The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
(adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com)
Summary: In the first part of this series we reviewed the initial transformation of the Rochester Royals into the Houston Oilers, the birth of the Oilers’ heated rivalry with the Boston Celtics, Houston’s early playoff successes and failures, and the expansion of the NBA and its upstart rival the Intercontinental Basketball League as the Oilers demonstrated the viability of professional basketball in the southern US. In this chapter we’ll recall Houston’s epic 1962 NBA playoff run, trace the Oilers’ rocky path to their first NBA league championship, and look back at the creation of the ABA.
Game 1 of the 1962 NBA Western Division semifinals saw the largest crowd that had yet filled Sam Houston Coliseum for an NBA playoff game. The Detroit Pistons were out to avenge their embarrassing exit from the previous year’s postseason, while the Houston Oilers had their sights set on retaining the Western Division title and adding an NBA league championship to their trophy case; this contest was brimming with enough subplots to fill a Shakespearean play. The Houston broadcast media alone had no less than two dozen correspondents covering this game; there was also a sizable press contingent on hand from Los Angeles, not a surprise considering that the winner of the Oilers-Pistons series would take on the Lakers next.
Detroit got in the first licks, opening the game with a 15-4 run on Houston and holding a 38-17 lead by the end of the first quarter. But early in the second quarter, Jack Twyman went on a scoring tear that severely whittled away at this lead; Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson combined to shrink it even further, and by halftime the score was tied at 66-all. Addressing his players in the locker room prior to the start of the second half, Bobby Wanzer made it crystal-clear he was not going to tolerate losing to the Pistons on his own home turf.
His message sank in pretty quick: Houston opened the third quarter with a 21-5 surge and had passed the 100-point mark by the time the fourth quarter got underway. The Pistons, however, wouldn’t quit and clawed to within four points of the Oilers as the clock ticked down to the final five minutes of regulation. The atmosphere in Sam Houston Coliseum was so tense that at least one spectator literally fainted from the excitement before the game was over. Which was unfortunate for him in at least one way: he missed the game’s exhilarating finale, in which the Oilers held off a last-minute Detroit offensive flurry to claim a 117-114 victory. It looked like the beginning of another swift first- round elimination of the Pistons by Houston...
....but Detroit, led by a mad-as-nails Harry Gallatin, let the air out of that balloon with a 118-86 drubbing of the Oilers in Game 2. Houston lost one of its most powerful offensive weapons late in the second quarter when Jerry Lucas was thrown out of the game after drawing a technical foul, and without his partner to give him a boost in scoring drives Oscar Robertson found it tough to penetrate the Pistons defense. On the plane ride up to Detroit a few days later to face the Pistons in Game 3, the Oilers had to wrestle with nagging doubts over whether they could recover from their Game 2 fiasco in time to regain the advantage in the 1962 Western Division semifinals. As it turned out, they could-- and did: the Oilers won in overtime 104-99, with a revitalized Jerry Lucas accounting for ten of Houston’s final twelve points in the game and 32 points overall.
Detroit mounted a comeback of its own to win Game 4, and as a result the series shifted back to Sam Houston Coliseum for a do-or-die Game 5. But this wouldn’t be like any other series- deciding matchup the two teams had played before; both the Oilers and the Pistons would have to get by for most of the game without their star players. Harry Gallatin was forced to leave late in the first quarter with a knee injury; Jack Twyman broke his thumb at the start of the second quarter; Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas both got in foul trouble before halftime and had to sit out most of the third and fourth quarters.
The Houston and Detroit benches did an admirable job of picking up the slack; like boxers in a heavyweight title fight they traded blows until the Oilers were staked to a slim 114-112 lead with just eighteen seconds left in the fourth quarters. Then Wayne Embry made what may have been the most crucial defensive play of the series, blocking a Pistons jump shot that would have tied the game with only five seconds left on the clock. In the last two seconds, Houston guard Bucky Bockhorn stole a Detroit pass intended for Gene Shue, and with that the Oilers secured a spot in the Western Division finals against the Lakers. Bobby Wanzer and his players knew getting past a club that included the likes of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor wouldn’t be an easy task, but after having survived their grueling first-round series with the Pistons Houston felt confident that they could handle just about anything Los Angeles threw at them.
