WHILE the heavily-hyped game at the Mall of Asia Arena amounts to nothing more than a warm-up for the upcoming 2013-14 NBA season, a cursory look at the storied history of the participating teams – the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers – is more than enough to create mass hysteria among Filipino hoop fans.
The Rockets joined the NBA nine years ahead of the Pacers, coming in as an expansion team based in San Diego in 1967. The Rockets predictably struggled in their maiden campaign, winning only 15 of 82 games. The dismal showing, however, earned the Rockets the first pick in the 1968 draft which they used to snare their first big man – Elvin Hayes of the University of Houston. Dubbed the ‘Big E,’ the 6-9 Hayes was an instant star with the Rockets, averaging 28.4 points and 17.1 games during his rookie year to help the team improve by 22 games from the previous season. The following season, the abrasive Hayes topped the league in rebounds but the Rockets still struggled in San Diego and the team moved to Houston in 1971.
The Rockets dealt Hayes to the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) in 1972 and tried rebuilding around considerably shorter players such as 5-11 point guard Calvin Murphy and forwards Mike Newlin and Rudy Tomjanovich. When the team continued to falter, the Rockets revived their interest in big men and star center No. 2 came in 1976, when relentless rebounder Moses Malone moved over from the defunct American Basketball Association (ABA) to the NBA. With the 6-10 Malone at the helm, the Rockets won the Central Division crown in 1976-77 and advanced to the NBA Finals in 1980-81, losing in six games to the Boston Celtics.
In 1983, the Rockets drafted 7-4 Ralph Sampson from Virginia and a year later added dominating Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon (then known as Akeem Olajuwon) to form the dreaded ‘Twin Towers.’ A former football and handball player, the 6-10 (generously listed in the record books as seven-footer) Olajuwon was one of the most agile big men to patrol the paint. He offered an assortment of spin moves around the basket, including an unstoppable baseline jumper. In 1985, Houston made it back to the NBA Finals behind its ‘Twin Towers,’ only to lose to Boston again in six. Trouble hit Houston the following season as injuries crippled Sampson. Fortunately for Houston, Olajuwon’s game blossomed and in 1993-94 the Rockets finally won the NBA championship by upending the New York Knicks in seven games. Olajuwon averaged 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks as he led Houston to a league-best 58-24 record in the regular season. In the playoffs, Houston eliminated Portland, Phoenix and Utah to reach the finals. Olajuwon then outplayed New York’s Patrick Ewing in the NBA Finals to give Houston its first championship.
Like the Rockets, the Pacers struggled upon joining the league in 1976. The Pacers originated from the ABA, where they won three ABA titles and finished second twice between 1968-69 and 1974-75 behind the heroics of great players like center Mel Daniels and forwards Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis. In 1987, the Pacers picked UCLA star Reggie Miller No. 11 overall in the draft and by his third season (1989-90) the sweet-shooting guard was averaging 24.6 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field. But while Miller shot his way through the Pacers’ record books, the team struggled and did not win a playoff series until 1994.
The arrival of ex-Boston Celtic star Larry Bird as head coach in 1997-98 drastically changed the Pacers’ fortune. Bird, who was picked No. 6 in the 1979 draft by Boston after his junior year at Indiana State, guided Indiana to a franchise record 58-24, a 19-game improvement from the previous season. In 1999-2000, with Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey and center Rik Smits joining Miller, the Pacers barged into the NBA Finals, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Today, the Rockets and the Pacers remain among the top teams in the NBA. For the upcoming season, Houston will showcase another big man in Dwight Howard while the Pacers figure to ride on the coattails of their latest prized shooter Paul George.