The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first six 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; the NBA debut of Wes Unseld; the 1966 State of Texas vs. Zwibel racketeering trial; Houston’s embarrassing five-game demolition by the Celtics in the 1966 NBA Finals; and the Oilers’ triumph over Philadelphia in the 1967 NBA Finals. In this chapter we’ll look back at the start of the Oilers’ second decade in Houston and recall the cash crunch which forced the dying IBL to cancel its 1969 season.
Whatever else one might say about the Oilers’ first decade in Houston, one certainly couldn’t complain it had been boring. Two NBA league championships, a host of Western Division titles, and dozens of memorable regular season battles with the Celtics, Lakers, and Hawks/Mariners had made the Oilers a Houston civic institution; only football, that venerable part of Texas sporting life since the days of the Model T, excited greater passion among sports-minded Houstonians.
The Oilers’ influence on basketball extended well beyond the NBA. In pickup playground games kids tried to imitate Jerry Lucas and Wes Unseld; in the NCAA, men’s hoop coaches studied Houston’s approach to the game and sought to adapt it to college ball while their players aspired to be drafted by the Oilers; Olympic men’s basketball officials eyed Harris County Fieldhouse as a possible venue for future Summer Games basketball competitions; ex-Oilers general manager Les Harrison was president of the ABA’s Atlantic Division and ex-Oilers head coach Bobby Wanzer was doing play-by- play commentary for national ABA telecasts; and Charles Wolf, a former Oilers assistant coach during the Wanzer era, had replaced Angelo Luisetti as commissioner of the faltering IBL.
In his introductory press conference as IBL commissioner, Wolf had acknowledged that the league was in a hole but made the optimistic prediction that "we’ll be back on track before long. By 1970 the Intercontinental Basketball League will be the number one professional basketball organization in the world."1 But that early optimism had crumbled along with the league’s credibility as scandal continued to undermine the IBL’s reputation; in a letter to a friend near the end of the 1967 IBL regular season, Wolf privately admitted he didn’t know whether the IBL could last another year.
In fact, two of the IBL’s charter franchises had already folded when Wolf mailed that letter. The Dallas Steamers, who only five short years earlier had been touted as one of the top ten fastest-growing business enterprises in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, filed for bankruptcy the same day the letter was written; the Nashville Troubadours, the Miami Stingrays’ IBL Atlantic Division nemeses for most of the IBL’s early years, went out of business two weeks before the letter was written. The remaining teams were all treading water in financial terms-- especially the San Antonio Heat, who had been forced to pay out and were still paying out massive legal costs as a consequence of Gene Zwibel’s chicanery in the 1962 Gulf Coast division playoffs.
As the Oilers were defending their 1967 NBA league title and striving to achieve the goal of a second straight league title in 1968, the IBL lost its national TV contract. In April of 1968 the seventh annual IBL All-Star Game, which had already been called off once in response to the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was cancelled for good due to lack of funds. The surviving IBL franchises were cutting back spending in all areas and slashing ticket prices to the bone in a desperate effort to stop their financial hemorrhaging; the league itself tried unsuccessfully to secure loans from two New York City banks to cover some of its financial shortfall.
The IBL’s cash crunch was a contributing factor in the loss of another vital IBL resource: player talent. Whether they were frustrated with the increasing delays in receiving their salaries or they sensed that the IBL was lurching towards final collapse, many of the league’s top players opted to pull up stakes for the greener pastures of the NBA or the ABA once their IBL contracts were up. College players drafted by IBL franchises were becoming more and more reluctant to report to those franchises-- and when they did report, they often encountered an atmosphere of almost funereal gloominess among their new teammates.
A Sports Illustrated article published three weeks before the start of the 1967 IBL playoffs neatly summarized the extent to which the league’s fortunes had plummeted since the 1962 Gulf Coast playoff scandal began. 1500 IBL employees were randomly polled as to how the scandal and its aftershocks had affected them and whether they felt the league had a future. 95% of those polled for the article said that they had experienced physical, mental, or financial hardship as a result of the scandal; more than half of that number told the magazine they’d been confronted with all three at once. 75% of those polled stated that they felt the IBL had no future, and at least two-thirds of those people said they were convinced the league would collapse within less than two years.
The SI article also mentioned that many of the league’s charity activities had been sharply curtailed or even terminated altogether by its financial woes in the wake of the Gulf Coast playoff scandal; by the time the article went to press, the IBL had not only lost its national TV contract but was also seeing its regional television deals slip through its fingers like they were grains of sand. The last-ever televised IBL game, aired in late August of 1968, was seen by just six hundred people in East St. Louis, Illinois and was interrupted by news coverage of the riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
On the other hand, the ABA was becoming a national television staple and giving the venerable NBA a run for its money. The ABA-NBA rivalry on the parquet was becoming a mirror image of the old AFL-NFL feud on the gridiron; the ABA had long since left the IBL in its rearview mirror and was setting its sights squarely on the NBA in its quest to become the top professional basketball league in the United States.
By the same token, the NBA had ceased to factor the IBL into its business strategy and was basing all its long-term decisions on the premise that the ABA would be its only major competition for the foreseeable future. Two very huge assets the NBA had in its favor: the Boston Celtics and the Houston Oilers, franchises whose visibility transcended not only the NBA but the sport of basketball itself. People who didn’t know a pick-and-roll from a dinner roll could recognize Jerry Lucas or Bill Russell at just one glance; Celtics and Oilers jerseys held the top spot on many a Christmas gift list during the winter of 1967-68.
