The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first four 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 start of the American Basketball Association(ABA); the firing of Bobby Wanzer as Oilers head coach after Houston was swept by the Celtics in the two teams’ NBA Finals rematch in 1963; the scandal which began to engulf the IBL after evidence surfaced indicating there had been a conspiracy to fix one or more of its 1962 Gulf Coast Division playoff games; and the beginning of Tom Marshall’s reign as Oilers head coach. In this chapter we’ll follow the Oilers’ return to the NBA Western Division finals, see the debut of Houston 1965 first-round draft pick Wes Unseld, and review how the ABA started gaining the upper hand once and for all in its rivalry with the IBL.
On the eve of the start of his second season as Oilers head coach, Tom Marshall held a team meeting at the Oilers’ pregame workout facilities on the campus of Rice University to tell them that for the 1964-65 season there would be a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of defense. He felt that defensive lapses had been Houston’s Achilles heel during the 1964 NBA playoffs and the primary cause for their early exit; in order to keep history from repeating itself, Marshall explained to his players, they would need to work on sharpening their defensive skills. Accordingly, the Oilers devoted at least a third of their practice time prior to their ’64-’65 season opener to working on the shot-blocking and rebound elements of their game. That practice paid off to a huge degree: Houston its first six home games and ten of twelve games overall to start the year off, and within three weeks after the NBA season got underway Houston was tied with Los Angeles for first place in the NBA Western Division standings.
But the real sign that Marshall’s efforts to sharpen his team’s defense were paying off came in early December, when the Oilers traveled to Cincinnati to face the Monarchs in a critical road matchup that promised to have major implications for the rest of the NBA regular season. The Monarchs were battling both Houston and Los Angeles for the top spot in the Western Division at the time, and a victory against the Oilers would improve their prospects for getting into the 1965 NBA playoffs; conversely, an Oilers win would solidify Houston’s grip on first place.
For Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson, both University of Cincinnati alumni, it was almost like old home week; many of the spectators in attendance that evening had been Oiler fans in the days before Cincinnati got an NBA expansion team, and they were pulling for Houston in spite of the fact that the Monarchs were the home squad partly because Lucas and Robertson were with the Oilers.1 This small but highly vocal contingent competed with the larger and equally vocal party of Monarch fans at the Cincinnati Gardens2 that night.
The Oilers prevailed both in the stands and on the court; behind a 39-rebound night from Robertson and a 44-point scoring surge from Lucas, Houston won in overtime 134-129. The win at Cincinnati propelled Houston into sole possession of first place in the Western Division standings...
....just as the ABA was beginning to overtake the IBL for good in the two leagues’ constant struggle to occupy the position of top challenger to the NBA’s supremacy in pro basketball in America. While it would take until the early 1970s for the ABA to absorb the IBL, omens of the IBL’s coming demise could be seen much earlier than that. One of those omens came in April of 1965, when the fourth annual IBL All-Star Game, which had been set for April 30th in San Diego, was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.3 Fans already disenchanted by the fixing talk related to the 1962 Gulf Coast Division playoffs were wary of getting burned again by the IBL, and despite the league’s best efforts to reassure them that it was running an honest game those fans continued to stay away when the IBL regular season began.
Another warning sign was the abrupt resignation of league commissioner Angelo Luisetti on May 17th. The turmoil created by the Gulf Coast playoff scandal had taken a physical and emotional toll on him so great that he couldn’t stand it anymore; his exit was a shock to the pro basketball world, given that Luisetti had long been one of the cornerstones in the IBL’s foundation. It was also a further blow to the IBL’s already shaky reputation, and although in the end state and federal investigations would clear Luisetti of any direct link to or prior knowledge of the fixing scheme, his departure would further cement the public impression that the IBL was thoroughly corrupt.
Meanwhile, the ABA was moving from strength to strength. When negotiations between the IBL and the city of Montreal to form an expansion team there finally collapsed in early December of 1964, the ABA quickly swooped in to rescue that city’s bid for its own pro hoops franchise and cut a deal with Montreal civic officials and the Canadian brewing giant Molson to set up an expansion club at the Montreal Forum for the 1965 ABA season.
Right about this same time a familiar face from the Oilers’ past resurfaced; the same week that the ABA finalized the deal to set up an expansion team in Montreal, former Oilers GM and head coach Les Harrison was named as president of the ABA’s Atlantic Division. Harrison, who had been actively courted by both the IBL and the ABA since his departure from the Oilers, had ultimately chosen to take the Atlantic Division president’s job because he believed the ABA had a brighter future. His instincts would turn out to be right; the ABA would outlast the IBL by nearly eight years. Furthermore, while IBL game attendance was shrinking, ABA attendance figures were steadily climbing upward-- a fact that by the end of the ‘60s would kindle the first sparks of interest in an ABA-NBA merger.
