The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous fifteen 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; their return to the top of the mountain with their 1993 NBA Finals victory over the Chicago Bulls; and their triumphant rematch against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Finals. In this installment, we’ll see how Michael Jordan’s departure to Chicago altered the balance of power in the NBA.
With the Oilers having posted back-to-back NBA Finals wins in ’93 and ’94, the word "three-peat", which hadn’t been heard in Houston since the ’91 Finals loss against the Knicks, started to be heard once again in conversations among Oiler fans. Michael Jordan’s exit to the Windy City notwithstanding, Houston hoops buffs liked their team’s chances for taking home a third straight O’Brien Trophy. And there were plenty of writers and commentators in the national sports media who seconded that assessment. In its annual NBA preview prior to the start of the ’94-’95 season, no less a publication than Sports Illustrated touted the Oilers as a preseason favorite to win the league championship.
One man who strongly disputed that conclusion was the head coach of Jordan’s new team: Phil Jackson, Chicago Bulls skipper at the time Jordan came over from Houston, thought his team could throw a monkey wrench into the Oilers’ three-peat plans. And he couldn’t help finding a certain ironic pleasure in the knowledge that the point man(no pun intended) for his strategy to dethrone Houston as NBA league champions was the same player who just a few years earlier had been a critical ingredient in enabling them to secure their championships in the first place.
As it turned out, Jackson would have to wait an extra year to bring the O’Brien Trophy to Chicago. In the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference playoffs the Bulls got knocked out in the second round by the Orlando Magic, a normally underachieving team who had only joined the NBA six years earlier, in one of the greatest upsets in U.S. sports history. As for the Oilers....
The 1995 NBA Western Conference playoffs were easily one of the strangest postseason runs the Oilers had ever experienced. In the first round they needed to go the distance in a best-three- out of five series to eliminate the normally hapless Clippers; by contrast, they breezed through the second round with a sweep of their longtime conference arch-rivals the Lakers1; in the Western Conference finals it only took them five games to get rid of the Denver Rockies; and they won the first three games of the ’95 NBA Finals against Eastern Conference champions Indiana only to have the Pacers come back and win the next two games and force a Game 6 back in Houston. If Indiana beat Houston in that contest, Rick Pitino’s squad would have to schlep back to Indianapolis for Game 7 and face the hideous possibility of becoming the first team in NBA history to lose a seven-game Finals series after winning the first three games.
That wasn’t how Pitino wanted his coaching tenure with the Oilers to go down in basketball history. He wanted to be known as the man who’d finally brought Houston fans their long-dreamed of "three-peat". So on the eve of Game 6, he had his players gather in the Houston locker and watch tapes of some of the Oilers’ past postseason glories as a means of providing extra motivation for them to go out on the court and vanquish Indiana.
The video tactic worked magnificently. Their already sky-high intensity level kicked up still further, the Oilers gave the Pacers one of the fiercest drubbings Houston had ever inflicted on an NBA Finals opponent, crushing Indiana 132-93 in Game 6 to win the ’95 Finals and claim their third straight O’Brien Trophy. Houston fans’ long-cherished hope of a "three-peat" had finally been realized, and as the Oilers players and coaching staff were swarming together at midcourt to celebrate their sports history-making accomplishment, fans thronged the streets of the Energy City in what amounted to a second Mardi Gras.
Back in Chicago, Phil Jackson had kept a close eye on the Oilers’ performance against Indiana and made notes about possible weaknesses he thought Chicago might be able to exploit the next time the Bulls faced Houston in the NBA playoffs. One of the most serious of those weaknesses was a noticeable decline in Houston’s postseason three-point shooting percentage; whereas at the height of Air Jordan’s glory days with the Oilers the team had averaged a 64.2 percent success rate in its three-pointer attempts during the NBA playoffs, in its first postseason run since Jordan was signed by the Bulls Houston was only managing to sink just under 57.5 of its three-point shots. It occurred to Jackson that with some minor tweaking of Chicago’s defensive screens it might be possible to neutralize Houston’s three-point shot.
Jackson got an early opportunity to put his theory to the test when the Oilers came to Chicago’s United Center for their first road game of the ’95-’96 NBA regular season. Early in the second quarter of the game he implemented his new strategy for the first time, and it worked to near-perfection: Houston could only make 29.3 percent of its three-point attempts that night, giving Chicago a 119-89 win and Oiler fans a dose of humble pie. 57 of Chicago’s 119 points that night came courtesy of Michael Jordan, who seemed to be fitting in very well in his new home in the Windy City.
There was little time for the Oilers to dwell on their humiliation at the Bulls’ hands; they had a game against the Indiana Pacers two nights later. That game would see Market Square Arena turned from a basketball venue to a fight club as the actions of a disgruntled Pacers fan touched off one of the worst brawls ever seen at an American professional sports arena. Late in the third quarter polarizing Indiana forward Reggie Miller was called for an offensive foul; as one might expect, Pacers fans took exception to this, and one particularly irate spectator vented his displeasure by tossing a half-full cup of beer in the direction of the referee who called the foul. The cup missed its intended target and landed squarely on the face of an Oilers fan who’d flown up from Amarillo for the game-- and quicker than you can say "technical foul" all hell was breaking loose. Dripping suds and outrage, the Amarillo fan charged up the stands to confront his assailant, who gave him a sock in the jaw for his troubles; a posse of other Houston fans quickly rushed to the Amarillo man’s defense, and before anyone knew what was going on a near-riot had erupted in the stands.
