In part one and part two of our series, we spoke with Mario Elie, a member of the 1994 championship team, and Matt Thomas, who at the time was the PA announcer for the Rockets.
In part three of the series, we get a fan's point of view, as we talked to two of the biggest Rockets fans who were able to experience the lows and, of course, the many highs of that championship season: Dave Hardisty, the founder of Clutch Fans and Vator, who is one of the best follows on Twitter.
My first question is, how long have you been a Houston Rockets fan?
Dave: I have small memories as a kid of the Rockets being in the 1981 NBA Finals and was intrigued when they drafted Ralph Sampson in 1983, but I did not get into NBA basketball until 1984 when the Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon.
It was the UH Cougars — Hakeem and Clyde — that got me to fall in love with the sport. Baseball and football were king for me, but when Olajuwon was coming to the Rockets, it was natural to follow him here in the city. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Vator: I bleed Rockets red. I’ve been a diehard fan since the early ‘90s, but I know my Houston Rockets basketball history very well, dating all the way back to the 1984 Draft. That, of course, was an all-time great draft that produced players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley, among many others.
I’ve watched countless full games from the ‘80s just so that I could learn more about that era that featured a young “Akeem” and guys like Ralph Sampson, Robert Reid, John Lucas, Lewis Lloyd, and Mitchell Wiggins. Me being a huge Dream fan, I just needed to know everything about his history, even dating back to his Phi Slamma Jamma days at the University of Houston, so I consumed any and everything I could find. If there was a way to go on jeopardy and select Houston Sports as a category, I think I’d do fairly well.
When I was a kid, my neighbor used to get a copy of the Houston Chronicle delivered but went to work super early, so the newspaper would just sit there all day. While waiting for my bus, I’d read the sports section every morning to look at the box scores and see how the Rockets did the night before and neatly put his paper back together. Obviously, the internet as we know it was not a thing back in 1993.
After the Rockets defeated the Blazers 3-1, what were your thoughts on the series with Charles Barkley and the Suns?
Dave: There was so much optimism because the Rockets had homecourt in the series, but more importantly, they had just found out that they now held homecourt throughout after the Seattle Supersonics were stunningly upset by the Nuggets. That’s why “CHOKE CITY” became a headline, because the Rockets had this tremendous opportunity in front of them and blew 20-point leads in both of the first two home games (including a 20-point lead in the fourth in Game 1) to fall into an 0-2 hole.
Vator: My expectations were tempered. I didn’t think the Blazers were a contender anymore as their window had closed, but the Suns were a very good team. I viewed them as the favorites, honestly. They were dominant the year before after trading for Charles Barkley and had lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games in the Finals.
I thought they would be a tough out. That Suns team was fun to watch and had offensive weapons galore. I was hopeful, though. Our biggest nemesis in my mind was the Seattle Supersonics and their illegal defense, and they had lost in the First Round to the Denver Nuggets.
Vernon Maxwell called out the Rockets fans for not showing up for Game 1, and then the Rockets blew another huge lead. Were you concerned that the series might already be over after that Game 2 loss?
Dave: I think we all were. “CHOKE CITY” was a newspaper headline, but it also captured the sentiment at the time — the Astros, Oilers, Rockets had all collectively broken our hearts many times before. To go down 0-2 after losing both at home, and in soul-crushing fashion, the Rockets looked done.
Vator: I absolutely thought that the series was over. The Rockets had never won anything, the Houston Oilers and Buffalo Bills meltdown was still a fresh wound and, let’s be honest, it’s a wound that has never fully healed to this day for those that lived through it. Houston fans had become conditioned to expect the worst and to accept disappointment. I never imagined they would have the grit and intestinal fortitude to come back from two crushing defeats on their home floor and win the series, but I’ve never been happier to be wrong about anything in my life.
Choke City was more than just an indictment on the failures of the Rockets alone, it was a magnifying glass put up to the seemingly endless cycle of the local sports teams getting our hopes up only to eviscerate them in the most horrific and unimaginable ways. Sadly, the city of Houston is full of people eternally traumatized by the failures of the teams we love so dearly. This year, however, Clutch City was born!
How much of a roller coaster of emotion was it watching the Rockets go down double digits in Game 3, a do-or-die game at that, and then watching Vernon completely take over the game in the second half?
Dave: I was upset when they were down, but I think the bar of expectations was lowered because of the brutal start to the series. Homecourt was so important in the NBA, especially at that time, and it felt like a daunting task. But when Vernon exploded, it set the tone for an amazing comeback.
Vator: By halftime of that game, I had checked out emotionally. I continued to watch, because of course I wanted to believe, but I had convinced myself by then that the Suns were just too good and that a sweep was inevitable. Seeing Vernon Maxwell almost single handedly will the team to victory and refuse to lose will always endear Mad Max to me. He is a legend in my eyes. Without the heroics of Vernon Maxwell in Game 3, there is no Clutch City and there is no championship.
What was your biggest concern going into Game 1 of the Rockets and Knicks series?
Dave: Don’t lose (ha!). Seriously, I was just riding a cloud that the Rockets were back in the Finals that I didn’t want to see them suffer letdown. The 1984 NCAA Championship loss to Georgetown was on my mind to start this series — I wanted Hakeem to not only get revenge, but to establish himself as the clear superior player to Patrick Ewing.