It probably won’t surprise you that much to learn there were a sizable number of Hollywood luminaries in the stands for the opening leg of the 1962 NBA Western Division finals; long before Jack Nicholson became the most famous hoops devotee in America, the Lakers enjoyed a fan base within the entertainment community in Los Angeles. To name just a few of the stars who were in the crowd that night, Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Dean Martin sat courtside; 20th Century Fox mega-producer Darryl Zanuck watched the game from a luxury box as an invited guest of the Lakers’ front office; singer Ella Fitzgerald(who also sang the national anthem) had a seat just a few rows away from Lawford and Martin; and late-night TV host Jack Paar heckled Houston from the safety of a loge seat.
L.A.’s other major sports institutions were represented at the Los Angeles Sports Arena that night too. USC football coach John Robinson and UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both stopped by the Lakers’ locker room to wish them luck; tough but genial Rams lineman Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier gave the Lakers roster a short pregame pep talk. Dodgers pitching great Sandy Koufax, who the following year would help guide his team to a sweep of the New York Yankees in the 1963 World Series, sat in the front row with his teammates Maury Wills and Don Drysdale to cheer on the Lakers.
Though the Los Angeles sports media had focused most of its pre-game attention on West and Baylor, the biggest star of Game 1 would be Los Angeles center "Hot Rod" Hundley, who finished the evening with 47 points and 36 rebounds as the Lakers clawed and scratched their way to a hard-earned 132-125 victory against the Oilers. Knowing that their playoff run would come to an abrupt and embarrassing end if they couldn’t contain Hundley, Houston made it their business to double-team him at every opportunity in Game 2; they kept him in check well enough to come away with a 107-104 overtime win and tie the Western Division finals at one game apiece as the series switched to Sam Houston Coliseum for Game 3.
In Game 3 the Oilers jumped on Los Angeles early, making a 24-6 scoring run to start the action and staking themselves to a 66-42 lead by halftime. Jerry Lucas and Wayne Embry combined for 81 points en route to a 132-116 Houston win over the Lakers; that triumph, however, would come at the cost of Oscar Robertson being suspended for two games after Robertson got in a fistfight with Jerry West late in the third quarter. Without the Big O’s deft touch on offense, the Oilers were sitting ducks in Game 4 for a vengeful Lakers team, who annihilated them 136-105.
In the past, these developments might have been cause for alarm in the Houston locker room. But since their first round series with Detroit the Oilers had felt a heightened sense of confidence in their bench’s ability to compensate for the absence of starters; furthermore, for the first time in NBA history the Western Division finals were being played in a best-of-seven format as opposed to the best-of-five setup which had been used in previous years. And last but not least, Houston would have home court advantage for Game 5, which meant that if the Oilers won they would be returning to Los Angeles with a 3 games-to-2 series lead. Thus, most of the pressure going into Game 5 was on the Lakers...
Game 5 of the 1962 Western Division finals has rightly been called by sportswriters the defining moment of the Bobby Wanzer era in Houston. On that night the Oilers mounted what may have been the most important comeback of Wanzer’s coaching career and set themselves once and for all on the path to their first NBA league championship. The Oilers trailed the Lakers for most of regulation and with less than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter were trailing Los Angeles 117-102, seemingly out of gas; when Jack Twyman was fouled, however, the momentum of the game took a radical shift in favor of Houston. Twyman hit both of his free throws, sparking a Houston offensive surge that would cut the Lakers’ edge down to two points in the final two minutes of regulation.
Jerry Lucas tied the game with just one second to go in regulation by hitting an apparently impossible half-court jumper. As it turned out, however, Lucas was saving his best stuff for the overtime session. He hit 12 of his first 15 shots in OT to give Houston a lead the Lakers couldn’t quite overcome despite the best efforts of the West-Baylor-Hundley trio. Jack Twyman held off Laker attempts at a late rally by blocking 7 of Los Angeles’ final 10 shot attempts in the closing minutes of the OT session, allowing the Oilers to walk away with a hard-earned 132-126 overtime victory. As the combatants returned to the LA Sports Arena for Game 6, the mood among the Houston players was one of excited anticipation; the Los Angeles roster, by contrast, felt a quiet but insistent dread of impending collapse and then- Los Angeles head coach Fred Schaus had his hands full trying to keep his players from getting discouraged.
