1994 NBA Finals: David Stern Presents Trophy to Houston Rockets

1994 NBA Champion Houston Rockets (Photo by Andrew Bernstein, Getty Images)

Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the Houston Rockets had it together.

These days, they have pieces but no cohesion. There’s a solid roster but coaching woes. Or there’s a roster with potential that was hampered and hindered by injuries. Or there was internal conflict between players and coaches that ultimately led to one having to walk away, and the unintentional alienation of another player involved by association (see, the spat between Rick Adelman and Kyle Lowry that also led to the Rockets bowing out in a bidding war to retain emerging sixth man-turned-starter Goran Dragic). Or they finally acquired a star player from a championship-contending team and the star just didn’t do what we paid him to (see, Trevor Ariza, Scottie Pippen, and, presently, James Harden under consideration).

The Rockets haven’t always made it easy to root for them. But twenty years ago to this day, #ItHappened, and the undying loyalty of Rockets fans was rewarded for the first time in team history.

In the 1994 NBA Playoffs, arguably, the championship was anyone’s to take given that Michael Jordan had retired (Brando may argue suspended for gambling) (for the first time) from the reigning champion Chicago Bulls. The New York Knicks, who had been biting and clawing their way through the Eastern Conference over the years, benefited from the presence of Patrick Ewing in his prime; a core of shooting threats in Greg Anthony, John Starks, and Derek Harper; and beasts in the paint Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. They got rid of those pesky Indiana Pacers and Reggie Miller and battled their way to the NBA Finals. It certainly didn’t hurt that they had at the helm a smart coach with slicked-back black hair by the name of Pat Riley.

New Yorks Knicks 1994

Some of the New York Knicks’ 1994 NBA Playoffs squad. Pictured (from left): F Anthony Mason, F Charles Oakley, Coach Pat Riley, G John Starks, C Patrick Ewing

On the other side of the league, the Western Conference was a much different battlefield. Even though the Rockets were a second seed, and had finished second overall in league standings, the road to the Finals didn’t look easy.

Homers and Rockets fans knew that head coach Rudy Tomjanovich was not to be underestimated, however. Quietly, the Rockets had assembled a roster full of bright spots in star center Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon; dependable shooters Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Carl Herrera, Matt Bullard, and Vernon Maxwell; and young players full of potential in Scotty Brooks (before he took the “y” off his name and eventually became a coach of that team that moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City), Mario Elie, and rookies Robert Horry and Sam Cassell. The Rockets would coast through the West (and the classic 5-7-7-7 playoff series set up of old), dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns (Kiss Of Death anyone?), and the Utah Jazz (who weren’t a threat to the Rockets like that… yet) with relative ease, to meet the Knicks in the NBA Finals.

Houston Rockets 1994 NBA Championship

SQUAD – some of the Houston Rockets’ 93-94 roster. Pictured (from left): C Hakeem Olajuwon, G Kenny Smith, F Robert Horry, G Vernon Maxwell, F Otis Thorpe

At the head of it all was the showcase/rematch between the two giants – Olajuwon and Ewing, who had previously duked it out with championship implications just ten years earlier back in 1984, when Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas defeated Hakeem and the Houston Cougars for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. We watched from the comfort of our homes or in the houses of rambunctious uncles and cousins or bars, as the Knicks and Rockets battled it out on NBC (*cue the classic “NBA on NBC” theme music that still trumps ANYTHING that’s been played as a theme song during the years ABC has hosted the NBA Finals). We were briefly interrupted by a car chase involving a white Bronco that a certain guy named Orenthal James Simpson was driving during Game 5, but yeah.

On June 22, 1994, just three days after the Rockets had survived a nailbiter Game 6 – in which Hakeem denied the Knicks the championship after blocking John Starks’ potential game-winning three at the buzzer – the stage was set for Game 7 back in Houston, Texas, at Lakewood Church The Summit. Olajuwon continued his dominance against Ewing, being outblocked but neither outplayed nor out-scored; and the Rockets maintained a close lead for most of the game before breaking free in the 4th quarter and ultimately winning 90-84.

The rest is history. The Dream became the Finals MVP, there was a huge ticker tape parade downtown as the Rockets cruised down Main Street hoisting up their first ever NBA championship, and the Houston Chronicle was padded with red and yellow “Clutch City” insert posters of the team. The Rockets would go on to repeat with another championship in 1995 – the “Believe It Again!” season – reuniting Olajuwon with his former fellow UH basketball teammate Clyde Drexler in Houston and demolishing the Orlando Magic (then led by a promising huge center named Shaquille O’Neal); but there’s nothing like your first time.

This post is about happier times. Simpler times. Ahmad Rashad halftime interviews and the “Dream Shake” times. Do you remember where you were when #ItHappened?

Post ’94 & ’95, it would all be downhill afterwards, anyway. The Rockets would trade away Cassell, Horry, and Elie (all of whom would go on to win championships with other┬áteams); abandon the classic ketchup and mustard on white jerseys for some hideous “baseball stripe” ones; and never so much as sniff the NBA Finals for next two decades. Olajuwon would go to the then-expansion team Toronto Raptors and retire a year later, and Rudy T would depart, as well. They’d get close a couple times in the 90s, but by then, the Utah Jazz had become their kryptonite; and in the 00s, The Rockets were – and continue to be – plagued by plenty of first and second-round playoff exits.