The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous sixteen 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; their triumphant rematch against the Knicks in the ’94 NBA Finals; the departure of Michael Jordan to Chicago as a free agent; the Oilers’ 1995 NBA Finals victory against the Indiana Pacers; and their defeat by the Bulls in the ’96 NBA Finals. In this episode we’ll look back at Houston’s stunning early exit from the ’97 NBA Western Conference playoffs and the opening of the Enron Center.
The Oilers’ defeat in the 1996 NBA Finals felt like a death in the family to many Houston sports fans. With hopes of a fourth consecutive NBA league championship crushed, basketball devotees in the Energy City felt like the world had ended; to get so close to such a momentous prize only to have it yanked from their grasp at the last minute left an empty feeling in their hearts that was almost beyond words.
Almost, but not quite. In the days immediately following the Bulls’ series-clinching victory, dejected Oilers fans took to the airwaves to vent their disappointment, shock, and outrage at the way the ’96 Finals had turned out, One particularly fed-up radio caller even demanded a criminal investigation into the NBA referees’ officiating during that series, implying the refs were somehow in the tank for Chicago. No evidence of such a conspiracy ever turned up, but it reflected the bitter feelings some Oilers fans were experiencing after Houston was dethroned as NBA league champions. It was also a measure of just how much Houston fans missed Michael Jordan, the onetime Oiler scoring machine-turned-’96 Finals MVP for the Bulls.
Indeed, the hardest task that lay ahead for the Oilers in the ’96-’97 season-- aside from regaining the league title, that is --was adjusting their offensive style to the realities of life without Air Jordan. Replacing a cherished star is never easy for any sports franchise; it certainly wasn’t a piece of cake for the Oilers, who stumbled to a .500 record in preseason play and lost three of their first six games in the ’96-’97 NBA regular season. Some Houston sportswriters wondered if Jordan’s departure hadn’t taken a permanent toll on morale among Rick Pitino’s players, and even Pitino himself confessed in a KHOU interview the week of the ’96-’97 home opener that the Oilers’ collective self-esteem would probably take a while to recover from the dual blows of Jordan’s exit and Houston’s defeat in the ’96 NBA Finals.
But recover it did, at least to the point where the Oilers were able to maintain a firm hold on second place for most of the ’96-’97 season. In late March they managed to pull into a tie for first place with the Dallas Mavericks after going on a five-game surge while Dallas was stuck in a seven-game slump. Houston would finish the regular season in third place and open the ’97 Western Conference playoffs at home against the Phoenix Suns, a team that had needed to run a gauntlet of tough games simply to qualify for the postseason; the prevailing sentiment in most quarters of the national sports media was the Oilers could probably take the Suns in five games-- six tops.
As one might expect, the Phoenix roster disagreed with that sentiment....
....and in the opening round of the Suns-Oilers series, they came out with guns blazing against the Houston juggernaut. Houston wasted no time firing back, and before the halfway mark of the second quarter four players had already gotten into foul trouble. By the start of the fourth quarter, Phoenix had carved a respectable if somewhat narrow lead and the Oilers, in addition to playing basketball, found themselves playing a desperate game of catch-up.
They never did get caught up, as it turned out. Despite a valiant comeback effort by Houston in the closing minutes of the game, the Suns finished the night with a 113-107 victory which put them in the driver’s seat going into Game 2. It wasn’t as if the Oilers had never lost a postseason series opener before, but this particular defeat had a distinct man-bites-dog quality about it. Phoenix had essentially employed a kind of basketball judo on Houston, turning the Oilers’ own defensive strengths against them to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat.
The Oilers performed a little hardwood judo of their own in Game 2 to even the series, beating the Suns 103-98 thanks in part to the utterly fearless play of Houston forward Charles Barkley, an NBA veteran who had spent most of his professional career with the Philadelphia Flyers and joined Houston as a free agent in the off-season. By himself, Barkley accounted for 48 points, a dozen rebounds, and nine assists; without his contributions, the Oilers might well have found themselves down two games to none when they headed out to America West Arena for Games 3 and 4.
As it was, Houston was able to take a 2 games-to-1 lead in the series with a Game 3 blowout of Phoenix; the Oilers took an eighteen-point lead midway through the first quarter of that game and left the Suns in the dust, finishing the night with a 127-108 victory. For that night at least, the Oilers magic seemed to have returned; some Houston fans were hopeful the Oilers might return to Harris County Fieldhouse with a 3 games-to-1 series lead over Phoenix. But things didn’t quite work out that way-- the Suns won Game 4 in overtime 138-131 to tie the series yet again and extend it to a sixth game. Now Game 5, which had been critical for both teams in the first place, started to take on a nearly apocalyptic undertone as far as some Houston fans were concerned.
