The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first two parts of this series we recalled the remaking of the Rochester Royals into the Houston Oilers; the beginning of the Oilers’ heated rivalry with the Boston Celtics; Houston’s early playoff successes and failures; the creation and expansion of the IBL and the growth of the NBA as the Oilers proved the viability of professional basketball in the southern United States; the grueling yet rewarding path Houston took to its first NBA league championship in 1962; and the birth of the American Basketball Association(ABA). In this chapter we’ll remember the Oilers-Celtics rematch in the 1963 NBA Finals, retrace the long and grueling road Houston took to return to the Finals, and look back at the end of the Bobby Wanzer era in Houston.
As the Oilers geared up for the start of the 1962-63 NBA season, all the stars seemed to be aligned in favor of their repeating as NBA champions-- or at least retaining the Western Division title. Few people imagined Houston might not be able to take home the brass ring for a second straight year; fewer still thought the Oilers would go into the 1963 NBA Finals with most of their star players on the bench. And nobody expected that when the Oilers locked horns with Boston for the third time in NBA Finals history, the showdown would end in a Houston defeat so embarrassing that it would trigger a chain of events climaxing in Bobby Wanzer’s dismissal as Oilers head coach.
There were, however, early hints that retaining the NBA crown would be more difficult than winning it had been. After chalking up an impressive opening night win against the Detroit Pistons at Cobo Hall, Houston dropped six of their next seven games-- and much to Coach Wanzer’s embarrassment one of those six losses was to the hapless Atlanta Knights, an expansion team the Oilers had easily beaten in all of their six previous encounters, at Harris County Fieldhouse in Houston’s first home game of the 1962-63 NBA season.
Then came what has been immortalized in Houston sports lore as the Christmas Eve Massacre. As had often been the case in the past and would be in the future with many of the most important moments in Oilers franchise history, both positive and negative, it involved the Boston Celtics; the matinee contest, played at at Boston Garden, would be the first time the Celtics and Oilers had faced each other since Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals. As you might imagine, the spirit of "peace on earth and goodwill toward men" was conspicuously absent when Auerbach’s and Wanzer’s teams took the court.
The Oilers scarcely knew what hit them. The Celtics jumped out to a 25-point lead midway through the first quarter and by halftime were ahead by 36 points; Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman both got in foul trouble early in the second half and Jerry Lucas was ejected near the end of the third quarter after getting in a heated argument with one of the referees. Houston never got any closer to the C’s than eighteen points, and Boston went on to win by twenty-eight. Suffice to say it was a long plane ride back to Houston...
....and it would have felt even longer had Wanzer and his players known that the Christmas Eve Massacre would be just the beginning of a long stretch of losing during which the Oilers would be knocked out of their second-place perch in the Western Division standings. Houston would drop ten of its next twelve games, including a nerve-wracking overtime defeat against the Philadelphia Flyers1 at the Philadelphia Arena, and find its hopes of repeating as NBA league champions in serious jeopardy; some Oilers fans even began fearfully contemplating the nightmare scenario of their team missing the NBA playoffs altogether.
It was around this time that the first rumors circulated of Bobby Wanzer being replaced as head coach of the Oilers. In the giddy euphoria that had swept Houston after their upset triumph against the Celtics in the seventh and deciding game of the 1962 NBA Finals, the mere thought that Wanzer wouldn’t finish out his existing NBA contract or get a new one would have been completely unthinkable; however, in a short item published in the Houston Post three days after the Christmas Eve Massacre, an anonymous source linked to the team’s principal owner suggested that if the Oilers didn’t at least retain their Western Division title Bobby Wanzer might find his job security tenuous at best.
Publicly Wanzer claimed to be unaffected by the speculation about his future with the Oilers; privately, however, he was in a rage about it. He said as much to his players in a closed-door locker room meeting prior to a road game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in the second week of January of 1963. None of them needed to tell him that they shared his stern distaste over the speculation; it was readily apparent by the looks on their faces. The rumors were a needless distraction from the critical business of keeping their NBA championship position, and a distraction that was costing them points in the Western Division standings to boot. At the time of the MSG closed-door meeting Houston, which had been a preseason favorite to at least finish second in the regular season, had slipped to third place in the division and some of the more pessimistic observers of the team even privately confided fears that the Oilers might miss the NBA playoffs-- a prospect that did not please their fans or their head coach in the least.
