The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first three 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 title in 1962; the creation of the American Basketball Association(ABA); and the firing of head coach Bobby Wanzer after the Oilers were swept by the Celtics in the two teams’ NBA Finals rematch in 1963. In this chapter we’ll look at the beginning of Tom Marshall’s tenure as Oilers head coach and the IBL’s rivalry with the ABA to be the main challenger to the NBA’s domination of professional basketball in America.
As anyone who’d been following the Oilers’ tenure in Houston since 1957 could have told him, and as he himself knew full well, Tom Marshall had some sizable shoes to fill as new head coach. In spite of the acrimonious way Bobby Wanzer’s term as Oilers coach had ended, he had by and large given a good accounting of himself during his years on the job. It was a measure of the bonds Wanzer had forged with the people of Houston that 1500 of them turned up at a rally outside Harris County Fieldhouse the day after he was fired to urge the Oilers front office to reverse their decision and bring him back as head coach for the 1963-64 NBA season. But there was no turning back the clock; Wanzer’s outraged phone call to the Oilers team ownership had effectively burned his bridges with them.
Marshall’s first priority as new Oilers head coach was to regain the NBA championship for Houston. To that end, he went to the Oiler front office in May of 1963 and convinced them to send out feelers to other NBA teams to find out whether they would be interested in making a trade for Jack Twyman. After reviewing the game films of the 1963 NBA Finals Marshall had concluded that Twyman was losing his stride and could therefore no longer be as much of a contributor to the team’s offense as he’d been in years past; the question now, at least from Marshall’s perspective, was how to obtain fresh blood to revitalize Houston’s offense and do so at the cheapest possible price.
The solution to his troubles came to him courtesy of the San Francisco Warriors, who had finished the 1962-63 NBA season a disappointing fourth in the Western Division. The Warriors were seeking to recharge their offense for the 1963-64 season, and unlike Marshall they felt Twyman could still be a potent force on offense; in early June the Oilers agreed to a three-way deal which sent Warriors guard Guy Rodgers to the Baltimore Bullets and Jack Twyman to San Francisco, in return for which Houston got San Francisco backup center Willie Naulls and Baltimore’s first pick in the 1965 NBA amateur draft. This trade would later be credited with helping form the nucleus of Houston’s second NBA league championship team...
....but during the first ten games of the 1963-64 NBA season Oilers fans found themselves wondering if Marshall hadn’t been played for a sucker. Willie Naulls only scored five points for Houston in those ten games; by contrast, in the Warriors’ home opener alone Jack Twyman racked up nineteen points to power San Francisco to an overtime win against the Cincinnati Monarchs. Guy Rodgers notched fifty-three points in his first five games with the Bullets, sinking the winning basket in two of those games. It seemed like Houston had gotten the short end of the stick.
But Naulls would ultimately prove to fit rather nicely into the Oilers’ offensive system; by the time the Oilers arrived in Boston for their first matchup with the Celtics of the 1963-64 season, the ex-Warrior was averaging 14.6 points per game and a 55.6 free throw percentage. On November 15th, 1963 Naulls got a memorable introduction to the Oilers-Celtics rivalry, recording 47 points and getting in a shouting match with K.C. Jones as Boston scratched its way to a 117-108 win at Boston Garden; from that night on, Naulls would be part and parcel of the NBA’s most intense vendetta, and even years after Naulls retired from the sport he would be a polarizing figure among Boston sports fans.
A week later, the Oilers were back home and going through their daily workout when one of the team trainers burst into the gym looking as if his mother had just died. Coach Marshall told one of his assistants to turn on a radio, and seconds later the Houston players and coaches heard the tragic news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The trauma of Kennedy’s assassination-- and the shock of the shooting death of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald two days later --cast a psychological pall over Marshall’s roster that was hard for them to shake. When the NBA season finally resumed on November 28th after a five-day hiatus, the Oilers seemed tentative and unfocused and lost to the New Orleans Bobcats by twenty points; by the end of the first week of December, 1963 the Oilers had dropped to fourth place in the NBA Western Division standings and some of Houston’s fans had started to worry this slump might be just the harbinger of a more protracted dry spell for the franchise.
While the Oilers tried to avoid winding up on the bottom rung of the NBA’s ladder, the IBL’s two Texas franchises were enjoying considerable success and the new ABA team in Corpus Christi had started to attract its share of fans too. To the alarm of Houston team executives, some basketball fans in other parts of Texas who had formerly rooted for the Oilers were now beginning to switch their allegiances to the San Antonio Heat, the Dallas Steamers, or the Corpus Christi Sidewinders.1 Even a few Houston residents, mostly ex-Oiler fans disgusted with the way Bobby Wanzer had been unceremoniously exiled from the team he had helped build into an NBA champion, started defecting to the IBL and the ABA.
