The 1993-94 NBA season was without a doubt one of most peculiar seasons in the league’s history for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the void that then three-time NBA Champion, Michael Jordan, left after the three-time NBA Finals MVP unceremoniously retired from the league following a personal tragedy that prompted the Chicago Bulls star to take a temporary hiatus from the sport that had become synonymous with him.
Who won the NBA Championship in 1994 and 1995? The Houston Rockets won the NBA Championship in 1994 and 1995. The Rockets were led by Hakeem Olajuwon.
In His Airness’ absence, teams, especially the top contenders, scrambled on realizing that the league’s top prize was anyone’s for the taking after having firmly been in Jordan’s and the Bulls’ vice-like grip for the previous three seasons. No team capitalized on this power vacuum more than the Houston Rockets, who led by Hall of Fame center Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, went on to win the 1993-94 and 1994-95 NBA World Championships against the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic respectively.
For many years, the Houston Rockets were at best considered a second-tier NBA team. Their fortunes however took a turn for the better after selecting highly-touted center Hakeem Olajuwon as the first pick of the 1984 NBA draft. In Olajuwon, the Rockets had identified a centerpiece worth building a championship team around and he, alongside fellow big Ralph Sampson, would form arguably the largest frontcourt duo in NBA history dubbed the “Twin Towers.”
Houston’s decision to bring Hakeem onboard paid dividends immediately and after an impressive rookie season where the ex-University of Houston standout finished second in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting and an even more impressive second season, the Rockets made it to the 1986 NBA Finals where they lost to the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics in six games.
Olajuwon would continue to get better every year and lead the league in rebounds and blocks per game on numerous occasions, joining the exclusive company of NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton as the only players in the league to have done so by that point. Houston would however struggle to find their footing in an ultra-competitive western conference and fail to make it past the first round in four of the five playoff appearances they made since losing to the Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals.
From “Choke City” to “Clutch City”
By the end of 1991-92 season, Olajuwon had admittedly become frustrated with the Rockets for a number of reasons including a bad contract that underpaid him for a player of his stature and Houston’s unwillingness to break bank and surround him with the necessary talent to get them over the hump. The Nigerian-American’s relationship with the franchise deteriorated to the point that it was rumored that the Rockets were actively pursuing a trade on account of the differences, which Olajuwon’s agent had gone on record to describe as “irreconcilable” at the time.
Houston however came to their senses and rather than lose a once in a generation talent like The Dream, opted to make a coaching change by bringing in tactician Rudy Tomjanovich. The Rockets also made some much-needed adjustments to their roster. These decisions paid off and elevated both Olajuwon’s and the team’s play enabling them to set a new franchise record with 55 wins in the 1992-93 season. Houston also made it deeper into the playoffs than in previous seasons with Hakeem, who was entering his prime, finishing second in the regular season MVP voting behind Phoenix Suns legend Charles Barkley.
The Rockets started their 1993-94 campaign as one of the league’s top contenders, comfortably cruising through the regular season and securing themselves a playoff berth. Their resolve would nevertheless be tested in the second round where after having effortlessly dispatched the Portland Trailblazers 3-1, fell 0-2 to perennial conference rivals, the Phoenix Suns, earning the moniker “Choke City” from local publication The Houston Chronicle.
Motivated by this blatant insult, Olajuwon and company rallied to beat the Suns in seven games earning the nickname “Clutch City” from their detractors and a date with the Utah Jazz in the conference finals, who they beat in just five games to secure their first NBA Finals appearance in almost a decade. In the finals, The Rockets lived up to their new label and after a hard-fought seven game series against the New York Knicks, who were led by point guard John Starks and Hakeem’s long-time rival Patrick Ewing, clinched their franchise’s first NBA World Championship.
Olajuwon led the way with 26.9 points per game on 50% shooting and outclassed Ewing in every game to earn the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award – the cherry on top of the championship trophy and an acknowledgment of Hakeem’s on-court brilliance.
In an interview with CBS at the beginning of the 1994-95 season, Olajuwon said, “Last year, it was Clutch City. This year, if we win, it will be Double Clutch.” These prophetic words would define Houston’s mission to repeat the fete they had accomplished the previous season and they appeared on course to do just that after opening their campaign with an impressive 9-0 record.
This development inadvertently made the defending champions complacent to the point that they forgot that they had the proverbial bull’s eye on their backs. What followed was a shocking slump in which the Rockets were simply outworked by their opposition night in and night out culminating in a shocking loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who then had the worst record in the league.
Recognizing that they were at a crossroads between salvaging their season and possibly failing to even make the playoffs, coach Rudy Tomjanovich went against his initial decision to run it back with his championship-clinching squad as was then constituted and pulled off arguably the biggest trade in franchise history to bring in marksman Clyde “The Glide” Drexler mid-season from the Portland Trailblazers. This move was initially met with opposition by the old guard who felt a little betrayed after their fellow teammates were traded away for a player in Drexler who unlike them, had yet to prove he could win the big one at his former team. Only long-time friend and fellow University of Houston alum, Olajuwon, appeared sold on the breath of fresh air the shooting guard would bring.
Drexler quickly put those doubts to rest and hit the ground running returning the Rockets to championship form with performance after spectacular performance. The Glide continued to silence his doubters after his fellow “Phi Slama Jama” teammate, Olajuwon, was temporary sidelined by injury by keeping the Rockets afloat en route to clinching the sixth seed with a 47-35 regular season record.
The postseason provided the Rockets an opportunity to focus on their season-long goal of winning back-to-back championships, which they seized despite facing stiff competition in the western conference. Houston first sent the Utah Jazz packing in five games after being down 2-1 after the first three games then beat the Phoenix Suns in seven games despite trailing 3-1 after four games. The underdogs would then meet top-seeded bitter rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, led by the then just-crowned regular season MVP, David Robinson, in the conference finals. Olajuwon would go on to record arguably his best performance in a playoff series and absolutely dismantle Robinson and his Spurs in six games to book their ticket back to the NBA Finals.
In the finals, the Rockets squared off against up-and-comers, the Orlando Magic, led by their young dynamic duo of center Shaquille O’Neal and playmaker Penny Hardaway. Their championship experience ultimately proved to be the deciding factor and with Olajuwon’s and Drexler’s undeniable presence coupled with timely performances from guards Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie and forward Robert Horry, Houston beat Orlando 4-0 to clinch their second title in just as many seasons.
With the victory, the Rockets set four NBA records establishing them as one of the best teams in the league’s history. Houston became the first defending NBA champions to keep their title with a sweep and the first team to lose all their playoff home games and still advance on to the next rounds by winning all their road games.
Additionally, the two-time NBA World Champions also became the first team to bag the Larry O’Brien trophy without home-court advantage in the four playoff rounds since the NBA introduced the 16-team format in 1984 and the first team to beat four 50-win teams in a single postseason in their quest for a championship.