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[Chron] Rockets became a lost dynasty after promising run 20 years ago

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by Hasher, Feb 16, 2006.

  1. Hasher

    Hasher Contributing Member

    Oct 8, 1999
    Likes Received:
    Feb. 16, 2006, 1:04AM
    Rockets became a lost dynasty after promising run 20 years ago

    Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

    THERE was one second on the clock when Rodney McCray threw the perfect inbounds pass that Ralph Sampson jumped and caught with two hands. James Worthy stood frozen, having never made a move to cover, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar backed away on defense, not wanting to be called for a foul.

    Sampson's body was a giant corkscrew, twisting 10 feet out on the left side of the lane, and he let fly with a careful, prayerful shot that tapped like an out-of-breath clog dancer on the front, the back, then the front of the rim again before collapsing with a last gasp down into the net.

    On May 21, 1986, the Houston Rockets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 114-112 at The Forum, completing a five-game playoff blitz of the defending champions and advancing to play the Boston Celtics in what was supposed to be the first of many trips to the NBA Finals.

    The Rockets would lose the championship round to the
    Celtics, four games to two, yet there was no reason for Houston fans to be anything except optimistic about the future. They had the young Twin Towers of Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon anchoring their frontline and a fast break that could crackle like summer lightning.

    "I thought we had a dynasty," said backup forward Jim Petersen.

    "In our own minds, we probably figured we were a year ahead of schedule, and we'd be back to finish the job," said guard Robert Reid.

    "There was a disappointment, for sure, in not beating Boston," said McCray. "Still, we came away from that experience feeling good, knowing that we had really whipped the Lakers.

    "That was our time. It was before the rise of the Bad Boys in Detroit, before Jordan and the Bulls came on. In my mind, we were a lock to win one championship and probably more. This was only the beginning."

    But in truth, it was already the beginning of the end. The Rockets had made it through the minefield of the playoffs after having to change their lineup when point guard John Lucas was suspended by the league a third time for having failed a drug test.

    Midway through the next season, guards Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins would fail drug tests. And within 19 months of his making the shot to beat L.A., Sampson — the former No. 1 overall pick in the draft, former Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star — would be hobbled by bad knees and traded to the Golden State Warriors.

    The originals
    Long before the cast of Lost veered off course to an uncharted island in the Pacific to launch a hit show, the crash of the 1986 Rockets turned them into perhaps the NBA's greatest Lost Dynasty. Twenty seasons later, they still know it.

    "It was a really good ballclub and probably missed its mark in history with all the things it could have done," said head coach Bill Fitch. "I had so much fun coaching that team, because they had a lot of talent and because they were, for the most part, willing to do everything I asked of them.

    "That team had a lot of guys who could shoot and would shoot the big shots at the end of games. It had a player like Ralph, who could do a lot of different things at 7-4, like get the ball off the glass and throw the outlet or run down the floor and finish the break.

    "It had Dream in the middle to be relentless on defense and make offensive moves that nobody could stop. It had a Rodney McCray, who would do so many of the little things that are so important. It had Lew, who just loved to play the game."

    It was a team that came together according to plan. The Rockets had won back-to-back coin flips for the right to make Sampson and Olajuwon consecutive No. 1 draft picks in 1983 and 1984. They had chosen McCray with the No. 3 pick in 1983 to be a passer, defender and complementary part. They signed Lloyd as a free agent, traded for Wiggins and then handpicked the veteran Lucas to run the offense.

    "We took a lot of criticism for drafting Hakeem when we already had Ralph," said general manager Carroll Dawson, who was then an assistant coach. "But we were excited about the Twin Towers concept. We were pretty sure it could work, and once it did, everybody around the league tried to copy it."

    Running Rockets
    Fitch loved the fast break and had a cast of characters who could run it. None did it with such relish as Lloyd, who'd been cast off by Golden State in 1983 and became a fifth gear for the Rockets' running game.

    "I know there were guys back then waking up in cold sweats with dreams of Lew Lloyd coming at them on the break," Fitch said.

    "The only player I ever saw who could get to the basket like him was Earl Monroe."

    The '86 Rockets were deep. When Lucas was suspended, the veteran Reid was able to shift from shooting guard and handle most of the point guard duties in the playoffs. Behind him was the tenacious Allen Leavell, who had a broken wrist through most of the postseason but played a clutch role in the second half of the clinching win over the Lakers.