But the vast majority of Houstonians stuck by the Oilers; for better or worse, the franchise Les Harrison had brought down from Rochester, New York back in 1957 had established indelible roots in the hearts and souls of Houston basketball aficianados. It had also helped attract new MLB and NFL clubs to Houston, put it on the list of cities under consideration for an NHL expansion team, and even inspire occasional flirtation with the idea of it making a bid at some point in the future to host the Olympic Games.
While Houston still hasn’t achieved the goal of becoming an Olympic host city-- at least at the time of this writing-- it did eventually gain a professional hockey team when the erstwhile New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association joined the NHL and moved into Harris County Fieldhouse following the 1979 WHA- NHL merger. In the meantime, the IBL was locked in a full-fledged battle with the ABA for the mantle of chief competitor to the NBA for supremacy in professional basketball.
By all rights the IBL should have squashed the ABA like a grape. It had better individual players, a higher quality of team play, a broader fan base, more solid financial backing, and a wider TV profile. Yet by the early 1970s the IBL would be only a memory, absorbed into the body of the smaller ABA. How was that possible?
Part of the explanation lies in a scandal that started to engulf the IBL shortly after Tom Marshall was hired to succeed Bobby Wanzer as Oilers head coach. The same week that Marshall first proposed the trade which would eventually bring Willie Naulls to Houston and send Jack Twyman to San Francisco, Sports Illustrated dropped a bombshell-- in an interview with an IBL executive speaking on condition of anonymity, the magazine broke the story that two of the league’s senior referees were under internal investigation on allegations that they’d accepted bribes to fix at least one 1962 IBL Gulf Coast divisional playoff game and possibly more. That alone would have been a major shock, but the interview went on to mention that the investigation pointed to a member of the San Antonio Heat’s front office as a possible co-conspirator in the alleged fixing scheme. At the very least, the IBL was faced with a public relations disaster; at worst, it was looking at what might prove to be the biggest scandal to hit American professional sports since the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series. One of the IBL’s premier selling points at the time it was established was its commitment to clean play; if even half the allegations in the Sports Illustrated article were true, the damage done to the league’s reputation would be severe if not fatal.
The fixing accusations would continue to dog the Heat and the IBL in general for the rest of the IBL’s existence; unfortunately many of those accusations would turn out to be true, and before it was all said and done the casualties of the ’62 IBL postseason fixing scandal would include the careers of at least three dozen IBL employees-- and the IBL itself.
Another key to how the ABA outlasted the IBL is the fact that the ABA consistently did a better job of reaching out to African- American and Hispanic fans. Among its other accomplishments, the ABA was the first American professional basketball league to have an African-American as a head coach when the ABA Eastern division champion Hartford Harpoons hired former Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson in February of 1964. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who owned a ten percent stake in the Harpoons and had been endlessly pushing for greater African-American representation in all sports since his earliest days with the Dodgers, called Jackson’s hiring "the greatest moment in basketball history".
The Corpus Christi Sidewinders, the ABA Western division champions at the time, were the first American professional team in any sport to offer regular Spanish-language coverage of their home games. A marketing survey commissioned by the team’s public relations office in late 1963 had concluded both the Spanish- speaking population and the basketball fan base in Texas would double by 1970, and accordingly they recruited two former Mexican League baseball radio commentators to do the play-by-play for Sidewinders home games for the 1964 ABA season. Those two men hadn’t known much about basketball when the Sidewinders hired them, but they turned out to be fast learners; before the 1964 ABA season was over a Southwestern regional sports announcers’ association had honored them as broadcast pioneers.
The Oilers finally got their 1963-64 NBA season back on course with an overtime victory against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 7th. It was a win they needed badly. Not only had team morale dropped to its lowest point since Houston was swept by the Celtics in the 1963 NBA Finals, but the Oilers found themselves in danger of being knocked out of playoff contention completely-- and Coach Marshall knew his job security would be imperiled if that happened.
Houston climbed back into third place with a home win over the Cincinnati Monarchs five days before Christmas; when the team returned to action following the Christmas break, Willie Naulls went on a scoring streak that saw rack up 40 or more points in twelve consecutive games. That surge helped the Oilers to further improve their position in the NBA Western Division standings, and by early February of 1964 they were tied for second place with the St. Louis Hawks. Although some fans were still upset about Jack Twyman’s departure to San Francisco and Clyde Lovellette’s defection to the Celtics, Willie Naulls had won over plenty of Oilers loyalists with his deft scoring method and heads-up play on defense.
That defensive skill would later come in handy when Houston went into the final week of the 1963-64 NBA regular season tied for first with Los Angeles in the Western Division standings and needing at least three wins in their remaining six games in order to clinch the top seed in the 1964 Western Division playoffs. The Oilers desperately wanted a chance to redeem themselves in the postseason after their dismal performance in the 1963 NBA Finals; despite being a relative newcomer to Houston, Naulls understood the importance to his teammates of wiping away the stain of their ’63 drubbing at Boston’s hands.
