Texas is, of course, football country.
Houstonians desperately hoped to see their Oilers (Luv Ya Blue!) beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 1970s and make their way to the Super Bowl with coach Bum Phillips and star running back (and University of Texas product) Earl Campbell. The city would surely rejoice in any pro sports championship, but football would be the most special. Houston — with the Oilers and Texans — has never made a Super Bowl, something this typically snakebitten sports city wants to correct before too long.
The Astros — longtime residents of the Astrodome, a venue that forever changed the way many of our sports were viewed in person or on television (stop and consider that point for a bit) — are also a source of considerable pride in Houston. They, like the Oilers and Texans, have sadly but perfectly fit into the city’s larger history of sports heartbreak.
The Astros — playing in their Home Sweet Astrodome — had the Philadelphia Phillies on the ropes in the top of the eighth inning of the decisive fifth game of the 1980 National League Championship Series, but Nolan Ryan and the rest of the Houston bullpen allowed a lead to slip away. This came one day after another blown eighth-inning lead in Game 4.
In 1986, trailing 3-2 in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, the Astros — again in the dome — watched starting pitcher Bob Knepper throw eight shutout innings and give the ‘Stros a 3-0 lead heading into the top of the ninth. Waiting in the Game 7 wings was starting pitcher Mike Scott, who had dominated Games 1 and 4 in what was his Cy Young season. If Houston could have gotten the series to Scott, it might have been able to win its first pennant, denied so cruelly by the Phillies six years earlier.
However, the Mets rallied for three in the ninth, and although Houston mounted a rally in both the 14th and 16th innings after the Mets scored to take an extra-inning lead, the Astros fell short, 7-6, in 16. The Astros would have to lose a few more times in the playoffs — most painfully in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS — before finally winning their first pennant in 2005.
Of course, in classic “Houston Sports” fashion, the Astros didn’t win a single game in their first (and to date, only) World Series. They dropped a marathon Game 3 and had nothing left for Game 4 at Minute Maid Park, their home after the Dome.
This leaves the Rockets.
Left at the altar in the 1981 and 1986 Finals by two great Boston Celtics teams, and having failed to make the final climb in recent years under coach Kevin McHale — a member of those 1980s Celtic squads — the Rockets have usually fallen into the Houston story of sports suffering. (As another Boston-Houston side note, Bill Fitch, the coach of the 1986 Rockets, was the Celtics’ coach in the 1981 Finals against Houston. Del Harris coached the Rockets in ’81.)
However, in 1994 and 1995, everything Houstonians have come to expect from sports was swept aside by a little bit of magic… and that included, in 1995, a sweeping OF the Magic — the Orlando Magic.
Houston sports fans will always remember where they were when these and other similarly iconic moments unfolded in real time:
The first huge “Rocket Launch” came from Robert Horry in Game 1 of the 1995 West Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Horry would later score 22 points on 6-of-11 three-point shooting to close out the series in Game 6, the only time a team won a home game in that crazy series.
The second YouTube cut is from Game 7 of the 1995 West semifinal series between the Rockets and the team they both tormented and overcame, the Phoenix Suns. Mario Elie hit the corner three which catapulted the Rockets into the San Antonio series and made their repeat title possible.
In many ways, the 1995 Rockets provided the more improbable joyride than the 1994 team, chiefly because the Rockets were the No. 6 seed. The eighth-seeded Knicks made the Finals in 1999, but no team seeded lower than sixth has ever won the NBA championship. The 1995 Rockets hold a unique place in the history of American professional sports.
Yet, as special as 1995 was, the first time — for a city that had never experienced the view from the Summit (an intentional play on words, given that the Rockets’ arena used to be called The Summit) — is the best time. In 1994, the Rockets claimed Houston’s first major pro sports title.
The moment from the 1994 playoffs which stands above all other moments — the one which created a Game 6 home win over a New York team, unlike the 1986 Mets-Astros series — is this, just past the eight-minute mark of the video:
It’s not as though Game 7 was a cakewalk — like most of the 1994 Finals against the New York Knicks, it was a fiercely-fought struggle from tip to horn. However, when Hakeem Olajuwon blocked a trigger-happy John Starks at the end of Game 6, the Rockets had concretely escaped a situation in which one shot — one made three — could have ended their season and their Dream. (The capital “D” in “Dream” is, of course, an Olajuwon reference.)
What is the legacy of the 1994 and 1995 Houston Rockets? In a larger NBA discussion, the point of contention surrounding these two teams is that they filled in the years when Michael Jordan explored baseball. There will undeniably be a “What if Jordan kept playing hoops?” uncertainty about those two seasons. However, what are the Rockets expected to do or say? They didn’t exactly face easy roads to their titles, and that’s despite facing a lower-seeded Utah team in the 1994 West Finals.
In both 1994 and 1995, the Rockets had to go through the Phoenix Suns, the team that won the 1993 Western Conference title and had the imposing 1-2 punch of Charles Barkley in the post and Kevin Johnson at point guard. That wasn’t a complete Suns team, but it was formidable, and the Rockets had to beat the Suns in seven games — from 3-1 down in 1995, mostly on the road — to reach the West finals and, ultimately, the NBA Finals.
The Rockets beat a team coached by Pat Riley, and they beat a team led by a young and powerful Shaquille O’Neal a year later.
They won a Finals series after trailing, 3-2, and they won a Finals by winning the first two games of a series on the road, leading to a convincing sweep. They won a repeat championship, joining Michael’s Bulls and Isiah’s Pistons and Magic’s Lakers. They exceeded the Kevin McHale Celtics — wonder what the Rockets’ coach thinks of that, eh? — and the Doctor J 76ers.
Perhaps you could question how remarkable a team this was in 1994 and 1995, but you can’t question how remarkable a feat the Rockets pulled off in this two-year stretch. Minimize this team if you must, but the Rockets did one thing no other team did in the two years without a full-throttle Michael Jordan (who came back for the 1995 playoffs but was clearly not in game shape): win a title. If the rest of the league was so vulnerable, how come only one team marched through the door?
The Rockets — in many ways a better version of the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers — had that one megastar on the roster (Olajuwon to the Cavs’ LeBron James) and a lot of quality role players. When looking at the 1994 and 1995 Rockets, consider the men who hit the big shots in the YouTube cuts above:
Robert Horry is surely one of the top 10 (maybe five) greatest role players in the history of the NBA. The “Big Shot Bob” moniker which was further developed in Los Angeles and San Antonio originated in Houston.
Mario Elie became an NBA champion in Houston, but what a lot of fans might forget is that he won another NBA title in 1999 with the Spurs. He and Horry both won titles in San Antonio, in fact, after their maiden championships in Houston. Those were — and are — great role players, the “glue guys” who validated coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s words:
“Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The 1994 and 1995 Rockets were the heart — and the glue — of Houston sports. They still are.
A sprawling metropolis that never crossed the threshold at any other point before or after can at least say that for two years, “Clutch City” was very real.