Sports

Ten Thoughts on the 30th Anniversary of the Rockets' First Title

The Rockets were the first champion the city of Houston had ever known.
The Rockets were the first champion the city of Houston had ever known. Screenshot
The 30th anniversary of the Rockets winning their first (and the city's first) championship is June 22. Thirty years is a long time, but so much of that time was memorable for Houston sports fans and, let's be honest, Houstonians in general. It was a very different time for the city and, in some ways, the title marked an inflection point between what Houston was and what it would ultimately be.

Now that the anniversary is upon us, it's a good time to take a look back at some of the memories of that beloved era in Houston sports.

OJ Simpson's chase annoyingly interrupted Game 4.

The OJ Simpson arrest and trial has been widely chronicled with books and films and documentary series. But, one thing Rockets and Knicks fans will remember distinctly is how the Simpson story intersected with the Finals. During Game 4., NBC broke into the live action to play, at length, the Simpson car chase down that LA freeway. There was no alternative for sports fans who wanted to see the game, no YouTube or Twitter. There was the radio broadcast, which is where most went to keep up with the game, but the drawn out nature of the car chase cost sports fans a huge chunk of an important Finals game.

The trade that didn't happen before the trade that did.

Few forget the Valentine's Day trade in 1995 that brought Clyde Drexler back to Houston and ultimately led to a second championship, but there was another defining moment and almost trade that impacted the 1993-94 team. In early February 1994, the Rockets traded Robert Horry and Matt Bullard to Detroit for Sean Elliot looking for a jumpstart to their sometimes sluggish offense. But, just before Horry and Bullard could make their debuts for the Pistons, Elliot failed his physical and the two forwards were sent back to Houston.

Both Horry and Bullard came back different, but Horry, the second-year forward, seemed a changed player. “I’m the only guy who was traded for not shooting enough," Horry would say years later. He returned to the Rockets aggressive on both ends of the floor and it was a critical component of that team's success.

Big men ruled the NBA.

In today's NBA, big men are very different than they were in the early '90s. Instead of unicorns like Victor Wembanyama, you had bruisers and enforcers. Every night, Hakeem Olajuwon would face a Hall-of-Fame-candidate at center from Patrick Ewing and David Robinson to Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. Offense was played through the paint with big men literally the center of attention on offense. The Rockets had the best player that year who also happened to be the best big man in Olajuwon.

Sam Cassell was a rookie.

When Boston beat Dallas on Tuesday for the NBA Title, Cassell, now an assistant with the Celtics, picked up his fourth championship ring. His first came as a rookie for the Rockets. But, despite being such a key part of that title run, he almost never played in the first half of the season. Kenny Smith (yes, "The Jet") was the starter and recent All-Star. Former Wizards and Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was the backup who got all of the minutes during much of the season. It wasn't until the final stretch that coach Rudy Tomjanovich would begin to trust the rookie point guard with minutes. And Cassell brought a dynamic style of play on offense that contrasted with the distance shooting of Smith. The combination proved deadly.

Offense was a slugfest.

In a league where 120 or 130 points in a game is commonplace, it's probably hard to imagine games never getting out of the 80s, but that was the case for the NBA of the early '90s, particularly the Finals. The highest score by either team in the series was 93 by the Rockets in Game 3.. It led Sports Illustrated to later refer to the slugfest as "Uglyball." The NBA took notice and began to make rules changes that would directly stimulate offenses. Most notably, they removed the ability of players to hand check their opponents loosening up offensive players significantly.

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From Choke City to Clutch City in just a few days.
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"Hellhole"

The Rockets and Knicks had a pretty fierce rivalry, but that was ratcheted up and turned into a New York versus Houston battle when New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews described H-Town as "a steamy, bug-infested nondescript prairie town." The headline in the tabloid not known for its subtlety read "Hellhole." Now, admittedly, Houston was a city on the precipice of a transition. At the time, we still considered bayous glorified drainage ditches, not park space. And no one was really thinking about quality of life. In Houston, you likely lived in the suburbs and drove through hours of traffic every day to work, and that was it.

This was a city coming off a massive oil bust in the 1980s and trying to convert itself from a blue collar oil town into a dynamic modern white collar city. In some ways, Houston was a hellhole at the time. We just didn't need no damn yankees telling us that.

Clutch City was born.

For many years when you looked up what is now Lakewood Church on an online map, it would say Clutch City. That's because the Summit, the home of the Rockets before moving to Toyota Center was in Greenway Plaza and the name was born during the 1994 postseason run. After losing two games at home to the Suns in the playoffs, the Houston Chronicle dropped a headline worthy of the New York Post: Choke City. After back-to-back wins in Phoenix to even the series, the Rockets returned to a heroes' welcome and a new headline: Clutch City.

It stuck. Now, the name is ubiquitous with Houston and in the name of many businesses around the city. Back then, it was born out of tragedy and triumph.

Rudy Tomjanovich's system became the template for the modern NBA offense.

In modern basketball parlance, "three and D" defines a player who is primarily known for shooting three pointers and playing defense. But that concept didn't exist prior to these Houston Rockets. Tomjanovich believed the only way to success with Olajuwon was to spread the floor, allow him to work in the paint, and set up shooters. In those days, some teams took 10 or 12 threes per game, a far cry from the average of nearly 25 today. The Rockets, long before analytics told them threes were better than long twos, figured out they could win with that strategy.

It also took a change in Olajuwon, who tended to want to shoulder the entire load himself. His willingness to trust his teammates when they were open changed the dynamic for the team and introduced the league to a whole new style of play.

Hakeem Olajuwon was better than you think he was.

Highlights abound, but it is difficult to understand just how dominant Olajuwon was at both ends of the floor without watching entire games. His footwork was better than any big man in history. His fadeaway "Dream Shake" was devastating. And he routinely led the league in blocked shots, which is what caused the NBA to name the Defensive Player of the Year award after him decades later.

His creativity on the floor was absolutely masterful and he was clearly the best player on the floor every night.

Houstonians were euphoric.

After the game seven win, fans poured onto the streets of Greenway Plaza around the Summit. They danced on top of cars and hugged and high fived. It was a far cry from the burning cars and greased light poles of other cities. It was like Houston let out a collective sigh of relief. We had our first ever title and it was just pure joy. A million people lined the streets of downtown in the days following in nearly 100-degree heat to watch the parade. They say the first is always the most coveted and this certainly lived up to that.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke