Publish Date: 03/12/2022
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
Even the best bookmakers didn’t see the Rockets in the NBA Finals at the start of the 1986 season.
In 1982, the Houston Rockets made themselves laughingstocks by trading their reigning MVP Moses Malone for the over-the-hill Caldwell Jones and a #3 pick in the 1983 draft. But the money had been a big factor. Moses stood to make 2 million per year, and this was before the league became awash in corpodollars. So, after matching his salary, they traded their franchise player to Philadelphia. It seemed like a disastrous decision, as Philadelphia became an All-Time Champion and the Rockets declined by 32 games. But, there was a “Goliath” in the cards, in the form of Virginia Center Ralph Lee Sampson. Whether by favor or intent, the Rockets landed the #1 prospect in the draft. For good measure, with that #3 pick, they added Rodney McCray from the 1980 NCAA Champion Louisville Cardinals.
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With a new nucleus of Sampson and McCray, they were coached by the hard-driving but tactically strong Ex- Boston Celtic Coach Bill Fitch. Sampson as a center was already top 5 as a rookie, and the Rockets would double their win total(14 to 29). But the whispers started. The acerbic Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden would claim “they are losing on purpose. It was a business decision”. Maybe he had a point. The Rockets would lose 14 of their last 17 games, including their final 5. Fitch, who loved playing veterans, was overplaying the great center Elvin Hayes, now 38 and in his final campaign. But Fitch hated losing. He wouldn’t tank, would he? Well, the 1984 draft was generationally strong. There were two prospects the Rockets looked at, Akeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, the player of the year from North Carolina. But no one in Houston(if you can today believe this) really wanted Jordan.
They really wanted the homegrown transplant Olajuwon, but this was unconventional. The Rockets, of course, already had Sampson, and the idea of having two centers in the starting lineup seemed absurd. Unless….. They were thinking of packaging Sampson to Portland, to acquire Olajuwon’s college buddy Clyde Drexler. What no one knew was that Fitch, who coached an exceptional front line in Boston, really wanted Sampson AND Olajuwon. Thus, welcome to the birth of the Twin Towers. Houston got their man, but not without controversy. As the above quote by Layden shows, a large percentage of the movers and shakers of the league thought Houston intentionally tanked to especially draft Olajuwon, if not Sampson too. Brand new league commissioner David Stern was image-conscious, and after 1984 the draft would be based on a “lottery”, discouraging intentional losing.
The pick for Olajuwon would change the Rockets forever. They had their most beloved icon, a favorite hometown son who would become the living, breathing example of the Houston Rockets. But for now, Sampson was the man. The 84-85 Rockets would again improve(by 19 games), while Sampson would play in the 1985 All-Star Game (alongside Olajuwon) and win the game MVP. The Rockets returned to the playoffs for the first time in 3 years. Once there, they would lose a deciding game to Layden’s Jazz. But the future looked bright. Very bright.The pick for Olajuwon would change the Rockets forever. They had their most beloved icon, a favorite hometown son who would become the living, breathing example of the Houston Rockets. But for now, Sampson was the man. The 84-85 Rockets would again improve(by 19 games), while Sampson would play in the 1985 All-Star Game (alongside Olajuwon) and win the game MVP. The Rockets returned to the playoffs for the first time in 3 years. Once there, they would lose a deciding game to Layden’s Jazz. But the future looked bright. Very bright. The top 15 NBA PLayers of the 80s!
