Houston Firecrackers – The Early Years
The Rockets, in addition to the Seattle SuperSonics, went into the NBA in 1967 as an expansion group based in San Diego. They picked Pat Riley with their initial draft choice in 1967. They went on to produce a then-NBA record 67-loss season.
In 1968 the Firecrackers won the coin toss versus the Baltimore Bullets, providing the first general pick in the 1968 NBA Draft. They chose Elvin “the Huge E” Hayes from the University of Houston. Hayes led the team to the franchise’s very first playoff appearance in 1969. The Rockets lost in the Western divisional semi-final to the Atlanta Hawks two games to four in a best-of-seven series.
The 1970 NBA Draft brought Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich to the Rockets – both significant to the franchise after their playing professions were over.
Coached by Jack McMahon and Alex Hannum, the Firecrackers tallied a 119-209 record over their period in San Diego.
In 1971, real estate broker Wayne Duddleston and banker Billy Goldberg bought the franchise for $5.6 million and transferred the group from San Diego, where fans were more disposed to the Los Angeles Lakers than the Rockets. The Firecrackers initially had been called for San Diego slogan, “A City in Movement,” but with the move to Houston their name handled even higher significance. Houston is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Area Center and Objective Control, which received national attention during Job Apollo.
The Rockets began playing at various places in Houston, including the Astrodome, AstroHall, and Hofheinz Structure. They also played video games at HemisFair Arena in San Antonio and in Waco. However, fan support was weak in the football and baseball-dominated city, and the Firecrackers averaged less than 5000 fans per video game throughout their very first Houston season. It was mused that the local churches in Waco drew more attendance than the Rockets.
Before the start of the 1971 season, Coach Alex Hannum left for the Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association. Tex Winter was hired as the new coach shortly prior to the group was offered. Coach Winter used a triple-post offending system that contrasted with the offending design to which Hayes was accustomed. Houston soon traded Hayes to the Baltimore Bullets for Jack Marin. Lack of success did little to capture the city’s attention, and in the Spring of 1973, following the Firecrackers 10th straight loss, Winter was relieved of his duties.
In 1975, with Coach Johnny Egan’s guidance and Tomjanovich, Murphy, and Mike Newlin leading the way, the Rockets made their first look in the playoffs given that getting here in Houston. The Rockets beat the New york city Knicks (led by Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe) in the first round, but lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-finals.
At the start of the 1977 season, the Rockets worked out a trade with the Buffalo Braves to obtain Moses Malone, who as a high school star made the unmatched choice of bypassing college basketball to sign on as a professional with the Utah Stars of the ABA in 1974. The Rockets beat the Washington Bullets in the 1977 Eastern Conference semi-final, but lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals. Malone made an impressive showing against Washington’s Elvin Hayes and waning star Wes Unseld.
On December 9, 1977, in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin Kunnert got into a battle with the Lakers’ Kermit Washington. As Tomjanovich approached the altercation, Washington turned and threw a punch, landing squarely in the face of an approaching Tomjanovich, triggering extensive structural damage to his cranium. The shocking scene became the defining minute of the Rockets’ 1977-78 season as well as the playing professions of Tomjanovich and Washington. Tomjanovich invested the next five months in rehabilitation and went back to appear in the 1978 All-Star Video game. A book by John Feinstein taping the events surrounding this event and the different courses that Tomjanovich and Washington have actually taken since that day is entitled “The Punch.”
Malone got the 1979 MVP Award. Not incredibly big or quick, he used footwork and positioning to end up being an effective center in the NBA. Malone, Murphy, and Tomjanovich all played in the 1979 NBA All-Star Game. Rick Barry was signed for the 1979 season from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for John Lucas. Barry balanced a modest 13.5 points and set a brand-new NBA record, publishing a. 947 free-throw percentage for the season. He would play another year for the Firecrackers prior to retiring in 1980.
The Firecrackers went 47-35 in 1978-79, Nissalke’s last season as coach. They ended up second in the Central Department, losing 2 straight to Atlanta in a best-of-three first-round series.