In the end, however, the Oilers proved too much for Los Angeles to handle; Houston took a ten-point lead midway through the first quarter of Game 6 and never looked back. Back from his suspension, Oscar Robertson played like he’d never been gone, racking up 55 points as Houston cruised to a 141-112 blowout of the Lakers and secured another trip to the NBA league finals-- a trip that would see the team change the course of NBA history.
The Boston Celtics of Red Auerbach’s day were one of the most dominant clubs, possibly the most dominant club, in the NBA-- so dominant that it still sometimes seems hard to believe they could have lost to the Houston Oilers in the 1962 league finals. Still, Bobby Wanzer and company would turn out to be the David that slew Boston’s Goliath when it was all said and done. After being blown out by the Celtics in the first two games of the finals at Boston Garden, Houston rallied to take Games 3 and 4 down at Sam Houston Coliseum; sportswriters following the series noticed that Wanzer and his players didn’t seem as nervous about returning to the Garden as they had in their previous NBA Finals confrontations with the Celtics.
Indeed, the mood in the Oilers’ locker room was a relaxed and highly confident one going into Game 5 of the 1962 Finals. Oscar Robertson was particularly optimistic, telling a Dallas radio sportscaster on the morning of that crucial matchup: "I can definitely see us taking the sixth game in Boston." The mayor of Houston apparently shared Robertson’s faith, because by the time the Oilers and Celtics took the court for the opening tipoff of Game 5 he’d begun quietly preparing tentative plans for a victory parade to be held in downtown Houston after the NBA Finals were over.
Those plans almost got cancelled when Houston fell eighteen points behind the Celtics early in the third quarter; by sheer bulldog tenacity, however, the Oilers hung in there and by the start of the fourth quarter they’d cut Boston’s lead to just four points. At the midway point of the fourth quarter, Houston had staked itself to a three-point lead and Celtics fans felt a great dismay as they tried to cope with the realization that the Oilers were about to take a three games-to-two lead on Boston. Then John Havlicek, one of the Celtics’ premier scoring threats of his era, fouled out of the game with five minutes left to play-- and as a Boston Herald-American sportswriter summed it up in his account of the game the next day, "the roof seemed to cave in on Coach Auerbach and his men."1 Houston went on a 26-8 tear against the C’s following Havlicek’s departure and finished the night with an incredible 127-124 victory. To the pleasure of Houston fans and the shock of Boston supporters, the Oilers were coming back to Boston Garden with the opportunity to finally achieve what they’d tried and failed to do in the 1961 NBA Finals-- beat the Celtics and claim the NBA league championship.
Game 6 of the 1962 NBA Finals saw the atmosphere at Boston Garden filled with the kind of nerve-wracking tension one would normally associate with international crises. The Celtics hadn’t expected to find themselves in the position of needing to tie the series on their own home court; the Houston Oilers, the club they had successfully vanquished in two previous Finals encounters, were on the verge of snatching the NBA league championship trophy out of Boston’s hands.
The first quarter of Game 6 gave C’s fans additional cause for worry as Houston took a fifteen-point lead in the opening minutes; despite diligent efforts from the Boston offense, the Oilers were still up ten points going into the second quarter. But just when it seemed like Houston finally had the Celtics’ number, disaster struck for the Oilers with 7:31 remaining in the second-- Wayne Embry was assessed with a technical foul, stopping Houston’s momentum at a time when the Oilers could have put the series away for good. The Celtics went on 27-4 run that put them ahead for good and resulted in a 129-108 Boston victory. Like it or not, the Oilers would have to play a seventh game before they could claim their first NBA league championship.
And what a seventh game it would turn out to be...