In the forty-one minutes it took for Market Square Arena security and Indianapolis police to restore order, six people were hospitalized and twenty-four others arrested. Among those hauled off by the cops was the beer cup thrower, who paid for his momentary show of pique with a 60-day jail sentence and a fine of $25,000...not to mention a lifetime ban from all future Market Square Arena events. Shaken by what had just happened, the Pacers never got their groove back and ended up losing the game 127-106. The Oilers, meanwhile, went on to win seven of their next nine games and within three weeks enjoyed a ten-game lead over Dallas in the NBA Midwest Division standings.
The Pacers were still trying to recover from the Market Square Arena incident when they came to Harris County Fieldhouse in early December for a rematch of that fateful game. Reggie Miller in particular was walking on eggshells as he walked out onto the court for the player introductions-- and the torrent of boos Houston fans showered on him from the stands didn’t help him any on that score. Under the circumstances, the casual observer might have thought Indiana would be easy pickings for the Oilers.
And that observer would have been right. Houston ran over Indiana like a tank over a dandelion, thrashing the woebegone Pacers 132-100; Miller, turning in one of the worst single game performances of his career, could only manage to shoot 24 percent from the floor and 12 percent from the free throw line during the second half. Things got so out of whack for Miller he was pulled from the game with nine and a half minutes still remaining in the fourth quarter. After this massive beatdown of a potential NBA Finals adversary, it seemed as if there was little for Houston to worry about except being sure they had adequate supplies of Dom Perignon on hand for the post-Finals victory party.
But the Oilers would get a sobering reality check a month later when they hosted the New York Knicks in a post-New Year’s Day matinee contest. Houston spotted the Knicks a nineteen-point first quarter lead and then spent the rest of the game trying to catch up with New York; the closest they would get was late in the third quarter, when they managed to cut the Knicks’ lead to six points. They ended up losing 113-104 and skidded into a ten-game losing streak that left many players wrestling with a host of nagging doubts about their team’s true caliber as the Oilers headed into the All-Star break.
The doubts only grew after Houston dropped four of its first six games in the second half of the 1995-1996 NBA regular season. There were rumors of an impending major shakeup among the Oilers assistant coaching staff, and two assistant coaches actually did resign under pressure from the team ownership. Something big was needed to put Houston back on the winning track....
....and that something came in the form of a seven-game win streak which included an overtime victory against a better-than-usual Atlanta Knights team and a twenty-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics, who were then on the decline and in the midst of a dry spell of losing records that would last until the 2001-02 NBA season. Hopes of a fourth straight NBA league championship were rekindled and Houston reasserted its customary identity as one of the Western Conference’s top dogs. By March 1st the Oilers were eighteen points ahead of second-place Dallas in the Midwest Division standings; they officially clinched home field advantage for the ’96 Western Conference playoffs with a 115-98 win against the New Orleans Bobcats just after Easter.
Houston’s march to the ’96 NBA Finals began with a first-round sweep of the Minnesota Cyclones. In the second route, the Oilers needed just five games to dispose of the Sacramento Kings. But Houston’s 1996 Western Conference finals opponents, the Utah Saints, would prove a considerably tougher nut to crack; in fact, Saints forward Karl Malone, a constant thorn in the Oilers’ side since being draft out of Louisiana Tech in 1985, nearly derailed Houston’s quest to reach the ’96 NBA Finals with a blistering 53-point scoring performance in Game 5 which gave Utah a 141-128 win and gave the Saints a 3 games-to-2 series lead on the Oilers.
The Game 5 loss against Utah shook Houston out of the fog of complacency they’d been lost in after breezing through the first two rounds of the ’96 NBA playoffs; Pitino’s squad came out with guns a-blazing in Game 6, demolishing Utah 137-103 and extending the ’96 Western Conference finals to a seventh game. And in that seventh game, not even Karl Malone’s adroit scoring touch could keep the Saints from being bounced out of the playoffs as Houston rolled to a series clinching 141-115 victory.
With their ticket to the ’96 NBA Finals punched, the Oilers traveled to Chicago for what was expected by sportswriters to be an intense Game 1 showdown with the Eastern Conference champion Bulls at the United Center. Chicago, having made NBA history by winning a record 72 games in the regular season that year, hoped to derail the Oilers’ bid for a fourth straight NBA league title; their success or failure in ending Houston’s championship reign hinged on how well Michael Jordan could do on offense against his former teammates....
