The conversation in the NBA of championship-caliber teams adding elite, hall-of-fame level talent to their rosters has been a constant one all season. From the Golden State Warriors adding the second-best player in the world to their already stacked roster, to the best player in the world lobbying his administration to add another high-quality player to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers roster, it’s the in thing to debate these days.
However, there are some of you who are either too young or too busy playing games online to remember a time when a certain team on a quest to try and win back-to-back titles made a controversial trade for the second best shooting guard in the NBA. That team was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, and that player was Clyde Drexler.
Dave Deckard’s excellent historical perspective of the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1990’s is worth the read. Here’s Deckard eloquent breakdown on the end of the Drexler-era in PDX:
On February 8th, 1995 Drexler scored 15 points with 7 assists and 5 rebounds in a 116-103 home victory against the Chicago Bulls. It was to be his last game in a Portland uniform. The league’s All-Star break followed and as action resumed on the 14th the news blasted across the wires: Clyde Drexler had been traded to the Houston Rockets along with Tracy Murray for power forward Otis Thorpe, foreign prospect Marcelo Nicola, and a 1995 1st round pick (later to become Randolph Childress). After a dozen years, two trips to the NBA Finals, and more spectacular dunks and game-saving scoring nights than can be counted the best player in franchise history was a Blazer no more. Valentine’s Day saw the hearts of Portland fans broken.
Before there was an Oklahoma City, Cleveland or Orlando, Portland beared witness to its franchise player leaving for greener pastures. While Bill Walton might’ve been a more successful player, and Damian Lillard might be the current face of the franchise, Drexler was the one that made everyone pay attention in a time when the league was in full flourish mode. Drexler made the Blazers look and feel cool, and Portland became the center of attention when the the Blazers were on the national stage.
However, by 1995 the Blazers were an absolute mess. The prime days of Terry Porter, Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams leading Portland to glory were gone, and the team was struggling to fight for the eight-seed with a 25-20 record. Drexler was fed up with the mediocrity, and felt mortality creeping right around the corner. Clyde went to Portland’s management and requested a trade to a contender, and the organization obliged him in good faith by sending him back home to the defending champions. Otis Thorpe was ultimately sacrificed by the Houston Rockets, and Glide was cruising into a new team’s hearts on February 14th, 1995.
The thing that everyone forgets about Drexler joining the Houston Rockets is that many of the players not named Hakeem Olajuwon were juiced by the acquisition. The Rockets, with a 30-17 record at the time of the trade, had lost one of their own in Thorpe, a former all-star power forward whose future had “role player” written all over it. Still, Thorpe was an essential figure in Houston winning its first title in 1994, and to see him sent out the door was rough for two reasons.
One, per Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated:
“It might work out, but right now I can’t say I love the trade,” says Rocket forward Mario Elie. “All I know is we’re going to miss O.T.’s 10 boards a game.” (Actually, Thorpe averaged a still-potent 8.9 rebounds for Houston.) The Rocket brass realizes that Thorpe’s absence creates a hole, which is why at week’s end Houston was still looking for frontcourt help before this Thursday’s trading deadline. A deal involving Houston guard Vernon Maxwell and Net power forward Jayson Williams was rumored, then denied.
Two, the story per SF Gate:
Wednesday’s reunion celebration was dampened by the latest disappearance by Maxwell, who is allowed to practice despite a 10- game suspension imposed by the NBA for punching a fan in Portland last week. The volatile guard was a no-show Monday because of what team officials called a “miscommunication,” but he had promised to attend workouts Wednesday.
Maxwell’s repeat absence was not well-received by coach Rudy Tomjanovich. “I talked directly to him,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s going through. If he was here, I would know.” Tomjanovich refused to speculate on whether Maxwell was disgruntled about Drexler’s arrival, which could mean less playing time. Bob Weinhauer, Houston’s vice president for basketball operations, also refused to speculate on why Maxwell was staying away. “He’s a part of this team,” Weinhauer said. “He should be at practice, and we will talk to him. We’ll deal with it internally.”
Let’s unpack these two stories.
- Say what you will about Jayson Williams, but before he did terrible things, he was a ferocious rebounder who was named an all-star in 1998. The thought of pairing a potential talent like Williams alongside Olajuwon would’ve meant no rebounds for anybody else.
- Vernon Maxwell was SAL-TEE about the Drexler move. I don’t know Maxwell, one of the most volatile players in NBA history, but I feel strongly that Maxwell never considered that Drexler was as good a basketball player as him. So when Houston didn’t bother to consult with him (because why would they when he was serving a 10-game suspension for punching a fan IN PORTLAND when the trade was commenced), the guy they call Mad Max didn’t take it well. “I handled it the wrong way,” said Maxwell to ClutchFans. “I overreacted like I normally do. Bad decision. I wish it wouldn’t have happened.”
- Drexler, who knew he was coming into a shaky situation on a new team, endeared everyone to him by putting the 1993-94 Rockets championship team photo in his locker for motivation.
What’s easy to forget about this Rockets team is that they finished the season with a 17-18 record after the trade and dealt with additional injuries to Olajuwon and Robert Horry. At 47-35, the Rockets limped their way to the sixth-seed in the West. The rest is absurd history.
As per Fran Blinebury notes, the Rockets defeated Utah (60 wins), Phoenix (59), San Antonio (62) and Orlando (57), the toughest gauntlet ever run to an NBA title. Olajuwon went full supernova, Clyde proved his worth, Horry looked like the second-coming of Scottie Pippen and Rudy T proclaimed to H-Town that his team indeed had the heart of a champion.
He was being sent home, to Houston, for one last chance to finally earn his championship ring. He was not on my team anymore, and he wasn’t coming back. I pulled over and listened intently, and I distinctly remember fighting back tears. Of course, there are far worse things that can happen in a day, but as I sat there contemplating the news I felt perhaps the last part of my childhood ending, and that wasn’t coming back, either. — Matt Cordova, Blazers fan
To date, the Portland Trail Blazers haven’t been back to the NBA Finals in 25 years since they lost to the Chicago Bulls in 1992. Sure, Portland was close, most notably with Rasheed Wallace leading the charge in 1999. However, NBA immortality isn’t guaranteed for anyone, as the “Seat’s Taken” philosophy means that championship gold is only for the sacred few. Power moves must be made, souls must be sold and fan bases are forlorn for perceived gains in other areas.
It’s important to cherish the moments that bring you joy, and the older one gets you realize that those moments can be fleeting. As an old man, I’d encourage sports fans to not love their favorite teams and players like a significant other. As a sports fan, you have every right to tell me not to tell you how to love. On Valentine’s Day, reciprocated love is hardly ever guaranteed and sometimes hearts are broken, but your heart can’t be broken if you never fall in love…right? Try telling that to Blazers (or Thunder or Magic) fans. Cleveland, you lucky devils you.Listen to me now, thank me later.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”