All the signs in the home stretch of the ’67-’68 NBA season pointed in the direction of a Celtics-Oilers rematch in the 1968 NBA Finals. The Celtics reasserted their traditional role as the dominant force in the NBA Eastern Division, cruising through the first round and the division finals to return to the NBA league championship series after a one-year hiatus; perhaps the sweetest moment of the division finals for Boston was when, with under two minutes left in Game 4 and a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers all but assured, the Boston Garden crowd began chanting its favorite rallying cry of "Drill the Oilers!"-- a slogan which for years had been heard in the Hub before and during every NBA Finals.
But the Los Angeles Lakers had other ideas; they dispatched Houston three games to one in the 1968 Western Division finals. Disappointed Houston fans had to watch on their TV sets while the Celtics battled, and eventually defeated, the Lakers in a seven- game NBA league championship showdown that’s still considered a classic more than four decades later. Shortly after the Celtics clinched the 1968 NBA league title, the Oilers faithful endured still another disappointment when the team’s front office waived Wayne Embry in order to make room for fresh blood.
Still, the franchise formerly known as the Rochester Royals had come a long way since Les Harrison had inked the deal which first brought the team to Houston. The predominantly white crowds before which the Oilers had played in their early years in the Energy City were steadily giving way to a more racially diverse fandom; likewise, slight touches of the counterculture which was blossoming in America at that time were beginning to show up in the stands at Harris County Fieldhouse. During the 1968-69 NBA regular season it wasn’t unusual to see spectators-- or players for that matter --sporting love beads at an Oilers home game or hear the Fieldhouse organist play Jimi Hendrix during timeouts. And at least once before the season was over, Houston police were called to the Fieldhouse to arrest a pot smoker who had made the mistake of lighting up his joint in full view of arena security.
A Houston Chronicle survey conducted in March of 1969 asked readers to choose their favorite Houston pro sports franchise: the Oilers, baseball’s Astros, or the American Football League’s Titans. The Oilers topped the list by a 4-to-1 margin among those polled. A few weeks later Sports Illustrated devoted a six-page spread to the phenomenon of the Oilers’ transformation into one of the NBA’s bona fide superpowers; the article closed with its author predicting that the team would be an NBA playoff force for years to come.
The sunny outlook sketched for the Oilers in the SI piece was a stark contrast to the grim future that now stared the IBL right in its face. With two of its franchises already out of commission and the rest essentially living on borrowed time, the league some basketball aficionados had once viewed as the natural heir to the NBA’s mantle was by 1969 more closely resembling the Roman Empire in the final days before the Empire’s fall to barbarian hordes.
Of course there weren’t any barbarians threatening to sack and pillage IBL arenas, but the league was assuredly within sight of its ultimate doom. Just after SI’s latest cover story about the Oilers hit the newsstands, the IBL began tolling its death knell; on April 11th, 1969 the league announced that it was cancelling its entire 1969 regular season and playoffs due to lack of revenue. Charles Wolf was so dejected at having to make that decision he seriously considered resigning his post as IBL commissioner before the IBL owners’ executive committee talked him out of it.
Not only was the 1969 IBL season officially scrubbed, but the odds of the league being able to play its scheduled 1970 season weren’t looking very good either. What little money the league had left after the judgments handed down against it in the Gulf Coast playoff scandal was going mostly towards a series of desperate-- and largely futile --efforts to woo fans back to to its games using increasingly outlandish gimmicks. This left very little money to pay IBL employees’ salaries with, and as a consequence the already substantial drain of player and executive talent from the league’s ranks became an exodus of near-Biblical proportions.
Indeed, as one TV comedian at the time quipped, it was a wonder there was anybody left on the IBL payroll besides Charles Wolf and the staff in the IBL headquarters mail room. The owner of the Mobile Meteors had to personally invest $2 million of his own cash just to be sure his team could play a single exhibition game; the Miami Stingrays, once one of the IBL’s elite clubs, had gotten so desperate for players by this time that they actually recruited men from the city’s amateur recreational leagues. The Trenton Gulls, the lone IBL franchise north of the Mason-Dixon line which had managed to stay in business through even the worst of the league’s scandals, was rumored to be so deep in the red it was facing possible auction to settle its debts.
And they weren’t the only IBL team being eyed for sale; like Carrie Bradshaw eyeing a particularly fashionable pair of Manolo Blahniks, the ABA had started to reach for its wallet to acquire as much IBL property as it could before the IBL folded once and for all. For that matter the NBA was thought to be interested in taking over the IBL and re-launching it as a developmental league somewhat similar to baseball’s farm system.
In any case, the league that had once billed itself as "the pro basketball organization of the ‘70s"2 would be defunct before the end of 1971.
The Oilers finished the 1968-69 NBA season in second place in the Western Division; though few people suspected it at the time, it would mark the swan song of the Lucas-Robertson combo that had helped bring Houston two NBA league titles. The Seattle Mariners, the number three seed in the Western Division playoffs that year, did the unthinkable and swept the Oilers in the first round. The Mariners in turn would be swept by the Lakers in the 1969 Western Division finals, but their surprising and decisive triumph over the Oilers would spur the Houston front office to the conclusion that Lucas’ best days were behind him. In June of 1969, as most of the public’s attention was focused on the war in Vietnam and the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission which would be launched on July 16th, the Oilers traded Lucas to the Cincinnati Monarchs for two point guards and a first-round pick in the 1970 NBA draft....
To Be Continued
 Excerpt from Charles Wolf’s first press conference as IBL commissioner, May 20th, 1965.
 Quoted from the IBL’s 1964 pre-season press guide.