It was a dream season for Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets: Olajuwon was named league MVP, NBA Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Team as the Rockets captured the first professional sports championship in Houston's history.
For the New York Knicks, and especially for John Starks, it was a nightmare, a matter of so close and yet so far.
After going up three games to two in the NBA Finals, the Knicks fumbled a chance to win their first NBA championship since 1973 when Olajuwon deflected Starks's three-point attempt and the Rockets survived with a 90-88 win in Game 6.
Then, after three days of hoopla leading to the decisive Game 7, Olajuwon came through with 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks as the Rockets posted a 90-84 victory in a game in which Starks, New York's All-Star guard, shot 2-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-11 from three-point range.
"This was a tough battle. It was truly a championship game," said Olajuwon after Game 7, the 20th consecutive seventh game of a playoff series won by the home team. "If you write a book, you can't write it any better. It has been a great season for us, and I'm just so happy to bring a championship to this city, Houston. It means a lot."
The title came after one of the closest, most intensely fought Finals in NBA history. Every possession was precious, every shot contested, every loose ball the object of a frenetic scramble. Defense was dominant: For the first time since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954-55, neither team reached 100 points in any game of a seven-game playoff series. Not since 1975, when the Golden State Warriors swept the Washington Bullets, had there been a Finals series in which the margin of victory in every game was less than 10 points.
"The Houston Rockets have to be considered a great team, and usually a great team is led by a great, great player," said New York coach Pat Riley, who threw everything he had at Olajuwon, using Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Charles Smith at various times and in various combinations against the Rockets' 10-year pro. "This championship will kick him over the top, and it should. He got his ring and he deserved it."
"There isn't a greater player, a better leader, or a more deserving individual than Hakeem," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "We won as a team, but this is his team."
The Knicks, meanwhile, were left with the spectre of Starks's errant shooting in Game 7, and the fact that Riley had no Plan B to which to turn. Hubert Davis had beaten out Rolando Blackman for the back-up shooting guard position in training camp and played well during the regular season, but Riley came to feel the second-year man was not assertive enough for Finals competition, especially in the heat of Game 7. And Blackman never got off the bench in the Finals.
So the answer to the question most often asked by hoop fans on the streets of New York, "Why'd Riley leave Starks in there when he was shooting so badly?" is that he basically didn't have much choice.
"You go with the guys that got you here," offered Riley. "You go with your players; you go up with them, and you go down with them. John almost single-handedly won it for us in Game 6. The guy is fearless. He had some real good looks at the basket in the fourth quarter, but they didn't drop for him. He is one of the great competitors I have been around in my life and I love him dearly for that. He's a tough kid, and he'll eventually be able to lick these wounds and get over it and learn from it."
Starks did what shooters instinctively do when they find themselves in a slump -- try to shoot their way out of it. He was hopeful of repeating the pattern set earlier in the series, when in several games he started slowly only to come on strong in the fourth quarter.
Riley offered the simplest of explanations: "This game comes down to making or missing. You either make or you miss. The shots that you get, you have to knock them down. Some games we did, and tonight we did not."
For Houstonians, famished for a championship, the feeling produced joyous (and, it should be noted, peaceful) celebration as caravans of cars and pickups wound their way through the city and fans of all ages reveled into the wee hours of the morning. A city that had built up something of a complex about its sports teams coming close but never quite winning finally had a big-league title to call its own. True, the Oilers won AFL titles in 1960 and 1961 and the Aeros ruled the World Hockey Association in 1974 and 1975, but those were struggling leagues in their infancy. This, for Houstonians, was the big time.
The first words from Tomjanovich's mouth in the post-Game 7 tumult reflected this feeling. "Houston, you've wanted this for so long," he proclaimed to the crowd at the Summit. "You finally got it, and I'm proud to be part of the team that got it for you."
The Rockets' ride to the championship wasn't all smooth, however.
"I thought we could do it, but I knew it would be hard," said Tomjanovich. "I thought we were one of six teams that could make it here. I knew we'd have to play defense, we had a good post-up game and perimeter shooting, and then we added penetration. We grew as a team, getting better as the year went on. We had to deal with pressure early, with the 15-game winning streak (that tied an NBA record) to start out the season. All that attention and pressure helped us prepare.
The Rockets could have been disrupted by the midseason trade that wasn't, when they attempted to deal second-year forward Robert Horry to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott, only to have the deal nullified because Houston had concerns over Elliott's physical condition. Horry went on to have a solid season and was an effective inside-outside threat in the playoffs, especially against the Knicks.
"I've got to give Robert a great deal of praise for the way he took the situation," Tomjanovich said. "It's turned out good for the team. I look at it now and wonder how the hell we could have done it (the proposed trade) myself.''
The Rockets also nearly had their postseason aborted when they dropped the first two games of the conference semifinals (at home, no less) to Phoenix. That prompted hometown headlines of "Choke City" and criticism from some of the players regarding the fickleness of the Houston fans. But the team bounced back to win the next two games in Phoenix and eventually take the series in seven, and soon the headlines were reading "Clutch City" as the honeymoon between players and long-suffering fans was back on.
The Rockets and Knicks split the first two games at the Summit, with Houston taking the opener 85-78 behind Olajuwon's 28 points and 10 rebounds, and New York tying the series with a 91-83 win. The Knicks shot .522 from the field in Game 2, the only time in the series either team made more shots than it missed.
Houston went up two games to one with a 93-89 win as the series shifted to Madison Square Garden. Rookie guard Sam Cassell scored seven straight points in the final 32.6 seconds to clinch the win. But the Knicks won the next two games, 91-82 and 91-84, outrebounding the Rockets in both contests and getting good production from their backcourt of Starks and Derek Harper.
The Rockets then became only the sixth of the 21 teams involved in best-of-seven Finals that have been tied at two games apiece to lose Game 5 but bounce back to win Games 6 and 7 and reign as NBA champions.
Houston took Game 6, 86-84, as Olajuwon scored 30 points. Reserve forward Carl Herrera shot 6-for-6 from the floor, and Kenny Smith nailed a gutsy three-pointer with 3:18 left and the Knicks chipping away at Houston's lead. Smith's basket gave the Rockets a seven-point lead and just enough of a margin to survive, although they needed Olajuwon's fourth blocked shot of the game -- a magnificent, come-from-nowhere leaping tip of Starks's attempted three-pointer in the closing seconds -- to hold on. Starks had already scored 16 of his team-high 27 points in the fourth-quarter comeback.
Olajuwon again came up big in Game 7, as did guard Vernon Maxwell, who had his best game of the series with 21 points. The game was close throughout. The Rockets held a narrow lead most of the way, and the outcome was not decided until Olajuwon nailed a 6-foot hook and Maxwell canned a three-pointer with 1:48 left, giving the Rockets an 83-75 lead and putting the game and the champagne on ice.
"I don't have the words to explain and describe what it feels like," said Tomjanovich, a member of the Rockets organization as a player, scout, assistant coach, and head coach for all 24 years since he left Michigan as an All-America forward in 1970. "It's almost like being in a dream. Right now I'm the proudest guy in the world."
At last, the Houston Rockets, a team yearning for recognition after years as a good but not quite good enough contender (including two previous losing appearances in the Finals in 1981 and 1986), stood atop the basketball world.
"If we don't get it (respect) now, something's wrong," said power forward Otis Thorpe. "Right now we're the world champs and we're the best team around. We feel proud of that, the city feels proud of that, and we're going to live up to it, too."