Following the closed-door conference, Wanzer and his players channeled their frustrations over the replacement rumors into a 40-point evisceration of the Knicks; that decisive win started a dramatic turnaround which enabled Houston to climb back to second place in the Western Division and saw them battling head-to-head with the Lakers for the division’s top spot in the final weeks of the 1962-63 NBA regular season. In their final East Coast games before heading back to Harris County Fieldhouse to close out the regular season, the Oilers avenged their November defeat by the Atlanta Knights and pulled out a thrilling overtime victory over the Miami Marlins.
Then came the regular season finale...
It was a vengeful Knicks squad that showed up at Harris County Fieldhouse on that Sunday afternoon in March of 1963 when, on opposite sides of the US, the Oilers and the Lakers were both fighting to clinch the top seed in the Western Division for the upcoming postseason. A mere tenth of a percentage point separated Houston from Los Angeles in the Western Division standings at that moment, and an Oilers victory combined with a Lakers loss would effectively give Houston the number one spot in the 1963 NBA Western Division playoffs. Conversely a Lakers win and an Oilers loss would put Los Angeles in the top spot; if both teams won or both teams lost their respective games, the #1 seed would be awarded to whoever had a higher overall point total for the regular season.
With all this in mind, the Oilers braced themselves for a rumble-- and got one: in one of the roughest NBA games witnessed at Harris County Fieldhouse that season, New York and Houston assaulted each other at every opportunity. By the end of the second quarter there were already five players in foul trouble and one who’d been hospitalized with an injured arm, and that was just from the Knicks.
In spite of the near-mugging they were subjected to, the Oilers managed to build a respectable lead and maintain it well into the third quarter. But at the start of the fourth quarter the Knicks embarked on a 29-6 run that effectively let the air out of Houston’s tires; New York ended up winning 132-115, which put the Oilers in the thorny position of having to depend on a Lakers defeat in Cincinnati against the Cincinnati Monarchs2 to gain the #1 seed for the NBA Western Division playoffs. As soon as they’d finished showering and changed back into their civilian clothes, the Oilers players assembled in Coach Wanzer’s office to await the results of the Lakers-Monarchs game.
To the Oilers’ dismay, the Lakers won in overtime, meaning that Houston would start the 1963 NBA Western Division playoffs as the #2 seed; after the first round, Wanzer and his players would have to play most of their postseason games on the road. An already steep uphill climb had gotten that much steeper.
The first test Houston faced on the road to a second straight matchup against the Celtics in the NBA Finals was in the Western Division semifinals against the St. Louis Hawks, and like their previous postseason clashes this latest Hawks-Oilers battle was a feud that made Montagues vs. Capulets look tame. Jack Twyman got in a fistfight with Hawks center Zelmo Beaty late in Game 1; both players were ejected from the game, which St. Louis won 115-110 in overtime. Houston promptly avenged that loss with a 132-106 blowout of the Hawks in Game 2, then proceeded to dismantle them again on their own home court in Game 3.
In Game 4, the Hawks took a 15-point lead during the first quarter but saw that lead slip to just six points midway through the second quarter; by the start of the third quarter the Oilers had pulled dead even. In the fourth quarter, Houston took its first lead of the game and never let go; the Oilers went on to take the game 117-102 and the series three games to one. So far, so good.
With St. Louis duly taken care of, the Oilers turned their attention to beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1963 Western Division finals. Though Houston would win that series too, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, leaving them with very little fuel left in their tanks when the time came for their rematch against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
To call the 1963 NBA Western Division finals a seesaw battle would be an understatement. It was basketball’s version of the Hundred Years’ War, and seemed to last almost as long; Game 1 alone went into two overtimes(and might have reached a third had Hot Rod Hundley not missed a crucial free throw in the closing seconds of the second overtime). That game, which ended with a 101-99 Houston victory, didn’t finish until 1:32 AM-- just under five hours after the opening tipoff. Game 2, which the Lakers won 96-85 to even the series at one game apiece, lasted until 12:30 AM; Los Angeles head coach Fred Schaus later jokingly suggested that sleeping bags and pajamas be added to the list of items sold at the LA Sports Arena concession stands.
