The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first five 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; the early days of Tom Marshall’s reign as Oilers head coach; the growth of the ABA as a rival to the NBA; and the debut of Wes Unseld as an NBA player. In this chapter, we’ll review the Oilers’ return to the NBA Finals in 1966 and their road to their second NBA league championship the following year and look back on the racketeering trial which accelerated the IBL’s path towards its final collapse in the early 1970s.
As Wes Unseld adjusted to the rhythms of the Houston Oilers’ offense, he and Willie Naulls would become a formidable scoring tandem, striking dread in the hearts of Houston’s opponents and making its fans cheer their lungs out at every home game. Indeed, Unseld and Naulls would prove to be so good as an offensive duo that just a month into the 1965-66 NBA regular season the Oilers would enjoy a thirteen-game lead over the Lakers in the Western Division standings.
Unseld was no slouch on defense either; in his first fifteen NBA games his rookie year he averaged 21.3 shot blocks and 8.5 steals, giving opposing forwards screaming fits. His defensive talents prompted the league to bestow on him the Player of the Month award for December 1965-- the first of dozens of accolades which would come his way before his playing days were over.
His introduction to the Celtics-Oilers rivalry came a week before Christmas, when Boston was at Harris County Fieldhouse to face Houston in a matchup that some sportswriters were already billing as a potential preview of the 1966 NBA Finals. Like the Oilers, the Celtics were holding a comfortable lead in their division; both teams knew this would be a rough contest, and so did the media-- Sports Illustrated’s cover that week showed a cartoon of the Oilers’ mascot Wildcat Willie in boxing gear facing the Celtics’ leprechaun, with the caption "Marshall’s Oilers vs. Heinsohn’s Celtics: Something’s Got To Give." That something turned out to be two of Unseld’s teeth, which were knocked out by Bill Russell when he and Unseld got into a fight after the rookie fouled him midway through the third quarter.
The Celtics won that night, but it was an exceedingly narrow victory, and one Unseld might have snatched away from Boston had he been able to make a critical free throw in the final seconds of the fourth quarter that would have sent the game into overtime. Still, Red Auerbach and company had been served notice that there was a bona fide game changer in town, and in years to come there would be at least a few nights when Unseld did indeed snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for the Oilers at Boston Garden.
By New Year’s Day Houston had stretched its Western Division lead to twelve games and fans were already starting to speculate about who the Oilers would face in the first round of the 1966 NBA playoffs. When Marshall’s team reeled off eleven consecutive road victories-- including a 28-point blowout of the Hawks in what would turn out to be the Oilers’ last-ever visit to St. Louis --popular consensus held that Houston was a good bet to win the NBA Finals that year.
The Oilers clinched one major trophy before the playoffs even started; Wes Unseld was unanimously voted the 1965-66 NBA Rookie of the Year by America’s sportswriters, who had seen in him the makings of a potential all-time superstar. Oilers head coach Tom Marshall finished second in the NBA Coach of the Year balloting, while Willie Naulls tied for fourth place in voting for Player of the Year honors.
Houston’s 1966 playoff run started with a rematch of their 1965 first-round postseason clash against the Chicago Bulls. This time, getting past the Bulls would be somewhat more difficult for the Oilers than it had been in their first playoff confrontation. After Houston demolished Chicago in the series opener, they were handed a stunning upset loss at Harris County Fieldhouse in Game 2 and got walloped by the Bulls by twenty points when the series moved to Chicago Stadium for Game 3; some Oilers fans feared that their team might be facing a repeat of its early exits from the 1959 and 1964 NBA Western Division playoffs.
But as the Oilers had done dozens of times in the past when their backs were against the wall, they rallied to take back the initiative. After scratching out a hard-fought overtime victory at Chicago in Game 4, Houston unleashed its offense full blast in the series finale at Harris County Fieldhouse. Oscar Robertson, Wes Unseld, and Willie Naulls all scored 30 points or more in the first half of that contest, while on the other hand the highest- scoring player on the Bulls’ side could only manage 14 first half points. The Oilers rolled to a 137-101 crushing of the Bulls and a showdown with the Lakers in the 1966 Western Division finals.
The Lakers had wanted this rematch for three years; they were eager to avenge their 1963 playoff defeat at Houston’s hands and move on to the NBA Finals. But it was not to be: riding the wave of momentum that had gotten them through their first round series with the Chicago Bulls, the Oilers dispatched Los Angeles in five games to set up another NBA Finals clash with the Boston Celtics. As tickets went on sale at Harris County Fieldhouse for the first game of the 1966 NBA Finals, Houston fans hoped this might be the year the Larry O’Brien Trophy1 finally returned to their city.
