Storytellers: Part 4
Bill Worrell and Matt Bullard reflect upon their favorite moments in Rockets' history
HOUSTON - Experience matters.
Of course it does. Just how much it matters, however, is certainly up for debate.
Talk to coaches, players, media members and fans, and chances are the vast majority will trumpet the role experience plays in title contention. Want to reach the pinnacle of your respective sport? Most experts will tell you you’ll first have to fall short a few times before getting there. They will extol the virtue of the lessons learned in those defeats and wax poetic about the added toughness, drive and determination that come in the face of such setbacks.
They are very likely not wrong in dispensing this sort of wisdom, by the way. Life brings with it a seemingly unending series of potholes and pitfalls designed to trip up the best of us, and our growth and maturation as fully-functioning, productive and (hopefully) high achieving humans are undoubtedly tied to our ability to respond and rise above those difficulties and trying times.
But sometimes experience can be a bit of a burdensome anchor, too. If the vast majority of what we have seen and been subjected to has been overwhelmingly negative, even the strongest of wills and sunniest of dispositions can be overcome by tidal waves of self-fulfilling prophecies awash in despair and doubt.
In other words, it’s not just experience that matters, but also making sure you acquire and accrue the right kind, or at least the proper balance between positive and negative.
In that context, what the Houston Rockets accomplished during the spring and summer of 1994 becomes all the more amazing. This was, to be sure, a team with experience, but very little of it was of the exceptionally positive kind – at least when it came to postseason play. The Rockets made it to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs the year before, eventually losing in seven agonizing games to the Seattle Supersonics, but prior to that series Houston hadn’t seen the second round since 1987.
What’s more, the sports psyche in Houston at that time was about as sturdy as a porcelain tablet inscribed with Murphy’s Law. To have grown up a Houston sports fan during that era was to have intimately known the kind of tantalizingly cruel torture in which sports fandom so often sadistically specializes. In 1980 the Houston Astros were two innings away from the World Series, holding a 5-2 lead with Nolan Ryan on the mound. They ended up losing 7-5. In 1983 the University of Houston boasted one of the greatest men’s basketball teams of all time, featuring Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They rode invincibly into the title game having won 26 games in a row. Then Lorenzo Charles happened. The ’86 Astros were three outs away from forcing a Game 7 against the Mets in the NLCS with the prospect of Mets killer and Cy Young award winner Mike Scott ready to take the hill for Houston in the deciding game. But New York scored three runs to tie the score in the ninth before ultimately winning 7-6 in 16 innings in one of the greatest games ever played. And notice I haven’t even mentioned the Houston Oilers yet, a team that elevated choking to such an art form that they managed to blow a 35-3 second half lead in the '93 NFL playoffs against Buffalo, ensuring Houstonians a lifetime of haunting flashbacks since the passage of time has done nothing to diminish its resulting pain or replay value.
Imagine, then, the mood in the city when the Rockets not only dropped the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals – at home, no less – to the Phoenix Suns, but also did so while coughing up seemingly insurmountable fourth quarter leads in both. Half of Houston’s sports fans were apoplectic, while the other fifty percent were simply resigned to their fate – this was just what our teams did; they served us hope on a silver platter, only for us to bite into that delicacy to discover it had been hollowed out and stuffed with a heaping helping of iron pyrite. Yes, the resulting indigestion was as awful as you’d imagine it would be.
Experience told us the series was over, that once more we’d been duped into believing this time might be different. We dubbed ourselves “Choke City” and didn’t even fight the label – what was there to fight? – instead choosing to wear it like a scarlet letter we had earned for being stupid enough to have hope in the first place.
Only later would we learn that those first two excruciating games were not a death knell, but merely birthing pains; that no matter what experience and past history said, a coach and his players still held fast to the notion that the dream was not yet dead. The Rockets went on the road and did the unthinkable, the unfathomable, the impossible. Suddenly, the foolishness we felt was not for having ever believed, but for surrendering faith before the fight was truly over.
The heart of a champion had been born. And amazingly, astoundingly and rapturously, its strong and steady rhythm found a home right here in Houston.
Goodbye, shame. Goodbye, scarlet letter.
Hello, Clutch City.
The Rockets renamed us. And we wear it with pride to this day.
That’s the topic of today’s roundtable discussion with Rockets’ broadcasters Bill Worrell and Matt Bullard. Check back tomorrow for part five of the series. And if you missed out on part one, part two or part three, click on the links to catch up.