Why you should care

Because, as history shows, even underdogs have a shot at winning basketball’s ultimate championship. 

For those not particularly tuned in to basketball, a glance at this year’s NBA playoffs bracket might be a surprise. No Miami Heat. No Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, it’s a fresh crop of implausible contenders: Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies — what?

In some ways, it’s a throwback to 20 years ago, in Clutch City, aka Houston. Back then, dynasties like the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls ruled the game and didn’t leave room for an outsider. So Houston fans, bereft in a city without a championship in any extant professional sport, banked their fandom on sports other than basketball. Their faith in the Rockets languished, even though the team was anchored by homegrown hero and No. 1 draft pick Hakeem Olajuwon.

Then came 1994. The Rockets made it to the playoffs. But after twice losing commanding fourth-quarter leads during the Western Conference semifinals games, Houston fans could barely stand it any longer. Their team earned the nickname Choke City, masters of the dark art of blowing opportunities.

Yet the 1994 Rockets had a different story to tell, and they set out to prove how a city with a downtrodden basketball history could become champions of the basketball world. The Rockets fought their way out of the conference semifinals, and then out of the conference, and as they did, Houston fans pulled their chairs closer to the TV. The Rockets came away with a ring, thanks to a dominant performance by Olajuwon and improbable buzzer-beaters that transformed the Cinderella team from Choke City to Clutch City.

Clutch City serves as a reminder of how, in the absence of a transcendent dynasty, the unexpected can happen.

But the drama wasn’t over. Even though, in ’94, Olajuwon became the only player to ever win the NBA MVP award for both the finals and the regular season, while also being named Defensive Player of the Year, his team faltered during the 1995 season. They added Olajuwon’s old college teammate and future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler to try to turn things around, but it was late in the season. Riding into the playoffs on luck, they ranked sixth out of eight in their conference — historically, a position far out of reach of the crown. But what would happen that year has been called “the most unlikely, unpredictable, unsinkable and irrepressible run to a championship” in the history of the NBA. It made real the fairy tale that when it comes to the playoffs, the improbable is possible. It’s the dream that those unlikely contenders this year are wishing on.

erial view of Houston Rockets Kenny Smith (30) in action vs New York Knicks John Starks (3) at The Summit. Game 2. Houston,

Aerial view of the Houston Rockets’ Kenny Smith and the New York Knicks’ John Starks in action at the 1994 NBA Finals in Houston, Texas.

Source John W. McDonough / Getty

For the city of Houston, it’s difficult to overstate the emotional and cultural value of the championship years. Jon Adkins, a native Houstonian and die-hard Rockets fan, notes that the Clutch City championships resonate still today for Houstonians “primarily because we rooted for a team and players worth rooting for.” He recalls how Houstonians watched Olajuwon grow up at the University of Houston and dramatically fail multiple times in college and in the pros, until finally they witnessed him dominate while embodying a “humility and selflessness and a quiet strength that other superstars just don’t have.” It gave a town thirsty for sports pride finally a reason to cheer. They’re still cheering today, as the Rockets are back in the playoffs.

But the game has changed over the past two decades. Daniel Nathan, president of the North American Society for Sport History, notes it’s much less physical today than it was back then, thanks to new rules intended to diminish rough play. As a result, smaller, less athletic teams have been given room to flourish. It’s a good time to be a perimeter shooter.

Clutch City serves as a reminder of how, in the absence of a transcendent dynasty like Magic-Kareem, Jordan-Pippen, Shaq-Kobe, the unexpected can happen. John Smith, an associate professor of history at Georgia Tech, notes, “Our definition of ‘dynasty’ in the modern era has changed over time, becoming more diluted because of greater parity in pro sports.”

Which is all the more reason to watch those unfamiliar teams closely, because in today’s playoffs, there’s no longer a single winning formula. In the quest to win a ring, chemistry, health, confidence and strategic coaching can be just as helpful as a couple of showstopping talents. As Clutch City coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously foretold: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

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