I remember it like it was yesterday, although it is now, unfortunately, known as one of the most forgotten major sporting events of all time.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of Game 1 of the 1994 NBA Finals played between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks — a series that culminated in the city of Houston’s first sports championship in a league still in existence.
Although the championship, which was of course followed by a second the next season, may have set up an unrealistic expectation for sports greatness in Houston for me at the tender age of 10, it is still one of my all-time favorite sports memories.
And why shouldn’t it be? Looking back on it (I own and still regularly watch a DVD box set of the whole series), it was an epic series.
For starters, it pitted two of the game’s greatest centers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, against each other — a rivalry that began a decade prior when the two were college basketball standouts.
If that weren’t enough, the series went the distance with all seven games being tense and competitive. While the Knicks probably had the better all-around team, the Rockets had the baddest man on the court in Olajuwon.
“The Dream” put the Rockets on his back, not only leading the team in scoring in all seven games, but literally saving the series by blocking a championship-winning shot attempt by a red-hot John Starks in Game 6 of the series. The clutch stop forced a Game 7.
And the rest is history. Olajuwon had a 25-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist (all team highs) performance, and the Rockets won Game 7, 90-84, and the NBA title at home in Houston.
What should be remembered as one of the greatest NBA Finals is largely forgotten by most non-Houstonians because of two factors, both at no fault of the athletes who put on the great championship series.
Of course, it was the first season following the sudden retirement of the NBA’s No. 1 star Michael Jordan when he was in his prime. In June 1994, there were many sports fans out there probably more interested in seeing Jordan swing and miss in the Chicago White Sox minor league system than watching the Rockets and Knicks go at it in the Finals.
Then there was the three-ring circus of the events of June 17, 1994. For the few who don’t remember, the Rockets and Knicks were set to play a pivotal Game 5 with their series tied at two games apiece.
That’s when former star NFL running back O.J. Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings decided to take a drive in a white Ford Bronco. Simpson had previously agreed to turn himself in to police earlier in the day after being accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend a few days prior. Instead, the prime-time, low-speed chase and media bonanza ensued.
The road trip interrupted much of the NBA Finals broadcast, and is remembered as one of the most memorable moments in live television. All I remember is being appalled the Rockets’ game would be interrupted and scrambling to get a radio broadcast of the game.
The events that night cast a shadow across Game 5 and the remainder of a great Finals series. Other fine sports stories buried under the avalanche of the hype surrounding the Simpson case included that year’s World Cup, Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open and the celebration of the New York Rangers’ first Stanley Cup win in 54 years (and also, as of now, their last).
Hopefully, one day the Rockets’ championship and the other events overshadowed by this unique time in sports history will finally get the recognition they deserve.