The Houston Rockets matter. People might not realize it because Houston isn't one of the traditional glamor markets, but they've mattered quite a bit. For one of the earlier expansion teams, they've had a good number of name players suit up, and they've won four conference championships and two NBA titles. What's more, they've been pretty consistent.
The Rockets were first founded in 1967 as the San Diego Rockets, joining the NBA for the 1968 season. Their name, the Rockets, came from the city of San Diego, which referred to itself as "A City in Motion." Jack McMahon was named the first head coach, an ironic development when you consider that the team's first draft pick ever was a versatile, gifted athlete from the University of Kentucky who had been the SEC Player of the Year in 1966. His name was Pat Riley, and he would eventually walk away from his career as a middling-to-bad NBA player to become the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...5-Walking_on_Water.html) legendary Showtime teams to four of their five rings, the New York Knicks (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...he_New_York_Groove.html) to their 1994 conference title, and the Miami Heat (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...mer_Heat_is_Brutal.html) to their first title before relegating himself to office duty. The man is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, and he still hasn't called it a career.
Since Riley wasn't a fantastic basketball player in the NBA, though, the Rockets lost a then-record 67 games in their inaugural season. For the 1968 draft, that gave them the right to participate in a VERY rudimentary version of the draft lottery: A coin toss against the Baltimore Bullets for the rights to the first overall draft pick! They picked Elvin Hayes, who turned them around and took them to their first-ever playoff appearance the following season. In 1970, the Rockets drafted Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich, iconic Rockets who spent their whole career with the team. They also picked up a new coach in Hall of Famer Alex Hannum, but in spite of all that firepower, they went 57-97 the next two seasons and missed the playoffs both years. Performance was poor, and since everybody hates the losers, that meant the team wasn't drawing, so the team was sold in 1971 to Texas Sports Investments, who immediately moved them to Houston, where they became the first NBA team in Texas.
The group decided not to touch the team's name, which was a great idea. Unlike the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles turning their wonderful name into nonsensical dribble that even the biggest fans don't understand, the name "Rockets" actually took on a much greater relevance upon the move to Houston. The Rockets were named because of a ridiculous nickname dreamed up for their original city, San Diego. Houston, on the other hand, is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, one of the most important divisions of NASA. It's where spaceflight training, research, and flight mission control all take place. It directs all Space Shuttle missions and activities aboard the International Space Station. From Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon to the Apollo 13 disaster to the shuttles and space stations, everyone in space made contact with Houston. One of Houston's nicknames is Space City, and the city's MLB team is even called the Astros. San Diego Rockets was acceptable. Houston Rockets was totally perfect. San Diego eventually got a new team in 1978 when it heisted the Buffalo Braves (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...lipped_and_Trimmed.html) and managed to hold onto them for just a couple years more than it held the Rockets. They eventually became the Los Angeles Clippers.
In 1971, Hannum left to coach the ABA's Denver Nuggets, and Tex Winter was hired to replace him. Winter traded Elvin Hayes, because his style of play contrasted too sharply with what Winter wanted, and Winter only last that single year himself. The team didn't make the playoffs again until 1975, beating the powerful Knicks before falling to the Boston Celtics (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...-The_Big_Green_Men.html). In 1976, they got ahold of Moses Malone, who had been traded to Buffalo a mere two games before. Malone made a deep impact in Houston, leading the team in rebounds for six years and setting a record along the way. In 1977, the Rockets won 49 and went to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...25-A_True_Original.html). In 1981, the Dallas Mavericks were created, and the conferences were realigned. That resulted in Houston getting back into the playoffs with a 40-42 record, beginning one hell of a run. They stunned the defending champion Lakers in the first round, beat the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, beat the Kansas City Kings in the Conference Finals (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...45-The_Nomad_Kings.html), and became the only team in NBA history to make it to the Finals with a losing record. Boston had trouble exposing them, too; it took the Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics six games to sputter out the feisty Rockets.
The next year, the Rockets got better, but despite bowing out of the first round of the playoffs, Moses Malone was the league MVP. Since the team decided it didn't want to pay him, they shipped him to Philadelphia, where he became a key cog on the Sixers' legendary 1983 team and finally won his ring. Surprise surprise, the team sucked again, and the Rockets won another coin flip - this time with the Indiana Pacers (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use..._in_Middle_America.html) for the rights to the first player taken in the draft. This time it was Ralph Sampson, a player from Virginia with a lot of size and agility, expected to combine the offense of Wilt Chamberlain with the defense and leadership of Bill Russell. That pick takes a lot more shit these days than it really should. Sampson is considered a bust, but he was a Rookie of the Year, and during his years in Houston he went to four All-Star games and eventually retired with a very respectable 15.4 points per game average. But in Sampson's first season, the Rockets ended up with the first draft pick again despite a 15-game improvement from the previous year. The next year was the legendary 1984 draft the everyone still speculates on. Houston, miraculously, managed to escape nearly all of the speculation. Now, you're probably wondering, how did they pull that off?
Well, it started in the city of Lagos in Nigeria, where a young man named Hakeem Olajuwon practiced a lot to become a great goalkeeper in soccer. Keeping is not an easy task. It requires a lot of fancy footwork and agility, and so while keeping, Olajuwon learned to balance his size and strength with his footwork. When he was 15 years old, he entered a tournament for some sport called basketball which, to him, was completely foreign at the time. He immediately fell in love with it, and thanks to his size and the footing techniques he learned playing soccer, he developed basketball talent very quickly which also enabled his defensive abilities. He became a great center at the University of Houston. For all the firestorm analysis everyone still uses to scrutinize the 1984 draft, The Rockets are pretty much left alone. Olajuwon wasn't the most talented player taken in that draft, but he did have more than enough talent to later earn the respect of Michael Jordan, who WAS the most talented guy taken in that draft. For the Rockets, he was the right pick.
