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The Houston Rockets – Shooting for The Stars

Through their long history, one thing you could say about the Houston Rockets’: there’s always a star on the floor. Most lately that star has been James Harden. But the rosters of the teams reads like a Hall of Fame.

Consider these names: Elvin Hayes, Calvin Murphy, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. All have made their marks on the basketball world, and all have left their impressions with Rockets fans.

Tickets to Houston Rockets games have always meant witnessing greatness in basketball history.

The San Diego Years and ‘Big E’

It started in San Diego with the new National Basketball Association franchise, first established in 1967. The San Diego Rockets won a coin flip to obtain the first pick in the 1968 NBA draft. It was Elvin “Big E” Hayes, former college Player of The Year for the University of Houston Cougars.

Hayes’s league-leading scoring and rebounding helped the Rockets improve to playoff status. They made their first NBA playoffs appearance in 1969, before losing in the semifinals.

Even the additions of All-American guard Calvin Murphy of Niagara University, and Big Ten Conference rebounding leader Rudy Tomjanovich of Michigan, failed to produce more winning seasons in San Diego. The team’s first owner, Robert Breitbard, sought to sell.

On to Houston and Moses Malone

In 1971, Texas Sports Investments purchased the team and moved it to Houston. The early years in Houston were struggles. The Rockets went through two coaches, changed ownership, and lost the services of Hayes, who was traded during the upheaval.

They got back to their playoff feet in 1975, under Coach Johnny Eagan. They made the playoffs for the first time in Houston, defeated the New York Knicks in the first round, then lost to the veteran Boston Celtics.

The team sold out several regular season games and all of their home playoff games that year. Tickets to Houston Rockets games became things of value. The next season, owner Kenneth Schnitzer, developer of the Greenway Plaza, welcomed the Rockets to the Plaza’s centerpiece project, The Summit. It would be the home of the Rockets for the next 29 years.

The Rockets went after another coach and more stars, after missing the playoffs in 1976. Coach Tom Nissalke encouraged two big hires: play-making guard John Lucas, an ACC star from Maryland, and former ABA star Moses Malone. The impact was immediate. The Rockets won the Central Division and rolled all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. But they ran into Julius Irving and the high-flying Philadelphia 76ers and lost the series in six games.

The following season, disaster struck in the form of a single incident on the floor. In a December game, Tomjanovich was punched in the face by Los Angeles Lakers guard Kermit Washington. The blow inflicted life-threatening head injuries, and left Tomjanovich sidelined for five months. It also crippled the Houston season; the team posted just 28 wins.

All-star Rick Barry replaced Lucas in a trade the following season, and the Rockets returned to the playoffs, with Malone winning the MVP award. But they were swept by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and that cost Nissalke his job.



The “Twin Towers” and Dominance

In 1981, after finishing with a 40-42 regular-season record, the Rockets barely made the playoffs. But in the postseason, they topped the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Kansas City Kings, before bowing to Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the NBA championship series.

Then in 1983 and ‘84, the team drafted 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-footer Hakeem Olajuwon. They would become known as Houston’s “Twin Towers.”

Sampson won NBA Rookie of The Year honors, and he averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds for his first three seasons, before injuries took hold.

Olajuwon would make an indelible mark on the Houston Rockets and the NBA. He was a great draw for tickets to Houston Rockets games, because of his All-American career at the University of Houston.

The Rockets were back in the NBA finals in 1986, but they were turned away once again by the Celtics. They didn’t make another serious push for the title for the remainder of the 1980s, as Sampson was traded away amidst other roster changes.

Return of “Rudy T” and Dominance

The 1990s ushered in Rudy Tomjanovich’s return, this time as a head coach, and he made the best of his star center. In the 1993-94 season Olajuwon was league MVP as the Rockets posted 58 wins, their most ever. Then they rallied from series deficits twice in their march to the NBA title series. There they beat the New York Knicks and Patrick Ewing in seven games.

The Rockets didn’t let up. They picked up Clyde Drexler in a trade during the 1994-95 campaign, and despite just a 47-win season, rolled to the finals. There they captured a second straight title by dominating Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic in four games.

Though they consistently made the playoffs for the rest of the 1990s, the Rockets never got another crack at the finals, despite adding players like Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

New Look, New Home

A new era came with the early 2000s. Aging players Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley all went their ways. Olajuwon was traded, and both Drexler and Barkley retired. Coach Tomjanovich would resign soon after. But the team moved into the new Toyota Center, and changed their uniforms and team logo.

In the 2002 draft, the Rockets turned to Yao Ming, a 7-6 center from China. Though Yao would become an NBA all-star, it wasn’t until 2004 and the acquisition of guard Tracy McGrady that the Rockets would return to relevance.

Yao and McGrady made for an effective inside-outside duo that produced 22-straight wins in the 2007-08 season. But injuries would cripple them by playoff time, and the Rockets made only brief postseason appearances.

Injuries and trades were a part of the Houston Rockets story for the rest of the decade..

The Harden Era

By the 2012 season, the whole Rockets roster had been revamped. Part of that change came in the acquisition of James Harden, the most impactful player in town since Olajuwon.

Led by Harden and stars like Jeremy Lin and Dwight Howard, the Rockets have become fixtures in the playoffs. The highlight was in 2015, when they reached the finals for the first time in 18 seasons.

The history of stars is still being written.



Houston Rockets Facts


Toyota Center Capacity: 18,000; Opened: 2003

All-Time Leaders

Scoring: Hakeem Olajuwon (26,511); Calvin Murphy (17,949); Rudy Tomjanovich (13,383)

Rebounding: Hakeem Olajuwon (13,382); Elvin Hayes (6,974); Moses Malone (6,959)

Assists: Calvin Murphy (4,402); James Harden (3,615)*; Allen Leavell (3,339)


NBA Most Valuable Players

Moses Malone – 1979, 1982

Hakeem Olajuwon – 1994

James Harden – 2018

  • – still active