Point Guard : John Lucas 15 points 8.8 assists
Shooting Guard: Lewis Lloyd 16 points 4.3 rebounds
Small Forward: Rodney McCray 10 points 6.3 rebounds
Power Forward: Ralph Sampson 18.9 points, 11.1 rebounds
Center: Akeem Olajuwon( his spelling in 1986) 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds 3.4 blocked shots
Reserves: Mitchell Wiggins, Allen Leavell, Robert Reid, Jim Peterson, Craig Ehlo
Strengths: This was a strong, well-coached team. Fitch had developed what he called a “five-year plan” and this was year 3. Although the “Twin Towers” were the stars, Fitch himself was the marquee name. He made sure that his players knew he was boss, and he was forever reminding them of what it took to be in the elite class of the defending champion Lakers and his ex-team the Boston Celtics. He stressed ball movement and defense; With Sampson and Olajuwon, it was difficult to score inside against the Rockets. McCray was a solid player, an athletic wing who also played very good defense. Lloyd was a volume scorer, considered by Olajuwon as the best player in the league in 15-minute spurts. John Lucas was the ultimate leader, capable of settling down the offense and feeding either Olajuwon or Sampson. As for the Towers, Sampson had settled into the leadership secondary role as the “do everything man”. At 7-4, he could lead fast breaks and was a superb passer. As for Olajuwon, he was a much better scorer than first thought, with his soccer-like moves and guard-like quickness. He was already the league’s best center, alongside the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Off the bench, Allen Leavell, and Robert Reid provided scoring and leadership. But a hidden factor is the “Third Tower”. Jim Peterson, would be inserted into games and play very well with Sampson or Olajuwon. This allowed the two starters valuable rest when needed.
Weaknesses: Experience, Emotional Intelligence, team dysfunction, fragile bodies. That last part applies to Sampson. He would miss 14 games, and the dictates of the era demanded that he play in the post. Sampson was 7-4, 230 and he was better suited for a face-up shooting style. Fitch considered this as “soft” and would brook no dissent. The big man would have to play HIS way or not play. Sampson resented this but played as hard as he could. As a result, his knees began to hurt more and more. This meant Peterson would have to play more than his allotted minutes. Sampson and Fitch privately clashed. Meanwhile, there was now an internal debate as to who was more valuable out of Sampson and Olajuwon. The coaching staff concluded that Olajuwon was more durable(with Sampson being more talented), and so they made him the team’s anchor on offense and defense. Lucas, the very good point guard, had emotional intelligence issues that would result in him being dismissed from the team shortly before the playoffs. The team would allow Sampson to direct the offense as a “point power forward” to compensate. Finally, the team had not yet faced a great team like the Lakers in the playoffs or even 1985 Conference Finalist Denver. But they would get their chance.
Playoffs: As the second seed, the Rockets opened the 86 playoffs against the first-year Sacramento Kings. The Kings were crowned, as the Rockets closed them out in 3 easy games. The first mission had been accomplished. Next came Denver. The Nuggets were a formidable home team. In addition, they played a high octane offense that allowed them to be reasonably competitive. The teams split the first four games, and in-game 5 Sampson delivered a triple-double in a 28 point blowout. On May, 8th, 1986, the Rockets would end the series with a 126-122 win. It was a team effort, as Sampson grabbed 18 rebounds, and Olajuwon scored 28, while McCray and Lloyd each scored over 20. The Rockets had advanced to the Western Conference Finals. They would be facing the defending champion Lakers, home to legends. A 62 win season. Winners of 8 of 9 since the Twin Towers were formed. They wouldn’t lose, would they?
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Well, in-game 1 the Lakers were in top form. The Lakers’ fast break was in all cylinders, and Magic Johnson notched 18 assists. Meanwhile, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, 39 years old, scored 31 points on the Twin Towers. The Lakers ran away with a 119-107 win. Laker Coach Pat Riley would give his team the next day off. It would turn into a disaster. As the team prepared for game 2, Riley could see that his team was completely listless. They had absolutely no energy, no longer in-game condition after essentially coasting after starting the season 24-3. But the Rockets had a lot to do with this. Olajuwon would later remark that Fitch drove the team hard in between games, never allowing them to lose hope in their ultimate goal. As a result, a determined Rocket team arrived in Game 2. What pleased Olajuwon the most had been the Rockets’ absence of gimmicks; They were playing their normal game as the Twin Towers. The Lakers had no answer. Olajuwon would get 22 and 13, and Sampson the facilitator would come one assist short of a triple-double. The series was tied, then Olajuwon took over. It was here that the Rockets officially became “Akeem’s team” as back in Houston the 2nd year center would score 75 points combined on his homecourt as Sampson largely played a secondary role. The Rockets were now up 3-1, and they would unofficially be icons. The rest of the league had looked at the Twin Towers as gimmickry nonsense; Now, teams seriously considered adding the concept to their own teams to keep up. Moreover, the Rockets suddenly pushed back on the unofficial(but popular) idea that building teams around centers was becoming obsolete. The Rockets had two, and they now had the defending champions and the class of the West on the ropes. One more game, but Riley did his own motivating tactics. He reminded his team that rebounding was key; He also wanted Magic to take more of the offensive load. The Rockets had sagged off the Laker backcourt and filled the lane to stop Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy. Riley wanted his team to mix it up, fight inside and pass on the break. For the first half of game 5, this plan worked. The Lakers were the aggressor, but quarter by quarter Houston came alive. Finally, with about 5 minutes left, Riley sent in his goon Mitch Kupchak to attack Olajuwon’s lone weakness. His willingness to fight and penchant for fouls. They had a brawl, and both men were ejected. But one Tower was still on the court. With the score tied, the Rockets inbounded to Sampson, and he hit what he called “his funky shot” that would be the signature shot of his career. The Lakers were eliminated, and now the Rockets would face the one team capable of answering their length. Fitch’s old troops, the Boston Celtics.