The first game of the 1996 NBA Finals held ominous early signs for Oiler fans that their dreams of a fourth consecutive O’Brien Trophy might not come true. The Bulls led for most of the opening quarter that night, kept the game locked in a tie during the early minutes of second quarter, and at halftime trailed the Oilers by just four points. While Jordan couldn’t single-handedly win the game for Chicago, he certainly did manage to keep them in it. Houston barely managed to eke out a 102-98 victory, and they had to hit back-to-back three-pointers in the closing seconds of regulation to do it.
In Game 2, it looked for most of the first half to be more of the same. However, in the second quarter of that contest the Bulls opened up a ten-point lead on Houston and at one time were ahead by as many as fifteen; Chicago went to the locker room at halftime with a nine-point edge on the Oilers and a feeling that they could take the three-time defending NBA league champions. At the start of the third quarter, the Bulls went on a 21-6 tear to stretch their lead to twenty points; beside the Houston bench, a visibly nervous Rick Pitino paced like a caged lion wondering if this was the beginning of the end for Houston’s reign as the top dog in the NBA.
While the end hadn’t yet arrived, it was certainly within sight-- Chicago won Game 2 133-119 to force a 1-all tie in the Finals and give themselves a major dose of confidence going into Game 3 at Harris County Fieldhouse. The same Houston sports media that just a few months earlier had been touting Rick Pitino as a latter-day James Naismith were now starting to rake him over the coals for mistakes both real and imagined in the first two games against the Bulls. On radio, sports talk phone lines were jammed with callers griping that Pitino was "throwing away" the series; sports anchors on the Energy City’s TV stations were criticizing some of his strategic moves like Siskel & Ebert giving "thumbs down" to a particularly bad movie; newspaper columnists expended oceans of ink saying "I told you so" in lambasting some of his more questionable moves on the court.
But if he thought the criticisms leveled at him before Game 2 were bad, they were love notes compared to what was being said about him after Game 3. In what might well have been the Oilers’ worst single-game postseason outing of the ‘90s-- and was beyond a doubt the worst such home performance of their four NBA Finals appearances in the Pitino era --Houston lost Game 3 of the ‘96 Finals by 39 points. Chicago’s front three basically ran rings around the Houston defense, and Jordan was, well, Jordan, single- handedly accounting for 58 of the Bulls’ 141 overall points in 141-102 evisceration of the Oilers at Harris County Fieldhouse. By the time the end-of-game buzzer sounded and Chicago officially took a 2 games-to-1 lead in the series, the local and national sports media were subjecting the Oiler players and coaching staff to a siege the likes of which Texas hadn’t seen since Santa Anna decided to throw down with Jim Bowie and company at the Alamo.
Embarrassed by their dismal showing in Game 3, the Oilers came out stinging like angry hornets in Game 4. This time, it was the Bulls who got hammered, falling to Houston 127-98; Hakeem Olajuwon led all scorers in that contest with 38 points and sank two critical free throws late in the third quarter to squelch a Bulls second half comeback bid. Backup guard Jaren Jansen put the final touches on Houston’s victory by stealing a Scottie Pippen inbounds pass with less than twenty seconds to play in the game.
With the ’96 Finals now tied at two games apiece, the Bulls and the Oilers headed back to the United Center for Game 5. Houston fans hoped a Game 5 win might give the Oilers the upper hand in the series....
...but instead it turned out to be the moment when the lights went out on the Oilers for good. After blowing a 19-point second quarter lead, Houston fell into a king-sized hole and was unable to climb out of it; every time it looked like the Oilers might be about to close the gap, the Bulls would step on the gas pedal and pull away from them again. A late rally that could have tied the game with just 47 seconds left in regulation fell heartbreakingly short when Hakeem Olajuwon missed back-to-back free throws. Bulls forward and ex-Piston John Salley then yanked the rebound out of Olajuwon’s reach, and after that it was just a matter of running out the clock for Chicago. Final score: Bulls 145, Oilers 137. A palpable sense of impending disaster settled over Houston fans as the series returned to Harris County Fieldhouse for Game 6.
That sinking feeling was justified, as it turned out: in Game 6 the Bulls drove the final nail in the Oilers’ casket, galloping out to a twenty-point late in the first quarter and never looking back. They won 146-110 to clinch the series and their first-ever NBA league championship. As Jordan, Pippen, Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, and the rest of the Chicago roster flocked to mid-court to rejoice in the spectacular conclusion to their historic 72-win season, a disappointed Houston team watched dejectedly from the bench and wondered what they could do to get back on top the next year.
Two months after the Bulls won the ’96 NBA Finals, ground was broken on the construction of the Oilers’ future home arena. This being the decade when the high tech boom was reaching its peak, the new stadium was originally intended to be called the Digital Center after the New England-based Digital Equipment Corporation, which had bought the naming rights to the arena back in 1994. But after Digital was sold to Compaq in 1998, the glitzy new stadium would be renamed in honor of what was then one of Houston’s most successful corporations-- an energy mega-firm known as Enron...
To Be Continued
 If you need further proof what a wacky postseason it was for Houston, the start of Game 3 of the ’95 Oilers-Lakers series was delayed by-- of all things --a wayward pigeon that had somehow gotten into Harris County Fieldhouse through the arena’s ventilation systems.