Shortly after Harrison became president of the ABA Atlantic
Division, another alumnus from the Oilers’ early days in Houston returned to the spotlight when NBC hired ex-Oilers head coach Bobby Wanzer as a color commentator for their national ABA game telecasts. Since his firing by the Houston ownership, Wanzer had largely stayed out of the public eye, devoting most of his time to writing a book about his coaching philosophy; when NBC came calling, however, he welcomed the opportunity to return to pro basketball. Though nobody realized it then, the NBC hiring was his first step towards a return to the NBA-- the partnership that had originally brought the Oilers to Texas was getting ready to cash out, and new owners would soon come in who wanted to bring Wanzer back to Houston.
The Oilers clinched the top seed in the 1965 NBA Western Division playoffs in the next-to-last week of the regular season. It didn’t come easy, but then things seldom did for Houston; Tom Marshall told his players they would have to be at the top of their game if they wanted to make it back to the NBA Finals. With that admonition echoing in their ears, the Oilers went all-out in every one of their remaining regular season games.
In the opening round of the Western Division playoffs the Oilers would face the Chicago Bulls, who had miraculously managed to claw their way their way to a fourth-place finish in the 1964- 65 NBA regular season and would be making their first postseason appearance in franchise history. They were nervous about going up against one of the league’s resident superpowers, and it showed: in Game 1 Chicago’s forwards missed a whopping 70% of their shots and their backcourt committed at least fifteen turnovers in the second quarter alone. That subpar performance would come back to haunt the Bulls-- Houston went on to sweep the series, winning the third and final game by thirty-six points. Willie Naulls was a substantial factor in the Oilers’ triumph, averaging 26 points and 17 points per game while blocking more than 40% of the Bulls’ shots.
Oilers fans felt good to see their team returning to the NBA Western Division finals after the heartbreak it had endured the previous year when it was knocked out in the first round. But the good feelings were soon shattered: after Houston took the first two games of the 1965 Western Division finals against the number 2 seeded Baltimore Bullets, they went into a shocking meltdown in the next three games while the Bullets-- riding the shoulders of a streaking Guy Rodgers --metamorphosed into the proverbial 800- pound gorilla. When the series returned to Houston for Game 6, a feeling of impending doom crept into the hearts and minds of some of the people in attendance.
Sure enough, Baltimore administered the fatal blow to the Oilers in Game 6, running up a 25-point lead in the first half and holding on to it for most of the second half; they won the game by 14 points and clinched a spot in the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in five games.
While the Oilers’ performance in the 1965 Western Division playoffs was an improvement on what it had been a year earlier, it wasn’t enough to satisfy Marshall-- or the men who played for him. Nor, for that matter, were the suits in the Houston front office content to rest on their laurels; using the first-round pick the Oilers had secured in the Rodgers-Twyman-Naulls three- way trade, they snagged University of Louisville standout Wes Unseld in the 1965 NBA amateur draft. Unseld, who had led his college team to two NCAA tournament appearances and a run in the NIT4, was regarded by Houston management as the missing piece to the puzzle of regaining the NBA league championship.
The stands at Harris County Fieldhouse were packed to the brim on the night of October 16th, 1965 as Oilers fans waited to see Wes Unseld make his official debut as an NBA player. He had made a favorable impression on them in the preseason by virtue of his hustle on defense and his gift for lighting a fire under his new teammates on offense; now people wanted to see if he could maintain that same high standard of play when the games counted. The fact that the Oilers were hosting a divisional rival, the St. Louis Hawks, on this particular night and that it also happened to be the Oilers’ 1965-66 season opener added to the pressure and anticipation.
Unseld rewarded the fans’ hopes with a 46-point, 29-rebound night as the Oilers rolled to a 130-112 win over the Hawks; his biggest contribution to the team that night was a textbook steal late in the second quarter which set the stage for a 21-4 Houston scoring run. It was the first of what would be many such moments for Unseld-- and the beginning of Houston’s path to its first NBA Finals appearance since 1963...
To Be Continued
1Interestingly enough, both Lucas and Robertson would eventually finish their NBA careers with the Monarchs.
2The Monarchs’ home arena at that time.
3The IBL was the only professional league in any sport in America to hold its all-star game prior to the start of its regular season; this put it in marked contrast to the NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, all of which hold their all-star contests at the midway point of their respective regular seasons, and the NFL, whose Pro Bowl usually takes place after the Super Bowl. The ABA’s all-star game, meanwhile, took place between the end of the ABA regular season and the start of the ABA playoffs.
4National Invitation Tournament.