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Relocated NBA Teams: The San Diego Rockets

Between 1967 and 1971, the Houston Rockets were based in San Diego and went by the name San Diego Rockets. The team was formed as an expansion franchise alongside the Seattle Supersonics. San Diego is known informally as the “City in Motion” and it was also the site of the manufacture of NASA’s Atlas Rockets. That is how the Rockets acquired their nickname. The team’s first coach was Jack McMahon and their first draft pick was Pat Riley. The Rockets’ home games were played at the San Diego Sports Arena. Through most of their time in San Diego, the Rockets were owned by Robert Breitbard, who had acquired the team for $1.75 million and brought them to the NBA.

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Although the Rockets did not last long enough in San Diego to rate their quality as a team, they were average at best. They made the playoffs only once, in the 1968/69 season but even then, it was in fortuitous fashion as they had finished fourth with37-45 record. In the playoffs, they met the Atlanta Hawks to whom they lost the first two games on the road. They lifted themselves back into the series by winning the next two ties at home. However, they lost to Atlanta in game 5 and 6 to end their hopes of further progress. The rest of the Rockets’ seasons were also losing seasons, their very first one being particularly bad. Their 67 losses that season broke the NBA record for losses in a single season. They also finished last in 1969/70. In 1970/71, they went agonizingly close to the playoffs as they fell one game short of second place, which would have guaranteed them a spot. The Rockets’ record in San Diego is in stark contrast to the franchise they became when they moved to Houston in 1971. In Houston the team has been crowned NBA champs two times, having appeared in the Finals four times. In addition, they have a haul of numerous conference and division titles.

The Rockets seemed to have a good nose for rookies as two of their star performers were signed as rookies. The undisputed star for San Diego was Calvin Hayes, a 6’9 forward who was signed from the University of Houston in 1968. His best years as a pro basket baller were with the Rockets. In his rookie year, he led the league in scoring with 28.4 points per game and 17.1 rebounds per game, earning him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Team. To date, he remains the only rookie to top the NBA in points per game. On November 11, 1968 he scored a career-high 54 points in a game against the Detroit pistons. In 1971, he had his career best scoring average, 28.7 points per game. Hayes has the fourth highest total rebounds behind heavyweights Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Another great draft pick was small guard Calvin Murphy who was selected 18th overall in 1970. Although he only played for San Diego for one season he went on to achieve unprecedented success when the team relocated to San Diego, playing a total of 1002 games for a total point tally of 17949. Another influential player for the Rockets was center John Block. He scored more than a thousand points for the San Diego Rockets in three seasons and was particularly important in the 1967/68 season when he notched 20.2 points per game and made 11.0 rebounds per game.

Why the San Diego Rockets were Relocated

The Rockets’ lean success on the court naturally meant that the team was unable to establish a strong fan base. Breitbard was reportedly already looking for a buyer by the beginning of the 1969/70 season. in 1971 following an average performance by the team, he sold to Billy Goldberg and Wayne Duddleston for $5.6 million. The new owners moved the team to Houston, Texas, a city that fit the “Rockets” profile even better due to its long history as the headquarters of NASA. The city of San Diego would not be without NBA action for long as the Buffalo Braves moved in in 1978 and changed their name to “San Diego Clippers.” This reunion would however not last long as the Clippers also left for LA some years down the line and San Diego is yet to host another NBA franchise.

San Diego Rockets Notable Players

Elvin Hayes F 1968-1971
Calvin Murphy G 1970/71
Jim Barnett SF/SG 1967-1970
Pat Riley G 1967-1970
Toby Kimball C 1967-1971
Stu Lantz G 1968-1971
John Trapp F 1968-1971
John Block C 1967-1971
Don Kojis SF 1967-1970

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