Boston, of course, had other ideas....
The 1966 NBA Finals were different from previous Celtics-Oilers playoff battles in two important aspects. The first was that for once the Oilers would have home court advantage; they’d had five regular season victories than the Celtics, which meant that the first two games of the Finals would be played at Harris County Fieldhouse. The second was Jerry Lucas, who’d broken his shooting hand in the last game of the 1966 NBA Western Division finals, wouldn’t be a major factor in the outcome this time out. In fact Lucas would spend most of the ’66 NBA Finals stuck on the bench, and by the time he finally did get into the action the Oilers would be in a 3-1 hole.
The ’66 Finals began on a hopeful note for the Oilers; they won the first game in overtime 142-135 thanks in part to the 51-point, 33-blocked shot performance of Willie Naulls. But in Game 2, Houston began to experience a Chernobyl-style meltdown which would haunt Oilers fans for years to come-- leading the Celtics by thirty-seven points late in the third quarter and in position to take a 2 games-to-0 lead in the Finals, the Oilers abruptly fell into a slump which allowed Boston to pull even with them in the closing minutes of the quarter. The Celtics began the fourth quarter with a 23-7 scoring run and never looked back; despite a valiant effort on Houston’s part to close the gap, Boston came away with a 137-110 victory.
Boston gained the advantage in the Finals with a 117-106 win over the Oilers at Boston Garden in Game 3; Clyde Lovellette, his days in Houston now a distant memory, gave the Oilers a screaming fit on offense, seeming to score almost at will. He caused a lot of headaches for them on defense too, blocking ten of their final twelve shots of the game and making two critical steals late in the second half to squelch potential Houston rallies which could have let the Oilers steal the win from Boston and tie the series at 2-2.
Yet as painful as the Game 3 defeat was for the Oilers, Game 4 would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Celtics forward Larry Siegfried reeled off 17 points in the first quarter alone; Bill Russell blocked a perimeter shot from Oscar Robertson which would have given Houston a one-point lead going into the start of the second quarter; guard and future Boston head coach K.C. Jones killed a potential Oilers third-quarter rally with a steal of an inbounds pass intended for Wayne Embry; and Boston went on to win 126-98 and push the Oilers to the brink of elimination.
When Jerry Lucas finally got into the action in the fifth and last game of the series, the Oilers were a thoroughly demoralized lot. Despite the best efforts of Robertson, Wes Unseld, and the rest of the Houston lineup, the Oilers hadn’t been to capitalize on their home court advantage...
....and the Celtics, sensing their NBA archrival was on the ropes, wasted little time in delivering the knockout blow. They opened up a 19-point lead in the first quarter of Game 5 and by halftime were ahead by 27 points; after that, they never looked back, ultimately winning 132-114 to take home yet another league championship. Jerry Lucas tried his best to stem the tide, but his efforts proved to be too little too late-- Boston reserve forward Ron Bonham managed more points in the second quarter(25) than Lucas could in the entire game(11).
By now, Houston hoops fans were beginning to wonder if their team would ever grab the brass ring again. Rumors were starting to circulate that Lucas or Robertson-- if not both --might get traded during the offseason to make room for younger blood.2 Tom Marshall was sufficiently worried about his job prospects that he secretly began feeling out other pro basketball franchises, among them two ABA clubs, about possible coaching positions on their roster should the Oilers fire him or ask for his resignation.
Fears of another season without an NBA championship heightened after Wayne Embry was put on waivers in May of 1966. Without his scoring touch in the Houston roster, some sportswriters thought, the Oilers would be lucky to retain their Western Division crown, let alone recapture the NBA league title. But as it happened, the Oilers were about to embark on their most successful season since 1962.
While the Oilers were putting the 1965-66 NBA season in their rearview mirror and gearing up for the 1966-67 season, the IBL’s playoff fixing saga was building towards a crescendo. Federal and state authorities had finally made some arrests in that scandal, and at least five separate court cases-- three criminal and two civil --were on the docket in connection with the IBL Gulf Coast playoff rigging conspiracy. The biggest of these trials involved San Antonio assistant general manager Gene Zwibel, the suspected brains behind the 1962 Gulf Coast playoff fixing conspiracy.
Indicted on thirteen counts ranging from racketeering to assault and battery,3 Zwibel was deemed by the national sports media as the chief symbol of the corruption which had infected the IBL. Zwibel had been with the San Antonio Heat from the time the team was first created; when the Heat won their first IBL league championship in 1962, Zwibel was hailed in some quarters as a genius and a man who could potentially have as big an impact on basketball as James Naismith and Red Auerbach. Now, however, he was in disgrace, accused of orchestrating a con game on the level of Arnold Rothstein’s infamous plot to rig baseball’s 1919 World Series.