And in fact Game 5 would see the bottom fall out from under Houston completely. Late in the first quarter Charles Barkley had to be taken out of the game with an ankle injury; as if Barkley’s forced departure had been some kind of prompt for the start of an overall team breakdown, Houston’s usually rapid-fire offense got slowed to a crawl and its defense was lit up like a Havana cigar as Phoenix went on a scoring tear in the early part of the second quarter. By halftime the Suns were ahead by twenty-five points-- and that lead would only swell during the third quarter. Phoenix ended up winning Game 5 136-99, giving Houston fans a foreboding sense their team was about to be bounced from the NBA playoffs in their earliest postseason exit since the mid-‘70s.
Those gloomy feelings would prove justified. In Game 6 the Oilers blew a twenty-point third quarter lead-- and with it their last chance to make it to the second round of the ’97 NBA Western Conference playoffs. The Suns rallied in the fourth quarter for a 128-121 series-clinching upset victory over Houston. The Oilers would be watching the rest of the playoffs from their living room hairs while the Suns advanced to the ’97 NBA Western Conference finals and came within two minutes of beating the Utah Saints for a spot in the 1997 NBA Finals.
Seeing Phoenix get swept by Utah in the 1997 NBA Western Conference finals was cold comfort to Oilers fans. The only thing that mattered to them was the fact Houston had been bounced from the postseason in the opening round for the first time in sixteen years-- and it left a sour taste in their mouths. By all rights, the Oilers’ 1997 NBA playoff run should have ended with a Finals rematch against the Chicago Bulls(who beat the Saints in a tough seven-game contest that saw the final game of the series go into double overtime).
But the sour taste gradually started to fade away as the 40th anniversary of the franchise’s debut in Sam Houston Coliseum approached. All kinds of major events were being organized by the Houston front office to mark the occasion-- one of which was the launching of the team’s official website in late August of 1997. The late ‘90s Internet boom was just starting to reach its peak, and the Oilers were eager to tap into the possibilities the World Wide Web offered for strengthening their fan base.
Another part of the festivities was the Hoop Legends Reunion gala in early September, in which Oiler superstars from the Wanzer-Marshall and Fitch eras held court for their old fans and regaled younger generations with war stories of Houston’s early NBA dynasties. To foster a stronger sense of connection between these players and the superstars of Houston’s more recent championship runs, the Legends Reunion was held simultaneously with the team’s traditional Superstar Weekend which marked the start of the Oilers’ NBA preseason schedule.
But perhaps the biggest part of the franchise’s 40th anniversary festivities happened in October of 1997 when their new home arena, the Enron Center, officially opened for business. The Oilers christened the new stadium with a red-hot contest against the Seattle Mariners that also marked the beginning of Houston’s 1997-98 NBA regular season. The game had sold out practically the second it was announced; even acknowledging the all-too-abrupt way Houston’s ’96-’97 playoff run had ended, fans still wanted to see the Oilers kick off a new year, and there was also a lot of curiosity about the new arena.
The Enron Center got mostly high marks from the crowd which turned out for its debut. Fans were especially impressed by the improved view from the stands and the enhanced picture quality of the new Jumbotron monitor situated beside the main scoreboard. The only serious complaint registered had to do with the quality of the food and drinks served up at the concession stands; the franchise’s longtime concessionaire service had been replaced during the off-season, and the new company was somewhat inexperienced at catering for sports events. And even that gripe was counterbalanced by the strategic placement of a food court within the concourse at the arena’s entrance; there, in between plays, fans could get a bite in one of two dozen restaurants.
Morale in the Oiler locker room was high as the team racked up win after win during the first weeks of the ’97-’98 NBA regular season. The glow of nostalgia surrounding Houston’s 40th anniversary festivities helped fuel the team’s positive outlook as the quarter mark of the season came and went. And when the Oilers hung a 35-point drubbing on the New Orleans Bobcats right before Veterans Day, some of the more optimistic fans up in the bleachers at the Enron Center started to anticipate a possible return to the NBA Finals.
But as a great poet(or maybe it was an Oilers assistant coach) once aptly observed, the best laid-plans of mice and men can often go astray. Around Thanksgiving, Houston started to hit a rough patch on the road; visiting Boston for the first leg of the latest chapter in their ongoing rivalry with the Celtics, the Oilers suffered a heartbreaking 115-110 overtime defeat by the Green Machine at what was then officially called the Fleet Center but better known by Boston fans as "the new Garden". Three days after the Boston defeat, the Oilers blew a 20-point halftime lead against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and ended up losing by 15 points; from there, they got hammered by the Washington Nationals(formerly Baltimore Bullets) in a matinee game where the mayor of D.C. was sitting at courtside for most of the action.
By the time the Oilers got to Miami for a December weekend tilt with the Marlins, what coach Rick Pitino and his squad most wanted for Christmas was not their two front teeth, but a way to reverse the decline in their fortunes and climb back onto the top of the NBA Midwest Division ladder...
To Be Continued