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The Story of Rudy Tomjanovich's Houston Rockets
They were considered also-rans.
Caretakers of a championship while Michael Jordan was grieving.
The Houston Rockets had won the title in 1994 only to discover that nobody cared.
The Rockets in the 80s had managed to be the only Western team to get to the Finals outside of Los Angeles. They did it with Moses Malone and Robert Reid in 1981. They had Craig Ehlo, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mitchell Wiggins and Robert Reid in 1986.
The Rockets in the mid 90s were coached by a man named Rudy Tomjanovich, a former all-star for Houston in the 70s, yet who was famous for being at the receiving end of one of the nastiest punches to the face you've ever seen in your life. It was in 1978 in Los Angeles, and his assailant was a guy who normally would never hurt a fly -- Laker forward Kermit Washington. It was a hit that would require reconstructive surgery, for Rudy T happened to be running as fast as he could into the punch when it was delivered. Washington would receive death threats galore, filled with all the greatest hits...all the racial slurs you could imagine.
They were the habitual 3rd team in the NBA.
Going into the 1995 season, the Houston Rockets were the NBA's little brother. There was no way to win if you were Houston. If you were 85% of the population that only knows Michael Jordan, you didn't know the Rockets. If you were 40% of the remaining 15% that kept up with basketball, you didn't give the Rockets a chance against Jordan. And if you were the other 60% of fans of the NBA, who treat it like a food group, you know that the Seattle Supersonics could crush the Rockets, they just never get to play them for the title.
What's interesting about the 1995 season is that there were at least seven teams that looked invincible. That looked like some kid had created a bunch of 99 attribute players on Seattle, Orlando, New York, Indiana, Utah, Phoenix, and San Antonio. The Rockets looked vulnerable, incapable of defense and incapable of muscle. The only good news was that Chicago was thoroughly destroyed with the loss of Horace Grant. He went to Orlando because they were really dying to pass the ball to Grant in Orlando as opposed to Chicago.
I'm making a point about the Rockets, so keep reading. Ron Harper went to the Bulls. The year before, Luc Longley had been picked up from Minnesota with his remarkable 2.1 points per game. And the fans of Chicago hated Scottie Pippen because he hated them. He called them a racist, which was correct, and they didn't know how to take it. All over Chicago, waiters get stiffed by the guy in the same sense that people sometimes take their lack of success out on family members and friends who demand the world from them. Michael Jordan got to be known for giving beautifully generous tips because he was getting everything. Pippen got nothing. Two commercials, one with Tommy Davidson and another a Coca-Cola commercial with Barkley. The difference was that while Nike had Pippen and Jordan, Jordan had Quaker Oats which had Gatorade...as well as the propoganda piece "Come Fly With Me" which is absolutely marvelous...but something that would make not a single person give a damn who Pippen was. The Bulls starting five, leading to the months of Michael Jordan's return on March 19, 1995 against the Pacers...was Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, Scottie Pippen, Pete Myers, and Ron Harper.
Pippen thank goodness had a few Chicago sports radio shock jocks who worked hard to pump up his image, who fully realized his value. I once heard one of them say "Without Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls are a bunch of foreigners and the wrong Harper."
So the Rockets open 9-0 in order to be below .500 by game 30. They get their butts kicked everywhere. Vernon Maxwell just got over a very nasty divorce and would have to jump into the stands and hit a guy for talking smack about his daughter. They're struggling, and meanwhile, so is Chicago.
In Chicago, every single day, every single hour, consisted of people talking about possible Scottie Pippen trades. This was still less then six months after Pippen wouldn't go back in the game against the Knicks with 1.8 seconds left, and the consensus was that they could get more out of him with a trade then to keep him so he sits out of more games. They determined that the great Pip was not Mark Messier or even Steve Young to a lesser degree, but in fact Jaromir Jagr.