Olajuwon and Sampson formed a tandem nicknamed the Twin Towers, and in 1986 they led the Rockets to their second conference championship, defeating the Lakers. They met with the shittiest fortune possible in the Finals, though, because they faced the Celtics again. Not JUST the Celtics, mind you, but the 1986 Celtics, that nasty single-season juggernaut which continues to top nearly every greatest team poll on the planet. The Rockets did win 51 games that year, though, so they were more than just lucky. They were legit. With their legitimacy came two Finals victories, although since the '86 Celtics were the '86 Celtics, they still beat Houston in six games.
The Lakers' legendary Magic Johnson was forced into retirement in the early 90's, and with everyone from the old Showtime teams aging or leaving, it created one hell of a power vacuum in the Western Conference. Multiple great teams jockeyed for divisional position and playoff spots. throughout most of the decade, the Western Conference sent five different teams in six years to be the sacrificial lamb to the Chicago Bulls (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/d/UserReview-Ch...atest_Bullfighters.html). The Bulls were the league champions in two separate three-peats, one going from 1991-1993 and the other from 1996-1998. In between them, Michael Jordan tried his hand at his real passion, which was actually baseball. So for two years, the NBA was wide open, and in 1994, everyone expected the long-frustrated New York Knicks to slide in and their star, Patrick Ewing, to grab the torch and win at last. New York was led to the Finals by Pat Riley, but Houston also went to the Finals that year. In a classic Finals series that went the distance, it was Olajuwon who rose up and took the ring Knicks fans believed was rightfully theirs. The next year, with Jordan out of basketball shape, the Orlando Magic (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...-Oh_oh_it_s_Magic_.html) won the Eastern Conference, but the Rockets returned to the Finals and swept them as Olajuwon became Houston's favorite son as he became the only great basketball player of the decade to avoid becoming a victim of Michael and the Jordanaires.
In the 2001 season, Olajuwon was traded to the Toronto Raptors (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...These_Raptors_Bite.html). Houston dipped significantly in the standings, and they were again given the first pick of the draft in 2002. They took a center again, this time by the name of Yao Ming, a China native who already had five years of professional basketball experience under his belt with the Shanghai Sharks in his home country.
Yao became the new face of the team over the next decade as the Rockets improved and played good basketball… Just never quite good enough. They had that problem where they kept choking in the first round of the playoffs. They acquired the services of Tracy McGrady along the way, and eventually Metta World Peace, who still went by his birth name of Ron Artest at the time. The three of them were expected to form one of those feared cores that are so common in the sport, but injuries prevented them from what could have been. In 2009 they finally won their first playoff series in over a decade after beating the Portland Trail Blazers (http://www.lunch.com/reviews/sports_team/Use...Road_Less_Traveled.html). Yao retired in 2011 with injury issues, and the team is trying to make up for his loss. A couple of months ago, they made noise by signing the new Asian phenom Jeremy Lin, who had suddenly popped up with the Knicks the previous year and become a star by lifting them to several important victories.
Hakeem Olajuwon might be the greatest basketball superstar people who don't follow the NBA have never heard of. He was a twelve-time All-Star, the 1994 MVP, a Finals MVP in the two Finals his team won, made the All-NBA First Team six times, the All-Defensive First Team five times, was Defensive Player of the Year twice, and is the league's all-time leader in blocked shots. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his invincible Sky Hook, Olajuwon also used a well-known signature move that was almost impossible to block, a bit of footwork he translated from his soccer days which he called the Dream Shake. However, Olajuwon has philanthropist instincts, and when the sneaker brand came calling, Olajuwon chose to endorse a $35 sneaker from Spalding instead of an ass-ugly, highly visible brand which sets buyers back over $100. He thought it was ridiculous that Nike, Reebok, and Adidas were trying to sell their expensive sneakers to poor people at those prices. He is also a devout Muslim who, when he became serious about his faith, even observed Ramadan during games - no easy trick, since taking food or water at all is forbidden during the daylight hours.
Olajuwon was the greatest Rocket, but not the only great Rocket. There are some giant names on this team's all-time roster. Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley were all Rockets at some time. Clyde Drexler is best known for his stint in Portland, but he won his ring in Houston. The numbers of Drexler, Malone, and Olajuwon are retired with those of Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich.
It's hard to name rivalries, but Houston seems to have one with the Lakers. The two teams have played several memorable playoff series against each other. The Rockets also came out on the winning end of a great Finals series against the Knicks in 1994. Their 1981 Finals appearance was notable because the team had a losing record, and in 1986 they were a trivia answer, becoming victims of the 1986 Boston Celtics. As far as memorable moments lend themselves, despite Rudy Tomjanovich's great playing career, his best-known incident came in a 1977 fight during a Lakers game. One of his teammates got into an altercation with the Lakers' Kermit Washington, and Tomjanovich rushed in to try to break it up. Unfortunately, Tomjanovich ran out there very fast, and Washington believed he was coming in to attack and clocked him. Tomjanovich was sidelined for five months with a shattered face and life-threatening head injuries, but eventually made a full recovery.
The Rockets are another team that seems stuck in first-round purgatory. They do well, they get into the playoffs, then they lose. Sometimes they barely squeeze in and are only there for the higher seeds to feed on. Other times they choke, plain and simple. Most of the time, they haven't been too bad, but an adopting fan should get used to being frustrated in the playoffs a lot.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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