The Story of the Houston Oilers
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous eight chapters of this series we recalled the Rochester Royals’ rebirth as the Houston Oilers; the long road to the Oilers’ first NBA championship in 1962; the formation of the IBL and ABA to compete with the NBA for the hearts, minds, and dollars of American basketball fans; Houston’s 1963-66 NBA league title drought and its return to glory with its triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1967 NBA Finals; how scandal tarnished the IBL’s once-bright prospects and opened the way for the ABA to start overtaking the IBL as the NBA’s archrival in the pro basketball world; the start of the breakup of the Wanzer-Marshall dynasty that had made the Oilers one of the dominant teams in the NBA’s Western Division during the ‘60s; and the final collapse of the IBL in 1970. In this installment we’ll look back at the Oscar Robertson trade and the playoff drought the Oilers had to suffer through for most of the ‘70s.
The Oilers were a sorry sight by the time they arrived at Boston Garden on December 31st, 1970 for a New Year’s Eve matinee against their old archfoes, the Celtics. The Celtics, although having an off year themselves, were in noticeably better shape than Houston; Boston was just eight games out of first place in the NBA Eastern Division, while Houston had dropped to eleven games under .500 in the Western Division standings and were in serious jeopardy of falling even further behind. And it didn’t help matters much that relations between Oscar Robertson and Oilers head coach Tom Marshall had cooled after the Jerry Lucas trade was announced. Robertson felt the Lucas trade was a mistake and had said so to Marshall more than once; Marshall had defended the trade as a necessity to keep the franchise from growing stale as it entered a new decade.
It was in this frame of mind that Robertson and his teammates took the court to battle the defending NBA league champions. Sure enough, the Celts jumped out to an early lead and effectively ran rings around the Oilers. The Big O had one of the worst regular season offensive performances of his career that day, missing six of his first eight shots in that game and 25 of 33 shots overall; adding insult to injury, Willie Naulls, the most potent secondary scoring threat in Houston’s arsenal now that Lucas was gone, had the misfortune to get ejected early in the third quarter after he argued with the refs over what Naulls considered a questionable foul call. In basketball terms, it was equivalent to a race car driver wiping out on the first turn or a baseball player hitting into an inning-ending double play.
The Oilers went on to lose the game 126-105-- and that was just the beginning of a long stretch of heartache for them and for their fans. After their New Year’s Eve defeat in Boston, the Oilers would drop thirteen straight home games, with ten of those thirteen losses coming by margins of 20 points or more. During one such loss, a 113-91 pasting by the Chicago Bulls, the lights literally went out on Houston when a tired and overworked member of Harris County Fieldhouse’s maintenance crew accidentally shut off the arena’s main electric generator midway through the third quarter. It took eighteen minutes to get power restored; Marshall and his players spent half those minutes wishing the lights would stay off.
By Groundhog Day the Oilers were seventeen games under .500 and team management had long since concluded that it was time for them to part ways with Oscar Robertson. On February 13th, 1971 the Oilers accepted an offer from the Cincinnati Monarchs to swap the Big O and a 1972 second round draft choice for two point guards and the proverbial "player to be named later". If there had been even a speck of doubt that the team was fundamentally changing, that doubt most likely vanished when news of the Robertson deal hit the papers.
Robertson’s departure officially rang down the curtain on an era of consecutive Oilers postseason appearances. For the next seven seasons, Houston would find itself on the outside looking in at playoff time; it was a bit of a comedown for a franchise that had once been seemingly a lock to make the Western Division finals or the NBA league championship series every year.
The final weeks of the 1970-71 NBA season were a glum time for Houston fans as the realization sank in that there weren’t going to be any rabbits pulled from the hat this time. What had once been considered unthinkable was now a stark fact: the Oilers were going to miss the playoffs for the first time since they’d relocated from Rochester in 1957. At the end of the team’s final home game of the ’70-’71 season, an overtime loss to the Miami Marlins, most of Houston’s players and coaches left Harris County Fieldhouse as fast as they could. To stick around would have just depressed them, one assistant coach told the Houston Post.
During their seven-year absence from the NBA postseason, the Oilers found themselves often playing foils for the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, when the Lakers recorded their legendary 33-game winning streak during the 1971-72 NBA season, six of those wins came at Houston’s expense. Elgin Baylor in particular developed a reputation as an Oilers-killer; according to official NBA stats from the ’71-’72 season, Baylor averaged 47 points and 29 blocked shots per game against the Oilers. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was added to the mix Houston’s problems grew exponentially; Kareem had a well-earned reputation for fearlessness on the court, and if anyone on the Houston bench forgot about that reputation he was only too willing to give them some reminders.
Even before he joined the Los Angeles lineup, Kareem had been a fierce foe of the Oilers-- his first NBA career ejection came back when he was still with the Minneapolis Cyclones and the Cyclones were hosting a pre-Thanksgiving game against Houston. An Oilers backup guard had supposedly cheap-shotted him as he was going for a rebound; Kareem, taking exception to this perceived slight, got in the guard’s face and an argument ensued that ended with Kareem getting the gate.