    Petersen was an invaluble backup at the power forward spot who could bang on the inside for rebounds and bury the medium-range jump shots. Wiggins struggled at first to mesh his personality with that of Fitch but eventually became a defensive stopper who roughed up and bottled up Magic Johnson. The Rockets were so deep that swingman Craig Ehlo, who wound up playing more than a decade in the league, couldn't get any time off the bench.

    "It was not just like many teams that you see today," Olajuwon wrote in an e-mail from Amman, Jordan. "The 1986 Rockets were a complete team, and we were not lacking at any position.

    "What we might have lacked in experience, we made up for with enthusiasm and never backing down from any challenge. Nobody really thought we could beat the Lakers that year. But we did it convincingly. We knew what we had."

    Lucas factor
    What the Rockets also had before March 14, when Lucas was suspended, was a smart, gritty, talented quarterback who could run the offense virtually blindfolded, tossing lob passes for dunks to Sampson and Olajuwon.

    "I told John a couple weeks after he was out that he was costing me six to eight points a game, and everything wasn't so easy all of a sudden," Sampson said.

    The Rockets zoomed out of the gate, starting the season 9-2. They went 14-3 from Dec. 26 to Jan. 30 and were 41-25 when Lucas failed the drug test.

    "I don't mean to be disrespectful to anyone or in any way put a knock on accomplishments of the organization," Lucas said. "But when I walk around Houston now and I hear people talk about winning those championships in '94 and '95, I just shake my head. I tell them, 'You've either forgotten or you have never seen the best Rockets team. I know. I was a part of it. And I was a big part of bringing it down.'

    "I'm telling you, we'd have beaten Boston if I was there. You look at most teams that are put together like that one and they get about an eight- to 10-year window. We didn't know it, but our window was right there, and then it slammed shut."

    What the Rockets also didn't know was the first crack in their foundation had appeared when Sampson was undercut while going for a rebound at Boston Garden on March 24. There was a sickening thud when his head cracked against the parquet floor. However, the real damage was done to his back and left hip.

    Big man hobbled
    Sampson sat out for the first time in his career, missing three games and coming back with a limp. When he began to overcompensate for the pain in his hip, it led to the start of knee problems that would require three operations and cut short his career as an All-Star player. For the final six weeks of the regular season, Fitch closed practice to the media to keep a lid on the extent of the injury.

    "It was hard thing to see," Fitch said. "A lot of days, he could barely run, and he couldn't do anything to stop Dream defensively."

    "I was never the same from the time I went down in Boston," Sampson said. "It was like I couldn't play my game."

    The Rockets started the next season 2-0 but then struggled. On the morning of Jan. 13, 1987 they were 15-18 when word came down that Lloyd and Wiggins had failed drug tests and been suspended by the league.

    "I'll never forget. The night before that test, I was in the Summit and Wiggins was there shooting," Fitch said. "The news then was that Micheal Ray Richardson had flunked a drug test with a huge quantity in his system. Wig looked at me and said, 'Don't worry about a thing, Coach. I'm clean.' The very next day he broke Micheal Ray's record. He was off the charts on the test."

    The would-be dynasty was coming unglued.

    "It's one thing to have injuries," said McCray. "But when guys have drug problems, there's a different kind of feeling. It's a personal letdown. You feel for them. You want them to recover. But you sit back and reflect and say, 'Why did they have to do that?' "

    Lack of focus
    Olajuwon agreed with McCray.

    "I believe we really had the potential to be a dynasty," he said. "There were a lot of championships there for us. But being a dynasty doesn't just come by accident. You have to stay focused on the goal, on and off the court."

    On Feb. 3, while trying to make a cut against Bill Hanzlik of Denver, Sampson slipped on a wet spot at the Summit and tore ligaments in his left knee. The injury required surgery and forced him to miss 39 games.

    The Rockets finished the regular season 42-40 and lost to Seattle in the second round of the playoffs, eliminated on a night when Olajuwon scored 49 points and grabbed 25 rebounds.

    Seven months later, Sampson was traded to Golden State in a deal for Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd.

