There are three type of teams in NBA history. Those that won. Those that didn’t. And those had all the ingredients to win, but never did. The 1980s Houston Rockets fall into that last category. Ask most fans to list the teams of the ’80s and the obvious answers will arise – Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, Larry’s Celtics and The Bad Boys’ Pistons. The Rockets normally fall short of being included in the conversation based solely off the strength of bad luck.
The talent was there. Somehow, H-Town flipped two number one picks in consecutive years landing Ralph Sampson and (then) Akeem Olajuwon. The coach was there in Bill Fitch. And the chemistry was enough to scare everyone shitless, including Magic’s Lakers and Larry’s Celtics.
Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams released a grandiose and psychedelic piece chronicling the oral history of those Rockets teams from the individuals who lived every moment. Abrams words serve as a transition gear through the chapters of the team including the construction years, the rise to prominence, their improbable 4-1 series defeat of the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals, their Finals loss to the Celtics a round later and how cocaine and injuries bankrupted a dynasty before it ever got off the ground.
The tale of these Rockets is one of those stories residents of Houston love and hate discussing at the same time because of the unanswered questions. What if Sampson never ignites that brawl in Game 5 of the ’86 Finals with Jerry Sichting? The same one which effectively turned his career upside. What if John Lucas could have stayed clean? Lewis Lloyd and Mike Wiggins, too. What if Houston stays on the straight and narrow path and sticks together for the next 5-7 years? What if Houston had abandoned the Twin Towers project early and went through with a rumored 1984 draft deal which would have given them Olajuwon AND Michael Jordan?* How much differently would Olajuwon’s career be viewed if he dominates the league in his early years?
Unlike most depressing stories, Houston’s back-to-back titles in the mid-’90s – albeit the Jordan-less years – helped ease some of the pain. Abrams piece drives home the point the untapped potential of the ’80s version remains a sensitive topic. Seriously, if you’re a NBA history geek (like myself), carve out about 45 minutes and dedicate some time to reading the oral history of “the greatest team that never was.”
You won’t find many better sports-related pieces this year.
* – You do realize if Houston somehow pulls that off and Houston puts the right pieces around them and Hakeem/Michael stay healthy, the Rockets probably end up with something like 8-10 titles, right? The greatest perimeter and player period of all time + at the very least a top 5 center ever = sheer domination for at least 10-12 years. Nothing would have stopped that. NOTHING.