Vator: By the time we made it to the Finals to play the Knicks, I thought that we were the better team, and I expected a much easier series than what unfolded. The Knicks were a super gritty team led by an all-time great coach in Pat Riley. I knew they hung their hat on defense, but I didn’t really realize how physical and tough that team was until we got locked into a series with them.
Watching Derek Harper completely neutralize Kenny Smith is etched into my memory forever. It was one of those unexpected things that heavily impact a series that you just don’t see coming. Thank goodness Sam Cassell was no ordinary rookie.
Of course, you have Game 5 and the O.J. Simpson chase. Watching the game, how upset were you that they put the game on a split screen and how crazy of a situation was that watching it live on TV?
Dave: Angry. That’s the best way to explain it. Things weren’t going well, and the game was being pushed to the wayside on the broadcast. For me, it fed into the “Houston gets no respect” mindset we had in the city. In fact, when the Rockets won the title that year, they didn’t even make the cover of Sports Illustrated, which was a huge deal back then.
Vator: Initially, I was mad that they split the screen, because my parents didn’t have a big TV back then. So combine an already small TV screen with it being split in half. Then realize that we weren’t watching sports in HD back then and you have a recipe for disaster. I was practically standing right in front of the TV and squinting to try to get a glimpse of what was happening in the game.
I’ve never been in my living room and felt like I was sitting in the nosebleed section before until that day. I was furious! The longer it stayed on the screen, it forced me to take notice of it and I slowly realized the seriousness of what was going on. Little did I know at the time, but that would be an iconic moment that would forever live in infamy. OJ was practically our first indoctrination into reality TV and the world at it up.
I still wish that he would’ve been more considerate to Houston fans and had waited to try to escape justice after the game was over. Houston being disrespected yet again! We couldn’t even enjoy our team competing for a title without having to share the spotlight.
End of Game 6, John Starks is going up for the series-ending jump shot. What are you thinking at that time, and were you sure that shot was going in?
Dave: Yes, I was convinced this was the end. He was red-hot and seemingly couldn’t miss. But my story from this game was wild and 100 percent true:
I was in Argentina watching the game with a friend. They had an ESPN Deportes channel there at the time, but it would show the game and then immediately go to something else. I kid you not — when Starks went for that shot, my friend jumped back on the couch and yelled, “Oh no!” Him throwing himself back on the couch disconnected the power plug on the TV.
Imagine — this is THE moment where it’s all make or break, and the TV cuts out. All I saw was Hakeem make his way towards the shot when it went out. By the time we figured out what happened (with me screaming uncontrollably) and got the TV back on, all I saw was Rudy T throwing his hand up in the air and running off the court. I literally had to just assume the Rockets won because this ESPN channel went straight to fishing after that.
If Hakeem doesn’t block that shot, history is a lot different.
Vator: Like I’ve said, being a Houston fan unfortunately conditions you mentally to expect the absolute worst! Whatever the worst-case scenario is in any given situation, that’s what I’m expecting to happen 99 percent of the time. It’s how I protect myself from disappointment. I thought that the John Starks shot was going in.
I still believe to this day that had Hakeem not been a superhuman able to do things that most normal men are incapable of, that shot goes in and the Rockets fall to the Knicks in six games. That fingertip block was really an amazing play if you go back and look at it. Centers like Hakeem weren’t switching out on the perimeter and defending shifty guards in space like that back then. Dream was special and ahead of his time.
Explain to Rockets fans who were not born yet how intense and nerve-racking Game 7 was as a fan.
Dave: It was everything. The nerves. The leadup to the game. There was an NBA championship on the line, which is intense to begin with, but there was more than that hanging in the balance. I just remember counting the minutes until that game. I think everybody in the city felt the pressure like we were suiting up ourselves.
Vator: It’s very hard to explain the feeling of a Game 7 in the NBA Finals. Every possession just seemed to take extraordinary meaning. Every make, every miss, every turnover just seemed to carry an inexplicable amount of weight. You fear being down because you don’t know if you can mount a comeback. You fear being up because you don’t want the team to get complacent and choke away the lead. Every play seems to feel like one that can shift the momentum and ultimately be a turning point in deciding the outcome. You want to win it so bad, but in the back of your mind, you know that a loss is just as likely and there is no next game. This is it. I remember physically shaking at times during this game because I was so nervous and wanted them to win so badly.
Can you describe the feeling of watching the first-ever Houston team win a championship after so many heartbreaking losses by Houston sports teams?
Dave: Indescribable, sincerely. We watched the Lakers, the Celtics, the Bulls... and here are the Houston Rockets winning an NBA championship? It’s all we ever dreamed of as fans. The city was electrified. It was vindication for Houston, for fans who had been through Luv Ya Blue, the ‘86 Astros, NC State, the “Unbeatable” Rockets, the Buffalo collapse... the idea of Houston winning a major sports championship was just foreign, a fantasy. It was special then and will be again for young fans when this franchise reclaims the crown.
Vator: Relief! I felt a sense of relief. Finally! The city of Houston deserved to have something finally go our way. The way we unconditionally support our teams, we deserved to be rewarded with a trophy and with being able to go to a game, look up, and see a banner hanging from the rafters. It was a long time coming. I can’t wait to feel that feeling again as an adult. I think the look of shock on Hakeem’s face as the confetti fell to the court embodied the emotions of the city collectively. Like wow, we really did it! We’re champions. So…this is what it feels like.
As you can see, it was a great time to be a Rockets fan, and hopefully, one day, we can all be a part of those moments again.