On the day of Zwibel’s indictment, the steps outside the Dallas courthouse where the trial was being held were crowded with demonstrators. Some were San Antonio Heat fans who felt personally betrayed by Zwibel; others were Dallas Steamer fans convinced Zwibel’s suspected chicanery had robbed the Steamers of the IBL championship four years earlier. Both groups were furious at Zwibel and wanted the presiding judge in the case to throw the book at him. Keeping the peace, and overseeing security for the trial, was a detachment of Texas Rangers who were backed up by agents of the Dallas US marshal’s office.
The case of State of Texas vs. Eugene Lamont Zwibel spanned most of the spring and summer of 1966; of all the news stories to come out of the Lone Star State in that timespan, only the deadly shooting spree in Austin by ex-Marine Charles Whitman generated more TV coverage or newspaper headlines. When the verdict in that trial was delivered in late August of 1966 it was a sufficiently high-profile event that CBS broke into its daily broadcast of As The World Turns, then America’s most popular soap opera, to tell viewers of the jury’s decision.
Zwibel was convicted on eleven of the thirteen criminal counts against him and acquitted on the twelfth; the jury came to a deadlock on the thirteenth. His sentencing for the crimes of which he’d been convicted was postponed pending resolution of the federal racketeering charges against him, but it wouldn’t matter much in the end what sentence the state or federal courts handed down: less than six months after the jury’s verdict in State of Texas v. Zwibel, the former San Antonio assistant GM was dead by his own hand, hanging himself in his cell.
Texas v. Zwibel marked the beginning of the IBL’s death watch. From that moment on, the league fell into gradual and permanent decline; the 1966 IBL finals between the Miami Stingrays and the Gulf Coast Division champion Mobile Meteors played to half-empty stands, and from there attendance at all IBL games would continue to dwindle until, by the time the league finally shut its doors for good in 1971, the few surviving IBL franchises were competing before audiences that wouldn’t even fill a high school gymnasium.
By contrast, the Oilers would play much of their regular season and all of their playoff games before packed houses during the 1966-67 NBA season. Tom Marshall’s ballclub, embarrassed and frustrated at having been beaten in five games in the 1966 NBA Finals, was determined to erase the stigma of that defeat and recapture the NBA league championship. This determination served as the genesis for the 17-game winning streak with which Houston opened the regular season; the streak in turn spurred a surge in ticket demand at Harris County Fieldhouse as the season unfolded.
One of the most important road games Houston played that season was a New Year’s Eve matinee against their old Western Division archrivals. After the end of the 1965-66 NBA season, the erstwhile St. Louis Hawks had relocated to the Pacific Northwest and re-christened themselves the Seattle Mariners; the New Year’s Eve matinee game would mark the first time that the two clubs had faced each other since the relocation.
That matinee showed the rivalry hadn’t lost its intensity; the Oilers and the Mariners matched one another point for point and rebound for rebound in a marathon contest which Houston finally won in double overtime when Jerry Lucas hit a free throw to break a 131-131 tie with only four seconds remaining in the second OT.
When the Mariners came to Harris County Fieldhouse for a rematch in mid-January, the Oilers won that game 111-106; this time, it was Wes Unseld who won the day for Houston, squashing a potential Seattle rally by stealing a Mariners inbounds pass late in the third quarter. "God help the poor saps who have to meet Houston in the playoffs." a Sports Illustrated columnist observed in the following week’s issue.4
The Oilers’ path to the 1967 NBA Finals was the toughest one they had yet walked in the ten years since they’d first moved to Houston from Rochester. In the opening round they were nearly the victims of an upset by the Cincinnati Monarchs; Cincinnati split the first two games of that series with Houston and led by twenty points early in the fourth quarter of the fifth game before the Oilers staged a comeback to win the game by ten points and move on to the 1967 Western Division finals.
The Western Division finals were no less intense; in that series the Oilers battled the San Francisco Warriors tooth and nail, needing six games to finally dispatch the Warriors and make it to the 1967 NBA Finals. Jack Twyman made his final postseason appearances at Harris County Fieldhouse in the Oilers-Warriors series, averaging 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds for San Francisco; unfortunately for the Warriors, that wasn’t enough to get them past Houston.
Yet as intense as their first round clash with the Monarchs and their Western Division finals battle with the Warriors had been, their NBA Finals showdown against the Philadelphia Flyers would be their most difficult postseason series since the 1962 NBA Finals. The Flyers, propelled by the give-no-quarter defense of center Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain and the deft scoring touch of future Flyers coach Billy Cunningham, had notched 64 wins in the regular season and upset the Boston Celtics in the 1967 NBA Eastern Division finals to set up a confrontation with Houston for the NBA league championship.