Bobby Wanzer might well have been tempted to make a similar recommendation to the concessionaires at Harris County Fieldhouse after the Oilers endured a grueling six-hour marathon in Game 3, a 136-119 Houston win. It’s probably a good thing for all parties involved that Game 4 was an afternoon contest, because few of the players on either the Laker or Oiler lineups had much energy to get out of bed before 10:00 AM after Game 3 had wrapped up. For that matter many of the fans were worn out too; there were an unusually high number of absences from schools and businesses the day after Game 3.
Game 4 saw Los Angeles once again tie the series with a 117-105 win over Houston that witnessed Jerry Lucas missing 22 of 24 shots in the second half and Oscar Robertson sidelined for the next two games with a sprained right foot after he accidentally collided with teammate Adrian Smith while diving after a loose ball late in the third quarter. Nerves in the Houston locker room were stretched tighter than a fashion model’s belt loops as the Oilers awaited Game 5...
....and they would be tighter still after Game 5 was over and the Lakers had thrashed Houston for a 121-104 victory to give Los Angeles a three games-to-two series lead as the division finals shifted back to LA Sports Arena for Game 6. With Robertson still on the bench, the Oilers would have to rely on their reserve unit more than ever; simply extending the series to a seventh game, let alone winning it and advancing to the NBA Finals, would take a Herculean effort on the part of Wanzer’s substitute players and the shrinking number of starters still healthy enough to suit up for play.
This time it was the Lakers who got blown out, winding up on the wrong end of a 127-99 shellacking that saw Adrian Smith hit 9 of his first 10 shots in the game and 17 out of 18 free throws. It was the beginning of the end for Los Angeles’ NBA postseason run-- and though the Oilers didn’t realize it at the time, it was also the beginning of the end of their chances for retaining the NBA league championship. Jerry Lucas and Wayne Embry both joined Oscar Robertson on the injury list and Jack Twyman had to be sent home for medical tests after being diagnosed with a 106 degree temperature the day after Game 6 ended; none of these men would rejoin the Oiler lineup until Game 3 of the 1963 NBA Finals, by which time Houston would be on its last legs and a Boston Celtics club bent on avenging its 1962 NBA Finals defeat would be one giant step closer to reclaiming the NBA title.
Game 7 of the Western Division finals saw the Houston bench give what many sportswriters considered a Hall of Fame effort-- and in fact at least one Oilers reserve forward would later be nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame partly on the basis of his yeoman performance in that contest, which prior to Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals was the longest professional basketball game yet played. Spanning nearly six hours, Game 7 would take a huge physical toll both on the victorious and on the vanquished; Bobby Wanzer actually fainted during the second overtime from the sheer exhaustion of the rugged pace of that game.
The Oilers’ celebration at the end of their 132-120 triple OT victory was shorter than usual, no doubt in part because of the extremely demanding tempo at which they’d played. Very few in the Houston locker room realized it would be the last celebration of a playoff series victory in the Wanzer era, least of all Coach Wanzer himself.
At the time the Oilers flew up to Boston for their 1963 NBA Finals rematch with the Celtics, Bobby Wanzer’s contract was due to run out at the end of the 1963-64 NBA season; it would have expired already after the 1961-62 season had it not been for an automatic two-year extension clause which kicked in after Houston won its first NBA league championship. Wanzer sought a new four- year deal and a $20,000 raise in salary; the most that the Oilers ownership would agree to was three years and a $16,000 raise. The gap between Wanzer’s negotiating position and the owners’ would remain a bone of contention throughout the NBA Finals, and after the Celtics routed Houston it would be the match that ultimately lit the fuse for Wanzer’s exit.
Though the Celtics had exorcised many of their playoff ghosts from the previous season by virtue of their thorough demolition of the Oilers in the Christmas Eve Massacre, there was still one piece of unfinished business to be taken care of: regaining the NBA championship. Red Auerbach’s crew would take care of that in swift and highly memorable fashion...