And so when the Bulls just flat kicked Houston's ass in early January, the Rockets realized they should probably start talking about trades as well. Like other civilizations copied the Ancient Egyptians, so did Rudy Tomjanovich continuously look for ways to copy the Bulls. It became a formula, because guys in the 90s would always see you winning a title either the Boston/Detroit way or the Lakers/Chicago way. Either you were a mean team with muscle or a nicer team with finesse. Pat Riley had copied the Detroit way. Rudy Tomjanovich, and later Greg Popovich, would copy the way of Chicago.
Robert Horry was the new Pippen.
Olajuwon was their Jordan.
Otis Thorpe was their Horace.
Kenny Smith was their Paxson. (Paxson would have funked this guy up though)
And Vernon Maxwell was their B.J. Armstrong. Yes, Madmax had a far worse temperment then B.J., but Rudy T had Madmax's game mirror Armstrong's. There's almost nothing they did differently on the court.
And so when it became clear, became OBVIOUS, that the Rockets would probably not repeat the way they were doing things, they went and traded their Horace the way Chicago let go of theirs.
Only instead of getting nothing, they would get Clyde Drexler, who was Olajuwon's former friend. See how Rudy T gets a star two-guard for this group? Coincidentally a two-guard...who's about the closest thing there is to Michael Jordan?
And look at all those modest white drips on the bench. Just like the Bulls! Copy cats!
Since Hakeem Olajuwon celebrates Rammadan which runs right through a good chunk of the early NBA season, it's customary that the Dream's play is off. He's skinnier and has a harder time doing things. Drexler made things easier. You've heard the Bulls references. But the Olajuwon-Drexler duo was very Lew Alcindor-Oscar Robinson.
Yet unlike Chicago who expected to use Toni Kukoc at power forward, the Rockets had Chucky Brown from New Jersey who a bit more equipped for it but nothing like Otis. The Rockets would finish 47-35. They were the 6th seed and with a glaring hole at power forward, and only about nine players on most nights.
Up until now, all the credit in the world was going to Pippen for leading the Bulls and for Phil Jackson and him holding the fort down enough for Michael to find this team one best suited to make him look good and maybe win another championship. Nobody was worried about Rudy T or the Rockets organization, in fact the trade was scoffed at by members of the Rockets. Otis Thorpe had been an integral part of the team during it's rise from the ashes after Sampson busted.
Add to all this mess, their man, Madmax, Vernon Maxwell...would take what was referred to on ESPN and over and over again as "an indefinite leave of abscence."
He would not return to the NBA for years.
Their first opponent was the Jazz, and the Jazz were funny because they were continuously trying to build a team around Stockton and Malone and never got aywhere. If I could count the different players in the Utah starting five between Stockton's first Ricky-Greenless year and the NBA Finals. Before Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag, in the second year of Jeff Hornacek's sensational addition, he would get slammed in the face and forehead by an insane Jerry Stackhouse, Didn't matter. Hornacek continued on like it was nothing. The Jazz lost to the Rockets in the Conference Finals the year before. They got Adam Keefe and Antonie Carr this year. Blue Edwards had been there the longest of everyone else. No more Thurl Bailey or Mark Eaton, yet the Jazz still won 60 games.
Stockton won Game 1 with one of the greatest moves I've ever seen someone pull. He goes up on Kenny Smith, driving on him, then stops, and does a fake that's so fast by the time Kenny realizes he's supposed to be fooled, the ball's already in the hoop. It was the fastest release on a layup in the history of the NBA. Olajuwon was right there in position to block it and Stockton read him the whole way. Olajuwon jumped as high as he could, extended his arms, extended his fingernails. Nope. Jazz won Game 1.
But the Rockets would go up 2-1.
But then they lost Game 4 in Houston and had to go back to Utah.
And in Utah they went down by 10 with 3:46 left.
And they won.
Olajuwon didn't miss, Horry didn't miss. And it was onto Phoenix.
The Suns had a particular bitter loss to Houston the year before. In 1994, they came back from deficits of 18 and 22 in the fourth quarters to take a 2-0 lead in Houston before losing in 7. This year, they would go 2-0...in Phoenix.
Olajuwon wasn't deterred. In fact, for some reason, he had a giddy smile. But it made perfect sense when reporters asked him to explain his optimism. He said that they came back from a much much worse spot the year before. Everybody loses the first two games on the road, NOBODY recovers after losing the first two games at home.