1986 NBA FinalsFor game 1, the Celtics attacked the Rockets’ inexperience. Sampson would pick up three fouls, which was replaced by Olajuwon’s 25 first-half points. But in the 3rd, Olajuwon would get in foul trouble, and Sampson (2 points) was ineffective. In-game 2, Sampson would score a respectable 18, while Olajuwon would get 21. But only one other Rocket(McCray) would score in double figures as Houston was walloped by 22. The team started to hang their heads down; Fitch demanded better production from Sampson. Playing like a man responding to his coach, in-game 3 Sampson would get 24 points and 22 rebounds, and Fitch smiled his sardonic glare. In-game 4, Sampson would get 25 while Olajuwon 20. But the veteran big man Bill Walton would execute a key layup, and the Celtics were up 3-1. Now Fitch made sure his troops stayed confident, but he continued to pressure Sampson. Clearly riled, in the middle of the second quarter of Game 5 he got into a fight with 6-1 Jerry Sichting, which resulted in both men being ejected. The fight angered both teams; Celtic guard Dennis Johnson had a cut under his eye, and Larry Bird knew that meant this was only going one more game. Meanwhile, Bird would later defend his fellow Hoosier and teammate Sichting. He would say ” Heck, I can’t believe he picked a fight with Sichting; Even my girlfriend can beat up Ralph”. He also played on Sampson’s obvious discomfort playing in Boston(he survived an awkward fall that could have paralyzed him when the teams met in the Boston Garden on March 24th) saying” For Game 6, Ralph better wear his hard hat”. It also invigorated the Rockets. Playing like a recharged man, Olajuwon would get 32 points, grab 14 rebounds, and block a record 8 shots. In Sampson’s place, Peterson would emerge as “the third Tower” and get 12 rebounds as the Rockets handed Boston their worst playoff defeat. Fitch now was zoned in; He reassured his team that they only needed to win one game at a time in Boston. He wanted nothing more than to defeat the team that no longer valued his services. But it was all for naught. Sampson showed his fear as he missed his first 8 shots, and for all intents and purposes, he was never again the same impact player. Olajuwon scored a respectable 19, but he only played well in spurts. The Rockets in the second half played like a team satisfied to get just this far, while the Celtics zeroed in for the kill. Bird was magnificent, with a 29 point triple-double, and the Celtics led by as many as 28 points. The final would be 114-97, as the Celtics would capture their 16th NBA Championship.
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Aftermath: The future looked bright for the Rockets until Sampson’s knees suddenly aged overnight. Lloyd and Wiggins would be dismissed from the team, and the “Twin Towers” became “Twin”( Olajuwon alone). “The Dream” would prove he was the league’s best center, but it came with an attachment. The Rockets now decided that team Captain Sampson was unnecessary, and on December 12th, 1987, the team would cut their losses and trade a diminished Sampson to Golden State. Now alone, Olajuwon would begin to clash with Fitch and management over team personnel; Simply put, he grew tired of the demanding Fitch and he criticized the teams’ penchant for acquiring over-the-hill players. Finally, on June 6th, 1988, Fitch would be dismissed, having once again worn out his welcome after driving a team to unimaginable heights.