Like sharks smelling blood in the water, the Celtics pounced on the Oilers early and often in the first two games of the 1963 NBA Finals. Houston fans had known their team’s archrival from Boston was going to come looking for vengeance after the previous year’s upset loss, but they’d underestimated just how passionate that desire for vengeance would be. The Celts shredded Houston like a corporate internal memo in those two games, winning the second game by a whopping 42 points and sparking a fresh wave of rumors that Wanzer’s number was almost up as the series shifted to Harris County Fieldhouse for Games 3 and 4. And in one of the most cruel ironies Oilers fans could imagine Adrian Smith, who’d been doing Olympic-caliber work on offense while Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, and Jack Twyman were on the bench, went down with a knee injury late in the second game just as Robertson, Lucas, and Twyman were ready to return to the lineup.
Game 3 of the 1963 NBA Finals would be remembered by both Celtics and Oilers fans as the most convincing victory by Boston over Houston during the Wanzer era. Clyde Lovellette, who after the 1961-62 season had joined the Celtics as a free agent, put a severe hurt on his former team, torching them for 51 points in the first half alone as Boston cruised to a 132-98 demolition of the Oilers; it took the combined efforts of six Houston police officers to keep Lovellette from being assaulted by enraged Oiler fans on his way back to the Celtics locker room after the game ended.
The mood in the Oilers’ locker room was almost funereal; just one year after beating the NBA’s most successful franchise to claim the league championship, they were on the verge of being swept by that same franchise-- and on their own home court yet. In hopes of throwing Boston’s game plan off long enough to snatch a Game 4 victory and extend the NBA Finals to at least a fifth game, Bobby Wanzer sat center Wayne Embry and decided to start backup Dave Piontek in Embry’s place; Wanzer’s reasoning was that since Piontek had played considerably fewer games than Embry in the regular season Boston would be less familiar with his playing style and thus be caught off guard to the point where the Oilers could build up enough momentum to win the game and turn their fortunes around.
It was a decision that would backfire to the tenth power on Wanzer-- and cost him his job to boot. Far from being surprised by the last-minute revision to the Houston starting lineup, the Celtics switched gears with ease and double-teamed Piontek at every opportunity; by halftime of Game 4 Houston was already down 25 points, and they wouldn’t get much closer than 18 the rest of the way. The final score was Celtics 126, Oilers 108, and just like that Houston’s reign as king of the NBA was over as swiftly and surprisingly as it had started.
It may have been just coincidence, but the negotiations between Bobby Wanzer and Oilers team ownership regarding the renewal of Wanzer’s coaching contract fell apart shortly after the Oilers were swept in the 1963 NBA Finals. Two days after the Finals ended, the Houston Post published an article in which the team’s principal owner hinted that the team might buy out the remaining year of Wanzer’s contract rather than continue to dicker with him about it. When Wanzer read the article, he blew his stack; bad enough, he thought, that the front office was trying to lowball him on issues of salary and number of years he’d retain his position as head coach, but the idea that he might not be allowed to come back to the Oilers at all was too much for him to take after the work he’d done in bringing Houston its first professional league title in any sport.
Within hours after the article hit print, an irate Wanzer phoned the Oilers front office and told them in no uncertain terms what he thought of the buyout idea; his choice of words during that phone call was, to say the least, impolitic. Though he wouldn’t know it for two more days, Wanzer had effectively signed the death warrant for his tenure in Houston; the Oilers team ownership did not take kindly to his comments, and the decision was made in short order that the time had arrived for a changing of the guard in their franchise’s coaching staff.
On April 25th, 1963 the Oilers front office issued a terse press release announcing that Coach Wanzer’s contract with the team had been terminated due to what the press release described in vague terms as "violations" of the behavioral standards clause of that contract. Oilers assistant coach Tom Marshall was named as Wanzer’s replacement for the 1963-64 NBA season...
To Be Continued
1Formerly the Syracuse Nationals (see footnotes to Part 1).
2When Cincinnati was awarded an NBA expansion team, the new club’s owners had originally intended to call it the Royals as a nod to the old Rochester Royals, but since Houston still owned the rights to the Royals name this was revised to Monarchs after several other alternative names were considered and turned down. The Monarchs would retain that name throughout their years in Cincinnati and take it with them when they moved to Kansas City in the early 1980s; when they relocated to the Sacramento area in 1993, they became the Sacramento Kings.