Up in Cincinnati Oscar Robertson, reunited with his friend and former Houston teammate Jerry Lucas, was playing as if he’d discovered the Fountain of Youth. While the post-Robertson era Oilers had little more to play for than pride(and draft picks), the Monarchs were consistently putting together solid postseason runs; in 1975, Robertson’s final year in the NBA, the Monarchs won the NBA Western Conference championship and swept the Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets to claim their first-- and so far only --NBA league championship.
December 9th, 1977 saw Harris County Fieldhouse become the scene of a near-tragedy. That day, the Lakers were battling the Oilers in an early season showdown that Houston’s coaching staff viewed as a critical test of the franchise’s ability to climb out of the doldrums it had been in since the home stretch of the ’70- ’71 NBA season; naturally the two longtime Western Conference foes went at each other hammer and tong. Still, there was no sign anything out of the ordinary was about to happen-- until Kermit Washington of the Lakers nailed Oilers forward and future Houston head coach Rudy Tomjanovich with a particularly hard foul early in the third quarter.
An incensed Tomjanovich took a swing at Washington, who immediately swung right back; within seconds the two were going at it in a brawl that was vicious even by the standards of the Oilers-Lakers rivalry. One Houston Chronicle sportswriter who was there that day would later remember the Tomjanovich-Washington melee as "just one step away from a duel to the death"1. But even the most grizzled veteran of the sports scene was unprepared for the climax of that confrontation.
Washington nailed Tomjanovich with a blow to the face which shattered Tomjanovich’s jaw and left him lying unconscious on the Fieldhouse hardwood floor, blood and spinal fluid gushing out of his body like Texas crude from the oil wells which had originally inspired the Oilers’ name. Everybody in the arena was horrified at what had happened, no one more so than Washington himself; not only had he given Tomjanovich a severe-- possibly fatal --injury, he had also effectively destroyed his own reputation. Before the punch Washington had been known as one of the most good-natured men in the league, an image that for all practical purposes died the second Tomjanovich went down.
Tomjanovich himself might have been dead too had it not been for a quick-thinking security guard who called an ambulance right away and a team of dedicated surgeons who worked around the clock to repair Tomjanovich’s face. The Oiler forward would spend most of the rest of the 1977-78 season recuperating from the injuries he sustained during his brawl with Washington; while Tomjanovich was on the sidelines, his teammates redoubled their efforts to get Houston back into the NBA playoffs. They were convinced that if they could return the Oilers to the postseason it would be an invaluable boost to Tomjanovich’s morale while he was healing.
Their efforts were rewarded when, in the final weeks of the 1977-78 season, the Oilers nudged out the Seattle Mariners for the number three spot in the 1978 Western Conference playoffs. It was a welcome return to the good old days for Oilers fans after the dry spell they’d been forced to endure in the early years of the post-Robertson era-- and to sweeten the pot still further, Houston would in the first round of the postseason have a chance to get revenge on the Portland Trailblazers for having knocked them out of playoff contention in the home stretch of the 1976-77 season. The Blazers, a relatively young team made up largely of greenhorns and IBL castoffs, had nonetheless done a great deal to keep Houston a lottery team from 1971 to 1978; the Oilers were absolutely itching to exact some payback for that. Former Houston great Jack Twyman, now a color commentator on basketball for CBS, aptly summarized the mood of the Oilers’ locker room going into the first round of the ’78 NBA Western Conference playoffs with this observation prior to the Oilers-Blazers series opener: "They want this game like it was a 24-karat diamond."
And no one wanted it more than Houston’s new head coach. Larry Brown, an IBL alumnus who’d been tapped to succeed Tom Marshall after Marshall was fired at the end of the 1976-77 NBA season, was anxious to make a big splash in his debut season with the Oilers and felt a series victory against the Blazers in the opening round might be a perfect first step toward fulfilling that goal. Though most objective observers of the NBA scene felt Houston should consider themselves lucky if they got as far as the second round of the 1978 playoffs, Brown was convinced that the Oilers had it in them to return to the NBA Finals.
When Houston defied conventional wisdom and swept the Trailblazers in the first round, Brown’s confidence in the Oilers’ ability to make it to the league Finals doubled. But when the Mariners arrived at Harris County Fieldhouse for the first two games of Houston’s second round clash with Seattle, he would get a rude awakening...
As sports towns go, Seattle has in the past usually been the proverbial 98-pount weakling. A brief flirtation with hockey came to a crashing end with the global Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19. Seattle’s first MLB franchise, the Pilots, bailed out of the Emerald City after just one season to become the Milwaukee Brewers; the Pilots’ successors, the Whitecaps, didn’t make their first playoff appearance until 1996 and have yet to even win an American League pennant, never mind the World Series. The city’s NFL franchise, the Seahawks, has just one Super Bowl appearance to its credit-- an embarrassing and highly controversial loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 40. And after the Mariners’ transfer to Oklahoma City and re-christening as the Storm at the end of the 2007-08 NBA season, basketball has become essentially a province of the diehards who follow the Seattle area’s college teams.