    'Gone in a heartbeat'
    "When you think about where we were, just a short time earlier, man," said Reid. "The Celtics and Lakers still had their starting fives together and we were all broken up — John, Lew, Wig, then Ralph. It was all gone in a heartbeat."

    Dawson walks down the hallway outside his Toyota Center office every day past the collection of team photos through the years. Occasionally, he'll still pause and linger in front of that group from 1986.

    "There are still scars that don't heal from that experience," he said. "They deserved better."

    McCray can still close his eyes and conjure up the atmosphere, the energy of May 21, 1986 at The Forum.

    "I remember running out of the tunnel before the game, the packed house, the movie stars in their seats," he said. "And I remember thinking, 'We're gonna be doing this every year. It's just the start.' "

    For the Lost Dynasty, it was the beginning of the end.

    1 person likes this.
  2. thacabbage

    thacabbage Contributing Member

    Jun 30, 1999
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    that was one of the best articles i've ever read.
  3. xlr817

    xlr817 Member

    Jul 25, 2002
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    WOW! Nice article that brings back alot of memories big time! The 1986 team was a great one but the Celtics (SAD TO SAY) just seemed tougher and with MORE playoff & finals experience, & also deep! However, it took 8 years before a championship ( I wish we had more along the way)! It just made the 2 back2back titles that much sweeter! Now, I wish Yao & T-Mac can bring forth championship title(s) back to Houston! :) Anyway, it's nice to dream!!
  4. Dave2000

    Dave2000 Contributing Member

    Aug 4, 2001
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    I would love to see game footage of that team. It'll be like these newbies that never witness the championships seasons here :)
  5. Hippieloser

    Hippieloser Contributing Member

    Feb 25, 2003
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    There're some really great highlights from the finals year on the Hakeem the Dream DVD. Holy crap could Sampson run the court. Those two guys were just dunking on people all day long.
  6. Dave2000

    Dave2000 Contributing Member

    Aug 4, 2001
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    yea, thats the only footage i've seen :(

    Sampson, literally, that dude was so freaking tall and athletic, all he needed was 4 steps to get from one end to the other.
  7. Stack24

    Stack24 Contributing Member

    Jul 15, 2003
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    That was a great article. Good Reading
  8. SirCharlesFan

    SirCharlesFan Contributing Member

    Apr 8, 1999
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    Articles like this make me wish I'd been a Rockets fan my entire life. It's amazing to think I would root against the Rockets before Barkley came to town. I was a big PHX fan back during the championship runs, but I can't imagine ever rooting for another team in the NBA...ever again. Period. My loyalty to the Rockets is really crazy. Especially considering when I started becoming a hardcore fan (starting with Francis' rookie season).
  9. alaskansnowman

    Nov 25, 1999
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    That was definately a great article. I never realized how much potential lost there was.
  10. JoeBarelyCares

    JoeBarelyCares Contributing Member

    Jan 9, 2001
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    The greatest tragedy of the era was not mentioned in the article. As Dream confirmed in his book, Portland was offering Clyde and their No. 2 pick (which they later used on Sam Bowie) to Houston for Ralph Sampson, in the summer of 1984. Houston turned them down. Houston could have had a line-up of Dream, Michael Jordan, Clyde and Rodney McCray.

    Had they taken that deal, there would probably be no fewer than ten banners hanging in Toyota Center.
  11. TBar

    TBar Contributing Member

    Aug 6, 2001
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    In the Boston Series - I never saw more dirty hits than from McHale and PArrish- they could get away with banging Hakeem, Sampson and any of the guards coming in the paint. It was frustrating seeing the referees swallow their whistles. I did no realize at the time that playoff backetball was so different. If Hakeem or, Sampson or LLoyd looked wrong at Larry "Legend " Bird they were called for a foul. The officiating really favored Boston and the media stars.

    I was never a Larry Bird fan, but the guy could run the break so efficiently-smooth - few turnovers. He was also a great shooter, but such a crybaby if things did not go his way on referee calls.

    As legendary as Bird, McHale, Parrish, and others from Boston were, the best player on that floor was a second year sophmore - Akeem Olajuwon. Awesome.

    In May 1986 the economy in Houston was as bad as I can ever remember. The price of oil had collapsed in April to $8.00 per barrel. This series was a real uplift to forget about your cares for a while. I'll never forget Brent Musberger making a remark at the opening of a game in Houston that Boston's economy was booming, while Houston's economy had collapsed-while absolutely true, if you cannot say something nice ........