And so the series moved to Houston and they went up I kid you not 91-56 with not even 4 minutes gone in the 3rd quarter. Coincidentally, Rockets got back in the series after all.
In Game 4, they went up by 10 as the buzzer sounded at halftime ala Pistons/Lakers 88 because of a great three by Sam Cassell.
But they lost.
And so the Suns are up 3-1 and going back to America West Arena. Where that awesome awesome gorilla jumps around. What would propel the Phoenix Suns to pick a gorilla as their mascot I don't know, but they're onto something. I have no idea what or how.
The game was stupid. Barkley missed two free throws and the game went to overtime. And then Horry put in a miss and went nuts and taunted the crowd and got away with it because he's the new Pippen. And the Suns had to go back to Houston where the Rockets kicked their butts and tied the series at 3.
That Saturday afternoon, I was hanging out with some friends and playing basketball in the park because I'm like a semi-pro and such. I had about 40 cheap basketball jerseys back then that I could fit into, and the one I wore that day was a Kevin Johnson SUNS #7. I was just sick and tired of the Houston Rockets "wasting everyone's god damn time". I was a fan of the NBA even without Michael, and I thought I was owed a bit more then something as cool as the overmatched Houston Rockets taking these West monsters to seven games just to lose. There was no way in hell they were going to beat this Suns team.
the unbelievable ELLIOTT PERRY who was so good he made high kneesocks cool in the 1990s,
And then two guys whose output had more then TRIPLED since before they were wherever they were...
and Danny Shayes.
The Phoenix Suns were going to win Game 7, and you could bet your life on it.
So before the game, NBC cuts to an interview with Kenny Smith. Greg Gumbel is all ready to cut to the interview in front of the black screen, and you're expecting to see a very serious and solemn and anal Kenny Smith on the eve of the most important game of their dynasty. All their reputations are on the line and they're about to suffer a Buffalo-Bills-like humiliation in the desert. In 1993, Barkley told us God wanted the Suns to win the world title. In 1994, he said the road to the championship runs through Phoenix. In 1995, he talked about his favorite desserts. Why? Because Barkley was so positive they were going to win the title he didn't even think about the damn game.
And that was the problem.
Greg Gumbel gets to Kenny Smith who is the happiest, most relaxed person in the world. In the days when your stomach would boil in the crucial minutes of NBA Live 95, here comes Kenny Smith thinking he's going to god damn Disneyland. He says that he's positive the Suns have no chance and you can tell he absolutely means it. There's nothing that would possibly shake this guy from the belief he had that morning leading up to Game 7 in Phoenix.
I was like Kenny Smith's crazy. It will never happen.
They WON!!!!! ROCKETS WON!!!! They came back from 3-1 and they WON!!!!
Elie hit the three and Ainge screwed up the free throw contest.
And Kenny Smith was no longer Paxson. He was Joe Namath.
Onto San Antonio. And Olajuwon killed David Robinson for getting his MVP award. The series was notable for being the only non dramatic series to ever actually be tied at 2-2. Not since the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Bulls in 1992 had one team on paper seemed so close without actually having a prayer in hell.
It was also notable for providing the VERY FIRST ROBERT HORRY MOMENT WHERE HE HITS A BIG SHOT IN THE PLAYOFFS to win the game. It happened in Game 1 against San Antonio. Down 95-94, he hits a two-pointer with about 2 seconds left. Spurs miss and the Rockets at the time went up 1-0.
In truth the Spurs could have won the series very easily, but the only good advice was coming not from Coach Bo Hill, not from Sean Elliott, not from Avery Johnson, not even from David Robinson himself....it was coming from Dennis Rodman.
Rodman pulled a Pippen and sat out Game 1 and was suspended by an angry but stupid coach in Bo Hill or Bob Hill or whatever his name was. Bob Hill was a tool because he assumed Rodman didn't know how to beat the Rockets just because he had a "bad attitude".
As soon as he covered Olajuwon, down the Rockets went. They lost both games in Houston in diasterous fashion because Rodman was incredible.