The stands at Boston Garden were packed to the brim as both the Oilers and the Celtics took to the floor for what both teams knew would be an intense, highly physical Game 7. Meanwhile, back in Houston, it seemed like just about every radio and TV set in the city was tuned in to the do-or-die basketball showdown; at the White House, President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson had a $5 wager going as to whose team would come out on top that evening. Even inmates at Texas’ Huntsville State Prison were given the opportunity to listen to the Celtics-Oilers game.
For the first three quarters, it was one of the closest games ever played at an NBA arena; the largest lead either team could attain during that span was a ten-point edge by the Celtics 10:36 into the third quarter. When the fourth quarter began, however, Houston began to pull away thanks in part to offensive surges by Jack Twyman, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry Lucas. By the 4:30 mark of the fourth, the Oilers were up fifteen points and the Garden faithful were staring in silent disbelief as they watched their storied franchise wilt in the face of its main rival’s relentless battering.
At the 6:15 mark of the fourth quarter Boston started an offensive barrage of its own, the kind which in the past had normally enabled the Celtics to vanquish their playoff foes-- and with the Oilers’ lead shrunk down to just six points by the 9:00 mark, it looked as if NBA history might repeat itself. But as had happened to Wayne Embry in Game 6, Boston center Bill Russell drew a technical foul that derailed his team’s scoring momentum. Jack Twyman hit a critical free throw at that point, and from then on Houston was completely in the driver’s seat.
What finally drove a stake through the heart of the Celtics was an Oscar Robertson steal with less than two minutes left in regulation; Robertson, who intercepted an inbounds pass meant for Bob Cousy and lobbed it to Jim Paxson for a jump shot, would be immortalized in NBA legend with a radio announcer’s breathless shout of "ROBERTSON STOLE THE BALL!" As the clock ticked off the last seconds to the end of the game Paxson, Twyman, Lucas, and Clyde Lovellette all mobbed Oscar Robertson at the Oilers’ bench while Bobby Wanzer-- in a gesture that struck Boston sports fans as basically spitting in Red Auerbach’s face --lit up a victory cigar just as Auerback had done so many times in the past.2 The bridesmaids had finally become brides.
The Houston Oilers had clinched their first NBA league championship.
The Oilers returned to Houston to a tumultuous welcome and a victory parade spanning two full miles of the city’s downtown area. Wanzer, his players, and his coaching staff were all given keys to the city and the Houston City Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring an Oscar Robertson Day in tribute to the center who had helped bring the city its first NBA title. A week later, the 1961-62 NBA league championship banner was moved over to Harris County Fieldhouse along with all the Western Division title flags the club had accumulated in previous seasons. All of a sudden, kids who had up until now been growing up wanting to be cowboys were changing their minds and aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.
Indeed, the entire population of metropolitan Houston seemed to have contracted a serious case of hoops fever. And it wouldn’t be long before the epidemic spread. Just six short months after the Oilers finally reached the top of the NBA mountain, the San Antonio Heat avenged their heartbreaking loss in the first IBL league championship series and swept the Miami Stingrays in the 1962 IBL league finals; the Dallas Steamers, the team San Antonio had beaten to clinch its second consecutive Gulf Coast Division championship, were listed by the Wall Street Journal as being number seven on the top ten list of the fastest- growing businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
As if the pro basketball scene in America wasn’t already crowded with two high-profile leagues in operation, a third was about to be added to the mix. As the Oilers were gearing up for the start of the 1962-63 NBA season, a dozen or so executives from cities snubbed by both the NBA and the IBL met in Kansas City to establish the American Basketball Association(ABA). The dawn of the ABA was met with skepticism, predictions of a quick demise, and the occasional snicker. But the ABA would not only survive its debut season, it would wind up absorbing the IBL and taking the IBL’s place as archrival to the venerable NBA.
Back in Houston, Oilers fans looked forward to their team’s first full season at Harris County Fieldhouse and the addition of a second NBA title banner to the collection of trophies the club had already accumulated during its first five seasons. However, a strange thing happened on the way to Bobby Wanzer’s second straight NBA league championship-- or rather, several strange things....
1Quoted from the April 8th, 1962 edition of the Boston Herald-American.
2And would do many more times in the future, as we’ll see later.