the previous one, it neatly summed up how much Pitino wanted to get the brass ring again. He had a chance to join Bill Fitch, Bobby Wanzer, and Tom Marshall in the ranks of all-time great Oilers coaches and he was eager to capitalize on it.
The Oilers front office was also rooting for him to take advantage of that opportunity. After three-plus decades as the team’s home arena, Harris County Fieldhouse was finally beginning to show its age and the team brass was lobbying for the Houston city government to assist them with financing either the building of a new home stadium or renovations to their existing arena. A successful NBA title run would go a long way toward improving the team’s negotiating position with City Hall.
As much as Pitino himself may have wanted another NBA title, Oilers fans wanted it even more. To them, the Oilers represented the best-- if not only --hope for bringing a league championship in one of the big four American sports in 1994. When Rick Pitino and his players convened their first ’93-’94 preseason training camp session the Astros were seeing their pennant hopes start to sputter out in a blaze of mediocrity; the Titans, after another heartbreaking early NFL playoff exit, were riddled with turmoil in all aspects of their operations and the subject of persistent rumors(which eventually turned out to be true) that they were about to relocate to Nashville, Tennessee; and the city’s brief flirtation with the NHL, the Spacemen, was a distant memory as that franchise had long since decamped to California to become the San Jose Breakers.
There was little doubt in the national sports media Pitino could accomplish his objective; Sports Illustrated in particular, in its ’93-’94 NBA season preview issue, had predicted that the 1994 NBA Finals would see the Oilers beat the New York Knicks in six games to avenge Houston’s defeat at the Knicks’ hands in the ’91 Finals. ESPN’s basketball experts also saw the Oilers winning in six games, although they felt it would be the Indiana Pacers whom Houston would vanquish to claim the O’Brien Trophy. At least one major Las Vegas oddsmaker had the Oilers as 7-2 favorites to win the 1994 NBA Finals.
The Oilers’ fast start to the ’93-’94 regular season did a good deal to encourage these perceptions. Houston won six of its first seven games and was already nine games over .500 before the season was two weeks old; a month into the ’93-’94 campaign, the Oilers led the NBA Midwest Division by eleven games. When Houston pulled off a breathtaking overtime victory over the New Orleans Bobcats at the Superdome six weeks into the season, the experts were convinced the question would be less if they won the Finals than how.
But to paraphrase William Shakespeare, the course of winning an NBA championship never does run smooth. A few days after their OT win at New Orleans, the Oilers had the misfortune to get blown out by the Charlotte Hornets in a nationally televised afternoon game; that defeat turned out to be the start of a ten-game slide which jeopardized Houston’s grip on first place in its division. It hardly helped team morale any when Rick Pitino was hit with a massive fine for making some harsh comments about NBA referees following a tough Houston loss against the Marlins in Miami four days after the Charlotte blowout.
By the time Pitino’s squad snapped its ten-game skid, their Midwest Division lead had shrunk to four games and there was some speculation that they might have to start the ’94 playoffs on the road. To their credit, though, Houston soon regained momentum: at the All-Star break, their division lead had grown back to a full ten games. After the break, it would expanded to twelve games and from there stretch to a jaw-dropping fifteen games as the season neared its end.
The Oilers officially clinched the Midwest Division title and the #2 overall seed in the 1994 Western Conference playoffs with a blowout win over the Utah Cyclones in Salt Lake City in early April. Those who had been brave enough or crazy enough to wager against Houston repeating as NBA league champions were soon going to discover that they’d made a sucker bet....
Houston opened their ’94 postseason run with a best-of-seven showdown against the Sacramento Kings. It was the first time the Oilers had taken on the team formerly known as the Monarchs since its relocation from the Kansas City-Omaha area to the West Coast, and fans and sportswriters alike were anxious to see if the Kings could defy conventional wisdom and advance past the defending NBA league champions to reach the second round.
The answer turned out be a resounding "no"; the Oilers swept the Kings to set up a second-round battle with Phoenix. The Suns proved to be considerably more of a challenge than the Kings-- in fact, the series opener nearly went into overtime before Houston went on a 12-3 run in the final minute of regulation to clinch a 103-101 victory. The second game saw the Oilers blow Phoenix off the court with a 127-95 conquest that found Suns guard and former Flyer Charles Barkley, then in the final days of his NBA career, getting ejected early in the third quarter after some off-color comments to a referee who’d called him for a technical foul. The Suns, convinced that the Oilers had intentionally goaded Barkley into committing the foul, used their outrage over the supposed provocation as a motivator to turn up the heat on offense in Game 3.
The result was a hard-fought 117-109 Phoenix victory in Game 3 that radically altered the tone of the ’94 NBA Western Conference semifinals and jolted Houston out of its complacency. The Oilers, realizing that if they suffered another loss the momentum of the series might shift for good in the Suns’ favor, approached Game 4 with renewed focus and determination and regained the upper hand with a 133-121 win which put them ahead in the series three games to one.