And "confrontation" is exactly the right word for it. In the series opener, a 141-128 Flyers victory at Harris County Fieldhouse, Oscar Robertson got in a shoving match with Wilt Chamberlain early in the third quarter, causing both players to be ejected; in the second game, which the Oilers won 99-93 to tie the series, Tom Marshall was hit with a technical foul after getting in a heated courtside argument with Philadelphia guard Matt Guokas.
Game 3, the first postseason encounter between the Oilers and the Flyers at the Philadelphia Spectrum, didn’t do anything to cool down the hostility between Houston and Philly. In fact, the bad feelings had escalated thanks to a disparaging comment Wilt Chamberlain made the previous day about Jerry Lucas to a Chicago Tribune sportswriter in which Chamberlain basically said Lucas was past his prime. Hellbent on proving Chamberlain wrong, Lucas lit the Flyers up for 51 points and 35 rebounds as Houston cruised to a 136-117 victory.
There was no love lost between Philadelphia and Houston in Game 4 either; Flyers forward Chet Walker was fined for making an obscene gesture at the Houston bench, and Jerry Lucas had to be physically restrainned from going after Billy Cunningham after the Philadelphia forward tried to deck him following a loose ball foul in the second quarter. The Flyers won Game 4 107-99 to tie the series at 2-all; if Philadelphia could win Game 5, they would be in a perfect position to clinch the NBA league championship when the series headed back to Harris County Fieldhouse for Game 6.
Houston, of course, had other ideas. They weren’t about to end yet another NBA season empty-handed after having endured one heartbreak after another and one struggle after another simply to get to the 1967 NBA Finals; they shrugged the Flyers off like a bad head cold in Game 5, walloping them 138-104 and taking a 3 games-to-2 lead in the series. With home court advantage and a raucous crowd on their side for Game 6, the Oilers were highly confident they could dispatch the Flyers once and for all to take the NBA league championship.
As had been the case in 1962, however, the Oilers would have to go the distance before they could finally claim the title. The Flyers rebounded from their Game 5 embarrassment to win Game 6 in overtime 117-111; that set the stage for a grueling winner-take- all Game 7. It was in that Game 7 when Wes Unseld would finally fulfill the purpose for which he had originally been recruited by the Oilers: bringing the NBA championship back to Houston.
Game 7 of the 1967 NBA Finals didn’t start out being the decisive Houston victory it would eventually become; in fact, for the entire first quarter and much of the second quarter it looked like they would fall victim to the Flyers and have to settle for second place again. But then Wes Unseld hit two critical free throws midway through the second quarter and Houston began to get its wind back. By halftime, the Oilers had pulled to within three points of Philadelphia.
In the third quarter Houston’s offense erupted like Mount St. Helens, reeling off a 28-4 scoring run to start the second half and put Philadelphia on its heels; Wes Unseld personally accounted for at least fourteen of those points, and also made three shot blocks against the Flyers front court to squelch any possibility of Philadelphia mounting its own comeback bid. And as if that wasn’t enough to make Flyers fans feel like their team had been jinxed Wilt Chamberlain, the linchpin of Phiadelphia’s defense, fouled out early in the fourth quarter, effectively pulling the plug on the Flyers’ NBA championship hopes. Not long after Chamberlain departed, teammate Billy Cunningham fouled out too; much of the Harris County Fieldhouse crowd viewed as a sign that it was time to start celebrating.
When the buzzer officially sounded to signal the end of the game, euphoria seemed to radiate from the Houston bench out into the Fieldhouse stands and over all of metropolitan Houston. For the second time in five years, the Houston Oilers were NBA league champions; not surprisingly, Wes Unseld was the overwhelming pick among sportswriters and fans for Finals MVP.
Following the victory parade, Tom Marshall and his players scattered to the four winds for much-deserved relaxation time before reassembling in the early fall to begin preparing for the 1967-68 season. While they were on vacation, the IBL would watch its already greatly decreased credibility plummet even further...
To Be Continued
 The trophy awarded each year to the winners of the NBA Finals; before 1985 it was known simply as “the championship trophy”.
 As it turned out, though, Lucas would remain with the Oilers until the end of the 1969 NBA season; as for Robertson, he would stay with Houston until the middle of the 1970-71 season.
 Zwibel had kicked a San Antonio police officer during his arrest.
 The Mariners would not be one of those saps, however; Seattle finished the 1966-67 NBA season ten games under .500.