The 1993-94 NBA season seemed like a journey into the great unknown. The past three seasons had seen the champions from the Windy City of Chicago be the first team since the 1960’s Boston Celtics to three-peat. However, after three straight titles and seven consecutive scoring titles, Michael Jordan, at age 30, was walking away from the NBA. He had been staggered by his father’s murder during the 1993 offseason, and Jordan shockingly announced his retirement on October 6th on the eve of training camp. Michael Jordan would eventually find his way to baseball, and suddenly the possibilities were endless for all the NBA teams that wanted their own championship trophy. Jordan had dominated the playoffs, winning three straight Finals MVP awards, but now the door was open and it would be someone else’s turn. In a period of two years, the NBA had seen Magic, Larry and Michael all retire.
While the season was the most wide-open in 15 years, one team emerged early on. The Houston Rockets started the season winning 22 of their first 23 games and establishing themselves as the early favorites. The Rockets were led by Hakeem Olajuwon who was headed toward one of the greatest individual seasons ever. Olajuwon averaged 27.3 points (third in the league), 11.9 rebounds (fourth in the league) and finished second in blocked shots behind only Dikembe Mutombo with 3.7 blocked shots per contest. Olajuwon had led Houston to the 1986 NBA Finals with a completely different nucleus along with his fellow “Twin Tower” Ralph Sampson. During this season, it would be a team “in the true sense of the word” according to head coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
The starting lineup in Houston would be solid despite not having a legitimate “second star”. Otis Thorpe would man the power forward spot and had a solid season averaging 14.0 points and 10.6 boards. Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith started at the guards and averaged over 25 points per game together. Robert Horry was a strong contributor at the small forward and stepped up with an all-around game that helped keep the unit together. The bench was spear-headed by Mario Elie and rookie point guard, Sam Cassell, along with key big man Carl Herrera. The team would play with great heart and determination and simply out work everyone in their path. The Rockets ended the season with a 58-24 record and be the Midwest division champs.
The other Western Conference leader was the Seattle SuperSonics who actually ended up leading the league in wins with 63. However, the Sonics would be upset in the first round and became the first top seed ever to lose to a #8 seed in the Denver Nuggets. The Phoenix Suns battled injuries all season but still ended the year with 56 wins. The San Antonio Spurs, led by David Robinson, also had a good season with 55 wins.
It was a strange feel in the Eastern Conference with no Michael Jordan, but two defensive stalwarts stepped to the front. The New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks both finished the year with a 57-25 record. New York was led by Patrick Ewing who averaged 24.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. The Atlanta Hawks led the East most of the year, but a trade right before the trade deadline clipped the Hawks. They received Danny Manning from the Clippers in return for Dominique Wilkins who had always been their go-to man. Atlanta faded late in the year and lost in the second round of the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls did surprisingly well winning 55 games and took the New York Knicks to seven games in the second round before losing.
The Houston Rockets easily disposed of Portland in the first round, came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Phoenix Suns in the second, and then beat the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals in five games. Pat Riley’s New York Knicks dismissed New Jersey in four games in the first round, then survived a couple of seven-game series against Chicago and Indiana to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.
The Finals would be a seven-game grudge match with Olajuwon versus Ewing as the back drop. The two had met in the 1984 NCAA championship game with Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas beating Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars. Olajuwon wasn’t going to lose a second time against Ewing’s club. Hakeem would average 26.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.9 blocked shots per game in the series leading his Rockets to a 4-3 series win and the Houston Rockets first championship.
Olajuwon had long been considered an underrated superstar taking a back seat to other more “charismatic” stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Charles Barkley. However, Olajuwon had a truly magical season and for his effort he added a championship ring and NBA Finals MVP to his regular season MVP and defensive player of the year award. He also helped bring the city of Houston its first major-league championship in any sport. At 31 years of age, Olajuwon was supposed to be heading toward the downside of his career, but NBA fans had just seen him transform into the best player in the league. Hakeem’s leadership and play had been the difference along with a team that out worked anyone and never gave up. There is a reason they named Houston Clutch City after all!