They ultimately finished the Suns off in six games to advance to the ‘94 NBA Western Conference finals-- and a rematch of their 1992 second-round battle with the Dallas Mavericks. When the Mavs showed up at Harris County Fieldhouse for the conference finals opener, it was readily apparent that neither team’s dislike for the other had diminished one iota; if anyone needed more evidence of that, they got it when Oilers center Eric Riley verbally laced into a Dallas fan early in the second quarter. There was also the third quarter technical foul called on Dallas reserve guard Tim Legler after Legler made an obscene gesture at the Houston bench.
Houston won the ’94 Western Conference finals opener 117-102, then followed up that triumph with a 99-94 victory in Game 2. As the series shifted to Reunion Arena in Dallas for Game 3, a sense of foreboding pervaded the Mavericks locker room although their players and coaches continued to project an outward attitude of confidence the tide would soon turn their way. History said that when the Oilers got a 2-0 series lead, they more often that not ended up winning the series. And once again, history was on the Oilers’ side; after dropping Games 3 and 4 in rather embarrassing (and somewhat controversial in the case of Game 41) fashion, they retook control of the series with a 101-97 win in Game 5 before advancing to the ’94 NBA Finals with a thirty-point thrashing of the Mavericks at Harris County Fieldhouse in Game 6.
The 1994 NBA Finals set the Oilers against their old foes from the ’91 Finals, the New York Knicks. This second NBA Finals clash between New York and Houston was shaping up to be even more intense than the first one had been-- and the first one had been all-out war. Indeed, a squad of deputies from the Harris County sheriff’s department had been detailed to provide added security for the Knicks’ team bus on its trip from Hobby Airport to their hotel.
Game 1 of the ’94 Finals wasn’t exactly what anybody would call an artistic masterpiece; Michael Jordan set a new personal playoff low by missing eight of his first ten free throws in the first half, and Knicks guard(and future Celtics head coach) Glenn "Doc" Rivers managed to turn the ball over not once, not twice, but seven times during the second half. As if that wasn’t enough to classify this game as "ugly", Patrick Ewing nearly got himself ejected after a third quarter argument with Eric Riley escalated into a shoving match. But for Houston fans at least, the ultimate result was a thing of beauty: the Oilers won 98-87 and staked an early lead in the series.
The Knicks tied the Finals at 1-all with a 130-119 victory in Game 2 and returned to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 radiating an air of enormous self-confidence. That self-confidence would be enhanced by a 126-120 Game 3 overtime victory; when New York held off an early Oilers surge to win Game 4 98-87, it looked like the Knicks might soon be cruising to their second NBA league title of the ‘90s.
But Houston quickly let the air out of that balloon. Led by a 59-point scoring performance from Michael Jordan, the Oilers took back control of the series with a 131-116 pounding of the Knicks in Game 5; from there, they won Game 6 107-99 to set up a do-or-die Game 7 in front of one of the most raucous crowds that Harris County Fieldhouse had seen in years. It was also, incidentally, one of the hottest-selling games in the franchise’s history since their arrival in the Energy City-- tickets to Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals sold out less than 25 minutes after the Oilers ticket office opened for business.
Those lucky enough to have seats for the deciding game of the series witnessed Houston finally make good on Rick Pitino’s pre- season ambition of repeating the team’s ‘93 Finals glory. Michael Jordan and company jumped out to a 17-point first quarter lead and never looked back, ultimately winning 126-100 over the Knicks to claim their seventh NBA league championship in team history. It was one of the greatest moments of Pitino’s NBA career....
...and unfortunately for Oilers fans, it was also the very last such moment he would share with Michael Jordan. By the time the team’s victory parade rolled through the streets of downtown Houston, Jordan was nearing the end of his existing contract with the Oilers and there was considerable speculation he might turn free agent if he couldn’t cut a new deal with Houston during the off-season. Jordan wanted a 25% salary increase and a four-year deal, but team management would only consent to an 18% raise and a three-year contract; the 1994-95 NBA season would mark Jordan’s eleventh in the pros, and some people in the Oilers front office felt the time might have come to start reducing Jordan’s role on offense and groom younger players to take up the slack.
In spite of weeks of determined effort to work out some kind of compromise, neither Jordan nor the Oilers front office could be budged very far from their respective bargaining positions; finally, in early August of 1994, frustrated by his inability to get the deal he wanted from Houston, Air Jordan accepted a four- year offer from the Chicago Bulls which came with a 22% raise-- a bit less than he’d been hoping for, but still more than he could obtain from the Oilers.
Oiler fans were heartbroken Jordan was leaving the Energy City-- and furious at the Oilers brass for letting it happen. A Houston Chronicle pool taken three days after the Jordan-Bulls deal was announced indicated that 77 percent of those surveyed felt the Oilers had made the wrong decision in letting Jordan go, compared to just 22 percent who felt it was the right decision. It would take two years to figure out which side in that debate was right....
To Be Continued
 In the closing seconds of Game 4 Eric Riley shot what appeared to be a game-tying three-pointer that would force overtime, only to have the referee rule that the shot didn’t count because it had gone in after the shot clock had expired. Houston head coach Bill Fitch vehemently disputed the decision(and in doing so came perilously close to drawing a technical foul), but the referee’s decision stood and Dallas escaped Game 4 with a two-point victory.