Posted Oct 12 2010 9:23AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:05PM
There were less than 10 seconds left in the game when the warm bottle of cheap champagne that I had smuggled into the Summit in Houston began to shake and rumble at my front row seat along the courtside press table.
I had torn off the foil wrapper and untwisted the wire that held down the cork in anticipation that time would mercifully run out on the longest, saddest period in Rockets history.
But few things went right that season. One last foul was whistled to stop the clock and as the late great veteran referee Joe Gushue stood directly in front of me at the free-throw line, the cork exploded from the top of the bottle and whizzed right past his ear.
Gushue dove toward the floor as if under sniper fire. What remained of a sparse crowd of 6,102 craned their necks to see what was going on. I sat there sheepishly holding up the foamy salute as it spurted over the sideline until point guard Allen Leavell grabbed the bottle, took a long, smiling gulp and then passed it down the line among his teammates.
I saw Michael Jordan and the Bulls clinch all six of their championships in person. I was on hand for every chapter of the Magic vs. Bird rivalry of the '80s. I chronicled Hakeem Olajuwon's breakthrough back-to-back title drives in the '90s. I traveled day-to-day with the transcendent Dr. J and the high-flying Philly circus that included Darryl Dawkins, Doug Collins, World B. Free and Jellybean Bryant in the '70s.
And my favorite team remains the 1982-83 Rockets, who finished with a rock-bottom record of 14-68. Not for the way they played, but for the way they held their heads up along a difficult journey from October to April when, in the end, everyone in Houston was openly rooting for them to lose.
The Rockets were just two seasons removed from a surprising run to the 1981 NBA Finals that ended with a loss to Bird and the Celtics. But that run had been made on the back of two-time MVP Moses Malone, who became a free agent and eventually forced a trade to Philadelphia just a few weeks before the start of training camp. Houston got a No. 1 Draft pick and center Caldwell Jones, a defensive specialist who averaged just 7.9 points a game in a 17-year career in the ABA and NBA.
So the Rockets went from a dark horse contender with a puncher's chance in Malone to a no-hope, non-playoff team virtually overnight, especially when athletic small forward Robert Reid decided to retire to become a minister for his church.
Up in the front office, the Rockets had a plan that was focused on the future. Maybe they couldn't compete with the likes of the Lakers and Celtics and Sixers and Spurs for the title. But if they finished with the worst record in the Western Conference, they could get into a coin flip for the rights to the 1983 Draft prize -- 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson, the three-time college player of the year. By losing enough now, the Rockets franchise could set themselves up for the future.
Never mind chasing the playoffs. The Rockets were chasing Sampson.
It was not a pleasant situation for coach Del Harris, who had guided the team to the 1981 Finals. Nor was it palatable for the likes of veterans Elvin Hayes and Calvin Murphy, both of whom were winding down Hall of Fame careers. Hayes and Tom Henderson had been champions with the Bullets in Washington. Wally Walker had won two titles in his first three NBA seasons in Portland and Seattle. Billy Paultz had won ABA titles while playing with Julius Erving in New York. Jones had been traded from a Philly team that was a perennial 60-game winner and challenger.
"I'm a professional," said the 5-foot-9 Murphy, who spent a career proving himself. "I have pride. Don't insult me by saying you want me to lose."
But the Rockets lost on opening night in Seattle 128-95 and began the season 0-10. By the time the record had fallen to a miserable 3-19 on Dec. 14, both daily Houston newspapers had begun running the NBA standings upside-down, crowing that the Rockets were winning the "Race for Ralph."
Leavell would be their leading scorer at just 14.8 points a game. Jammin' James Bailey, who tried to dunk everything in sight but couldn't make from two feet out, was their best shooter at only 49.7 percent.
It was a different time, a different league back then. It was before the age of private jets separating players from the masses. Back then, the teams and the beat writers all traveled together on commercial fights, lending to personal conversations and insights.
As the losses mounted, so did the frustration. The Rockets didn't have enough raw talent to win and they knew it. Yet they kept working, trying. But they also knew that they were being served up like lambs to slaughter.
"You get a check and you show up and be a professional," said Jones, whose younger brother Major was also on the team. "But, yeah, every night when you know the deck is stacked against you, it's hard."
Real hard in a 53-point loss on Feb. 1 in Chicago or a 39-point loss in New Jersey. They had losing streaks of 10, eight, eight and nine and won just three of their final 25 games. They had 42 losses by double figures and 21 times were beaten by 20 or more.
They'd hear the laughs and snickers from fans as they walked though airports. Sometimes they'd crack their own dark-humored jokes as they sat in the hotel bar sipping a post-game beer.
I would try to get a seat across the aisle from Paultz on the planes so he could regale me, as a way of forgetting, with wild stories of his grand old ABA days. I would sit in the locker room and listen to the boiling anger of Murphy, who just couldn't accept losing. I would see the pride in the Big E -- Hayes -- every time he stepped onto the court. I would trade one-liners with Walker or jibe Jellybean Bryant about the morning he missed a team shootaround in Kansas City when he'd overslept, missed the bus and didn't have cash for a taxi because he'd been cleaned out the night before in a poker game with his teammates.
I would watch Harris scribble Xs and Os and try anything to squeeze out another win. He kept telling himself over and over that he'd be rewarded the following season when he got a chance to coach Sampson. But that was never in the cards. The plan was always to cut him loose after the suffering, and the Rockets did.
There were the rare bright spots -- the 42-point explosion by Leavell that beat Denver, the 24-point effort by the aging warrior Hayes to beat K.C. by one in overtime.
The Rockets won two games in a row only once, beating the Nets and Warriors at home on Jan. 25 and 27.
All season long, they waited for help that was never going to arrive. By the end, they were just worn down, losing their last five games, including that night of April 16 to the Utah Jazz.
I attended every single game of that 82-game grind, often marveled at how they kept showing up to play. That's how I came to be sitting there raising a bottle of cheap champagne -- Chateau DeFeat? -- to a season that was less than bubbly.
"Oh man," said a smiling and relieved Leavell as the clock finally ran out and the champagne ran down his chin. "We earned this."
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