HOUSTON -- As the crowd erupted and the celebration began, Hakeem Olajuwon found an empty chair and sat. The look on his face was one of disbelief.
Houston, a city that has been teased by the baseball Astros and the football Oilers, got to celebrate its first major sports championship as the Rockets defeated the New York Knicks, 90-84, last night to win the NBA title.
Olajuwon played a spectacular game, totaling 25 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and three blocks and was the unanimous choice as the Most Valuable Player of the final series.
He's the first center to win it since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1985 and adds the award to MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies that he already had earned for the regular season.
"Finally," an overwhelmed Olajuwon said. "If you were to write a book, you can't write it any better. It's been a great season for the team."
It was definitely a team effort for the Rockets, who got a big lift from their starting backcourt. Vernon Maxwell scored 21 points and Kenny Smith added 11 as the two made 10 of 18 shots (55.5 percent). The two had entered the game shooting just 34.2 percent.
"We came through with a much better game -- we did it when we had to do it," said Maxwell, whose three-pointer with 1:48 left gave the Rockets an 83-75 lead and control of the game. "I'm just so happy to get the win."
There was no happiness for Knicks guard John Starks, who scored 27 points in Game 6 -- and whose potentially title-winning three-pointer in that game was partly blocked by Olajuwon. Last night, Starks made just two of 18 shots, missing all 11 of his three-point attempts -- many of them rushed shots when the Knicks were still in the game. The 11 three-point attempts set a Finals record. Starks finished with eight points.
"It's a deep, deep hurt for him right now -- nobody can imagine how much he wanted this," Knicks coach Pat Riley said of Starks. "But he'll get over it."
With a 27-24 advantage in the fourth quarter, it marked the first time in the series that the Rockets had outscored the Knicks during the final 12 minutes. Houston needed the big fourth quarter, taking a 63-60 lead into the final quarter.
Credit Baltimore native Sam Cassell for getting the Rockets off on the right foot. The rookie guard scored Houston's first six points to help the Rockets to a seven-point lead and later scored an 18-foot jumper from the left baseline that gave Houston its biggest lead of the quarter, 74-66, with 8:30 left.
As was expected in a series in which neither team won any game by more than 10 points, the Knicks fought back. And when Greg Anthony made a three-pointer from the right side with 6:48 remaining, the Knicks cut the lead to 74-71.
But the Knicks panicked, especially Starks. After Olajuwon hit a jump shot with 6:26 left for a 76-71 lead, Starks missed a three-pointer. He missed three three-point attempts in a minute and eight in the fourth quarter alone. It destroyed the Knicks, who shot just 33.3 percent in the fourth.
"I don't know what it was, it was very discouraging," Starks said. "My shot kept coming up short. When I went out before the game I felt real good. The shots I had were good looks. I can't explain it."
And yet the Knicks were behind only 78-75 after two free throws by Charles Oakley with 2:51 left. But Olajuwon's hook over Patrick Ewing increased Houston's lead to five, and Maxwell's 24-foot three-pointer from the left side with 1:48 left had the Rockets ahead, 83-75. The celebration had begun.
"It's the biggest shot so far in my career," Maxwell said. "Dream [Olajuwon] made a great pass, and I just shot the ball with a lot of confidence."
And the Rockets won, becoming the first Western Conference )) team to win the championship since Riley's Los Angeles Lakers in 1988.
"No words can describe this feeling," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, sporting a world championship T-shirt. "I'm sure I lost a couple of years of my life just going through this. I'm just so happy we came out on top."
And by coming out on top it marked 20th straight time that a home team has won a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs. It also marked the 12th time in 15 tries that the home team has won a Game 7 in the Finals. A road team has not won in that scenario since 1978 when the Washington Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics.
And a lot of the credit goes to Olajuwon, who came up short when he faced Ewing for the NCAA tournament championship in 1984.
"That was a tough battle," Olajuwon said. "It's been a great season for us, and this really means a lot -- to bring a championship to Houston."
And while the Houstonians celebrated, it ended a run for a championship by New York -- the team many said would win the title after Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls last season. Ewing went so far as to predict a championship last month.
"I am extremely disappointed in the fact that we didn't win a championship," said Ewing, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. "I have a lot of pride in my teammates, and I thought we came out and gave it 110 percent. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough."
NOTES: Cassell finished with 13 points in 18 minutes. . . . The Rockets' win marked just the second time in the past six years that the NBA championship had been clinched by a team on its home floor. . . . Neither team scored 100 points in the seven games, marking the first time that has happened since the shot clock was introduced in 1954. . . . New York was trying to become the first city to have hockey and basketball champions in the same year.
+ N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON (Rockets win series, 4-3) Results
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84
Gm. 6: Rockets 86, Knicks 84
Gm. 7: Rockets 90, Knicks 84