By an interesting coincidence, the first of those final six games was a home stand against that same Celtics team at Harris County Fieldhouse. Sportswriters of the time were touting it, and with some justification, as a potential preview of the 1964 NBA Finals. It ended up coming down to a one-on-one showdown between Willie Naulls and Clyde Lovellette, who by that time had become the Houston backcourt’s primary nemesis; Naulls won the duel that time, and the Oilers won the game 107-102.
Houston’s next game, their final road tilt of the 1963-64 NBA season, brought them to Miami to face the Marlins. Again, it was Willie Naulls who won the day for the Oilers, notching 48 points and grabbing 17 rebounds as Houston rolled to a 126-101 demolition of Miami. With the Lakers in a two-game losing streak, Houston fans were sure the top seed for the 1964 Western Division playoffs was in the bag for the Oilers; however, two days after Houston’s win over the Marlins disaster struck for Coach Marshall and his players when Houston blew a 17-point third quarter lead against the Philadelphia Flyers at Harris County Fieldhouse and lost to Philly in overtime 118-110. That loss, combined with a 97-85 Lakers win against the Baltimore Bullets, shrank Houston’s narrow lead in the Western Division standings and infected Coach Marshall’s squad with the same creeping twinge of self-doubt that that had preceded many of their most infamous playoff failures.
The twinge deepened after the fourth of those six games, a 132-111 pounding at the hands of the Chicago Bulls; there was no change in the Western Division standings that night because the Lakers lost to the St. Louis Hawks in overtime 106-92 to keep the Oilers in first place, but Houston’s defeat at Chicago’s hands wasn’t exactly conducive to encouraging the level of morale that would enable them to regain the NBA league championship. Coach Marshall felt his team needed a huge win in its remaining three regular season games to get them over the hump...
....and that win came in the next-to-last game of the 1963-64 regular season as Houston thrashed the Detroit Pistons 127- 104; this victory, combined with an Atlanta Knights upset win over the Lakers, officially clinched the #1 seed for Houston in the 1964 NBA Western Division playoffs. By then the IBL, which was gearing up for its third season, was up to its eyeballs in scandal; the league’s internal inquiry confirmed a high-level member of the San Antonio Heat’s front office had indeed been involved in the supposed conspiracy to fix one or more 1962 Gulf Coast Division playoff games, and as if that wasn’t a bitter enough pill for the league to swallow the Texas state attorney general’s office was hinting that it might bring racketeering charges against several IBL team officials and league executives.
There were even signs that a federal investigation of the IBL might be in the offing; three weeks after the NBA regular season ended, the FBI dispatched agents to the IBL’s league headquarters in Dallas to question IBL commissioner Angelo Luisetti about the findings of the league’s internal probe into the 1962 Gulf Coast Division playoff fixing scheme. The meeting lasted almost seven hours, and when it was over the FBI agents had learned that the league’s own inquiry into the fixing plot had found connections not only to the San Antonio front office executive and the two IBL referees who’d been the original focus of the investigation but also to members of the Dallas Steamers, who had allegedly been promised a first-round pick in the 1963 IBL amateur draft in exchange for the team’s cooperation with the game-fixing plan.
As the scandal began to pick up more steam, a gnawing dread slowly crept in among fans throughout the entire IBL; if the 1962 Gulf Coast playoffs had been crooked, what else about the league could be corrupt? This attitude of suspicion gradually infected all other elements of the IBL, and as a result its profits and attendance went into a steady and irreversible decline. By 1966 the league would be nearly $10 million in the red and bankruptcy rumors would be starting to swirl about it.
While the Oilers never had to endure the kind of disgrace that overtook the Steamers and the Heat, they did encounter some hard times of their own. The 1964 NBA playoffs saw Houston eliminated in the opening round for the first time since 1959, and as if the sting of not making it to the Western Division finals wasn’t pain enough for Tom Marshall and his players their early exit came at the hands of the Oilers’ division archrivals the St. Louis Hawks. Understandably Coach Marshall began to worry about his job after the Oilers were dispatched three games to one in that series; he remembered all too well that his predecessor and mentor Bobby Wanzer, who had won a league championship, had been fired after he was swept by the Celtics in the 1963 NBA Finals. True, Wanzer and the Oilers ownership had fallen out over contract issues, but just the same Marshall was bracing himself for the possibility of getting pink-slipped.
But instead the club chose to bring him back for the 1964-65 NBA season, at the end of which Houston would reap its greatest reward from the three-way Naulls-Twyman-Rodgers trade...
To Be Continued
1The lingering PR fallout over the acrimonious end to Bobby Wanzer’s coaching tenure in Houston may have had something to do with these switches.