But then Bob Hill decided to take Rodman off Olajuwon and gradually put David Robinson back on him, In Game 5 in San Antonio that's what happened. And the Spurs lost again.
And in Game 6, Olajuwon had like 45 points or something with Rodman never again being allowed back on Olajuwon. Bob Hill sucks. And the Spurs suck more. And the ROCKETS ARE BACK IN THE FINALS DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?!
The 1995 NBA Finals.
In Orlando they would put a pair of oversized Horace Grant goggles on the Epcot Center.
Orlando had beaten Michael Jordan when he was only 97% as opposed to 100, and Toni Kukoc was no GOD DAMN POWER FORWARD, KRAUSE!!!
Orlando went up by 20 in Game 1, but the Rockets game back, and looked like they were going to lose. With about 5 seconds left, they're down by three, and Nick Anderson gets fouled, goes to the line, and only has to sink one.
He tries again -- misses again...but gets the rebound and gets FOULED AGAIN!!!
And so it's back to the line. All he needs is one.
He misses AGAIN!!! That's three attempts. All they need is one!
Come on Nick....and he MISSES THE FOURTH ONE!!!!
And so Kenny Smith goes, ducks, makes Penny Hardaway jump in the air, and then hits a THREE TO TIE THE GAME!!! Kenny Smith is all bumping his chest and high-fiving people and they're tied up.
They go into overtime, and this time the Rockets are up three. It goes to Dennis Scott who hits a Mario Elie three out of the corner to tie it.
Rockets call a timeout.
They give it to Drexler.
He goes up, drives past everyone to put the ball up...in?!...no...it comes out...
OLAJUWON TIPS IT IN!!!!
The Rockets are up by 2 with 00.1 left!!!!
They did it!
The Rockets win Game 1 of the Finals after being down by twenty.
Do the Rockets even give a damn?
Do they even realize how major league this is?
Against Indiana, Penny Hardaway almost won Game 4 in Indiana to put them up 3-1. He hit a three pointer to put the Magic up with 1.8 SECONDS LEFT. This was before Smits happened. He dominated the smaller Mark Jackson, and even when he couldn't defend him, Jackson was missing shots on his own like he did at the end of Game 5, a shot that would have put the Pacers up 3-2 in Orlando.
Well this time, the Rocket guards, held down and embarrassed by my guys John Starks and Derek Harper a year ago....would embarrass and hold down Penny Hardaway. In Game 1 it had been Kenny Smith who had gotten the better of Penny without even losing his smile. In Game 2, it was Sam Cassell...who absolutely schooled the SHIT out of him.
Rockets went up 2-0 in a rout. They were up by 27 before halftime. Cassell didn't miss.
When the Rockets went back to Houston, the airports were crowded with fans. The city was ready to explode. And Game 3 at the Summit would be the most challenging game of the series. But no worries. Horry had another one of his moments, putting them up by 5 with 10 seconds left on a three pointer, and the Rockets went up 3-0.
Drexler was rocking at his locker.
He couldn't believe this.
Houston couldn't believe this.
We couldn't believe this.
85% of the people out there...stopped watching basketball when Jordan left.
But the rest of us were very excited for what we were seeing.
And the Rockets went up by 10 and never looked back.
Olajuwon hit a three with about 15 seconds left to kick off their second celebration, and Clyde the Glide Drexler's first. As Houston went wild, Drexler remembered those horrible memories in two straight Final Fours and in Portland of losing and being called names FOR losing. He had recieved the extent of Michael Jordan's jealousy and rage, he had Danny Ainge barking at people, he had Jerome Kersey to get into it with Danny Ainge while Rick Adelman turned red from yelling at them to cool it, he had to endure Kevin Duckworth getting fat and Buck Williams turning 70 years old during their title run, and now it was over. He was a world champion.
It had to have been the neatest thing I've ever seen in sports.
But Michael Jordan got back in shape, Rodman joined him, and this tale I just told you was swept under the rug of NBA history. In 100 years nobody will know this story but you, and the long suffering fans of Houston.
End of story.
But there's more! Go to gornerp at triond.com