Thus the Mariners’ 1978 NBA championship means more to the sports fans of Seattle than ever before-- and before it meant a great deal. No Seattle-based professional sports team had ever gotten a world championship until then, and none has won a title since. The catalyst for the M’s improbable run to the NBA Finals, and Seattle’s subsequent drubbing of the Washington Bullets in five games in the Finals, was a second-round series victory over the Oilers. Larry Brown’s hopes of ending Houston’s long absence from the league championship series came to grief in King County Arena; desperately needing at least one road win to extend the series and preserve their hopes for advancing to the 1978 Western Conference finals, the Oilers instead dropped all three of their games in Seattle. Houston would end up losing to the Mariners in six games; during Brown’s abbreviated stint as Oilers head coach, that was as good as things would get for Houston playoff-wise.
The following season Houston wouldn’t even get that far-- in one of the Monarchs’ last postseason appearances before that team’s relocation to Kansas City, Cincinnati swept the unlucky Oilers in the first round. It was shortly after the sweep that the first calls were heard for Larry Brown to replaced as Oilers head coach...
....In the meantime, the professional basketball landscape in America was about to undergo yet another seismic shift. While fortunately not as scandal-plagued as its late competitor the IBL, the ABA did have an IBL-like situation wherein cash flow problems were putting it in the position of having to consider a merger with a rival league. After being neck-in-neck with the NBA for the first couple of seasons following the IBL-ABA merger, and even at one point briefly gaining supremacy over it, the ABA once again found itself playing second banana to the NBA-- and worse, having to fend off rumors it was about to go bankrupt.
As the 1978 ABA season was winding down, however, sentiment was in fact building in favor of unification with the NBA as a means of keeping at least some of the ABA’s existing franchises in business-- albeit in a noticeably altered form. Shortly before the 1978-79 NBA season began, the ABA quietly opened merger talks with the NBA in New York; much of the negotiations were conducted by mail to keep the media from learning too much about the talks early on lest those talks fall apart at any point.
In the spring of 1979, shortly after the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle Mariners in the ’79 NBA Finals to avenge the Bullets’ loss to the Mariners the previous year, the principals in the merger negotiations finally let the cat out the bag and told the world that the ABA-NBA merger would take place at the end of the 1979 ABA playoffs. For the first time since the IBL’s inaugural season in 1961, the NBA would be the sole professional basketball league in America.
Of the fifteen ABA franchises that were active at the time the merger was announced, six would be disbanded; the remaining nine would be incorporated into the NBA either by consolidation with existing NBA teams or by becoming separate NBA members in their own right. One team that went the merger route: the Miami Stingrays, the former IBL powerhouse which had won a number of ABA championships following the ABA-IBL merger. They would be melded with the NBA’s Marlins and the new combined team would adopt the Marlins name.2 Nearly a quarter-century after the NBA- ABA merger, the Marlins would beat the Dallas Mavericks to win the NBA league championship, making them the only franchise in professional basketball history to have IBL, ABA, and NBA world titles to their credit.
The calls for Larry Brown’s dismissal as Oilers head coach grew louder with each playoff series that Houston lost. In 1980 the Oilers were bounced in six games in the second round by the normally luckless Denver Rockies, who would themselves later be sent packing by the Monarchs; in the 1981 NBA playoffs Houston got swept in the first round by the Lakers, who would steamroller their way through the postseason that year until they fell to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in seven games.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Oilers front office top brass actually came about a quarter of the way into the 1981-82 NBA regular season; Houston had gotten off to a slow start and was compiling-- at best --a mediocre home court record when the ceiling caved in on Brown. What should have been a joyous occasion, the 20th anniversary reunion of the Oilers’ 1962 NBA league championship team, turned utterly sour after the latter-day Houston squad lost to the New York Knicks in overtime. That defeat began a twelve-game losing streak which would land the Oilers in the Western Conference cellar and Brown in the NBA unemployment line; after Houston’s twelfth straight loss, a 35-point evisceration at the hands of Atlanta, the Oilers’ top execs decided they’d had enough and showed Brown the door.
Bill Fitch, a former Celtics standout who at the time of Brown’s dismissal had been working as an assistant coach on the Houston staff, was appointed to take over as interim head coach while the Oilers front office looked for a permanent replacement for Brown. As it turned out, they wouldn’t need to look all that far....
To Be Continued
 Quoted from the book Disorder On The Court: The Fight That Changed Houston Basketball, copyright 2006 Rice University Press
 In the early 1990s the rights to the old Stingrays name were sold to Major League Baseball when Miami was awarded a National League ballclub.