    That Rockets team played with Heart you could write a book about.
  12. wrath_of_khan

    wrath_of_khan Contributing Member

    Jun 7, 2000
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    I disagree that that's a greater tragedy. A dreamcasting "what if" scenario that was really never close to happening vs. the collapse of the existing 1986 team that could destroy the Lakers in their prime isn't even close in my book. Not to mention Ralph's career being cut short by injuries.

    Face it, it was a big man era and there was no way we were going to trade Ralph for guards. Just because the deal was offered doesn't mean it was actually close.

    A few things that are underplayed in that article:

    People forget how successful the Twin Towers were. EVERYONE tried it in 1987 -- crappy backup centers were starting at PF just so teams could run the Twin Towers. Not only were the Rockets a great team, but they were changing the face of the NBA. But it really only worked for us because we had a 7'4" guy who played like he was 6'9".

    Don't undersell Lew Lloyd's value to that team. Dude was a one-man fast break. I can't tell you how many times he went 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 on the break successfully. He was the perfect compliment to the Twin Towers.

    And don't forget Rodney McCray. He was the poor man's Scottie Pippen (without the outside J) who did all the little things to bring the team together. Did have a knack for letting the top scorers go for career highs against him, though. ;)

    Oh, and Jim Petersen off the bench was like having a starter in there. Not an especially skilled starter, but a high quality big off the bench. Loved the "Ivory Tower."

    That was a great, great team which was a lot of fun to watch. I don't think you can guarantee they would've won championships just because the Lakers and Celtics were so good during the era, but you can pretty much guarantee a long run of WCF appearances with a Finals appearance or 2 mixed in.

    Great article. Good to know that Blinebury's capable of good writing when he's not being an ass.
  13. sjackson0

    sjackson0 Contributing Member

    Apr 28, 2002
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    Two Words

    Goose Bumps
  14. Rocket River

    Rocket River Member

    Oct 5, 1999
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    I tell you . . . .Except for the 93-95 Rockets
    Those were my favorites
    Petersen was a great . . . We could use a Petersen about now
    He was kind of an gritty enforcer . .. like Thorpe
    not dirty . .but TOUGH!

    Rocket River
  15. cuneo77

    cuneo77 Contributing Member

    Aug 24, 2003
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    i wasnt into bball yet,i got hooked in 90-91, but what ever happened to the two that got suspened for drugs?we trade em? mcray too,wasnt he a drug abuser too?
    #15 cuneo77, Feb 16, 2006
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2006

    GRENDEL Contributing Member

    Nov 21, 2002
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    Sad but great to read at the same time
  17. DaDakota

    DaDakota Contributing Member

    Mar 14, 1999
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    Sweet Lew...Black Magic....

    He was like Manu Ginobli with those long strides and abilty to shift directions in mid stride.

    Wow !

  18. JBIIRockets

    JBIIRockets Contributing Member

    Jan 25, 2001
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    I made it a goal of mine to get some game tapes from the 86 playoffs a couple years ago and I was able to get 13 games. Based on what I saw in those games, Hakeem was lighting quick with amazing dunking ability, McCray was a great guy on the wing, and don't forget about Wiggins, whose jumpshot was very dependable.

    Lou Lloyd was especially good against the Lakers in the Conference Finals. I mean, did Sweet Lew ever miss a shot in that series? it was incredible.

    Too bad it dissppeared in the Finals though.
  19. JBIIRockets

    JBIIRockets Contributing Member

    Jan 25, 2001
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    Think about the 4 Finals teams the Rockets had, what did they have in common. Tough Power Forwards!

    81 was Billy Paultz,
    86 was Jim Petersen
    94 was Otis Thorpe
    95 was Robert Horry, with a dose of Chucky Brown and Charles Jones
    and even the 97 team had Barkley who got the Rockets to the West Finals

    This Rockets team doesn't have any forwards like these teams did.
  20. krosfyah

    krosfyah Contributing Member

    Aug 7, 2001
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    McCray was never a drub abuser, IIRC. He was as clean cut as they come.

    The other two attempted comebacks after a two year suspension but they were never the same. They sat out too long.

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