Houston Rockets – The Early Years
The Rockets, along with the Seattle SuperSonics, entered the NBA in 1967 as an expansion team based in San Diego. They selected Pat Riley with their first draft pick in 1967. They went on to produce a then-NBA record 67-loss season.
In 1968 the Rockets won the coin toss versus the Baltimore Bullets, giving them the first overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft. They selected Elvin “the Big E” Hayes from the University of Houston. Hayes led the team to the franchise’s first ever playoff appearance in 1969. The Rockets lost in the Western divisional semi-final to the Atlanta Hawks two games to four in a best-of-seven series.
The 1970 NBA Draft brought Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich to the Rockets – both significant to the franchise after their playing careers were over.
Coached by Jack McMahon and Alex Hannum, the Rockets tallied a 119-209 record over their tenure in San Diego.
In 1971, real estate broker Wayne Duddleston and banker Billy Goldberg bought the franchise for $5.6 million and relocated the team from San Diego, where fans were more disposed to the Los Angeles Lakers than the Rockets. The Rockets originally had been named for San Diego slogan, “A City in Motion,” but with the move to Houston their name took on even greater relevance. Houston is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Mission Control, which received national attention during Project Apollo.
The Rockets began playing at various venues in Houston, including the Astrodome, AstroHall, and Hofheinz Pavilion. They also played games at HemisFair Arena in San Antonio and in Waco. However, fan support was weak in the football and baseball-dominated city, and the Rockets averaged less than 5000 fans per game during their first Houston season. It was mused that the local churches in Waco drew more attendance than the Rockets.
Before the start of the 1971 season, Coach Alex Hannum left for the Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association. Tex Winter was hired as the new coach shortly before the team was sold. Coach Winter applied a triple-post offensive system that contrasted with the offensive style to which Hayes was accustomed. Houston soon traded Hayes to the Baltimore Bullets for Jack Marin. Lack of success did little to capture the city’s attention, and in the Spring of 1973, following the Rockets 10th straight loss, Winter was relieved of his duties.
In 1975, with Coach Johnny Egan’s guidance and Tomjanovich, Murphy, and Mike Newlin leading the way, the Rockets made their first appearance in the playoffs since arriving in Houston. The Rockets defeated the New York Knicks (led by Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe) in the first round, but lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals.
At the start of the 1977 season, the Rockets negotiated a trade with the Buffalo Braves to acquire Moses Malone, who as a high school star made the unprecedented decision of bypassing college basketball to sign on as a professional with the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974. The Rockets defeated the Washington Bullets in the 1977 Eastern Conference semi-final, but lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals. Malone made an impressive showing against Washington’s Elvin Hayes and waning star Wes Unseld.
On December 9, 1977, in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin Kunnert got into a fight with the Lakers’ Kermit Washington. As Tomjanovich approached the altercation, Washington turned and threw a punch, landing squarely in the face of an approaching Tomjanovich, causing extensive structural damage to his cranium. The shocking scene became the defining moment of the Rockets’ 1977-78 season as well as the playing careers of Tomjanovich and Washington. Tomjanovich spent the next five months in rehabilitation and returned to appear in the 1978 All-Star Game. A book by John Feinstein recording the events surrounding this event and the different paths that Tomjanovich and Washington have taken since that day is entitled “The Punch.”
Malone received the 1979 MVP Award. Not exceptionally big or quick, he used footwork and positioning to become a successful center in the NBA. Malone, Murphy, and Tomjanovich all played in the 1979 NBA All-Star Game. Rick Barry was signed for the 1979 season from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for John Lucas. Barry averaged a modest 13.5 points and set a new NBA record, posting a .947 free-throw percentage for the season. He would play one more year for the Rockets before retiring in 1980.
The Rockets went 47-35 in 1978-79, Nissalke’s last season as coach. They finished second in the Central Division, losing two straight to Atlanta in a best-of-three first-round series.