Rudy Awakening

Last year he preached togetherness and the Houston Rockets responded with an NBA title. But this season Rudy Tomjanovich faces a greater challenge: getting his team to play like champions.

THE MOMENT THE IMPOSSIBLY TALL figure with the double-breasted suit and the haggard expression stepped into the bar at Houston’s Los Andes restaurant just behind the Summit, on Richmond Avenue, patrons and workers alike hollered, “Hey, Rudy T!” The Houston Rockets basketball coach grinned easily and waved with one hand while the other remained in his pants pocket. The bartender plopped down a light beer and a shot of premium tequila without having to be told. Rudy T accepted the drinks, along with a few handshakes and backslaps from the patrons seated nearby. Then he saw me sitting on the other side of the bar.

To the bartender he said, pointing in my direction, “And get that man another one of whatever he’s having.”

Lighting a Kool cigarette, he said to me, “I see you already know all the right hangouts.”

The owner approached, shook Rudy T’s hand, and said, “Aw, man, you missed the band! We had some great jazz tonight!”

Rudy T laughed. “No jazz for me, Fernando,” he said. “Tonight I’m singin’ the blues, baby.”

A sympathetic murmur rippled along the bar. “Tough loss,” someone said.

Hey,” he said, holding up a hand. “Tough team. The Spurs are for real.”

He shook his head and turned to his drinks, knocking back the shot of tequila and then taking a long pull on his beer. A few locks of his slicked-back hair fell down to his forehead. In that brooding moment Rudy T was somewhere else, and I knew where. Only an hour before, I had heard him tell his assistants following the 108-96 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, “If you can’t tell by the edge in my voice, I’m damn concerned. I believe in giving my players respect. If they don’t respond, then we’ve got to do something about that. I gave them a soft practice because I wanted to save their legs. But you could see the softness in the game. I feel like it’s my fault.”

It is always the coach’s fault. The season was not yet a third of the way over, and already Tomjanovich was a wreck. During training camp in October he was hospitalized for what was first feared to be a heart attack but was ultimately diagnosed as a viral infection of the digestive tract. By November, the first month of the season, his cigarette-scorched voice had become a tortured kind of growl that could barely be heard during games. The following month, he threw out his back and was in too much pain to stand at courtside. Coaching is a non-contact endeavor, but the agonies of the profession seem to be tearing the guts out of Rudy Tomjanovich. It’s a curious matter to contemplate, since the man known everywhere as Rudy T is a truly beloved figure in Houston, having worked for the Rockets organization (first as a player, then as a scout and an assistant coach before his promotion in 1992) for 25 years. He is easily the most approachable jock in town. More important to Houstonians, he is a winner, and he proved it by bringing the city its first-ever professional sports championship last year. Next to his Most Valuable Player, center Hakeem Olajuwon, Rudy T has the most secure job in Houston sports. One might think he would act the part.

Tomjanovich is an honest communicator, a gifted strategist, and a workaholic—a nearly perfect pro basketball coach, and thus a nearly perfect illustration of why that occupation is a private hell. The erratic rhythm of the National Basketball Association’s 82-game season, which spans the six months from November to April—not counting a month of preseason games and two months of playoffs—is a maddeningly episodic odyssey. The Rockets began the 1994-95 season with nine straight wins. Just as the sports scribes were anointing Houston as inevitable repeating champs, the team lost eight of its next twelve games, including the loss to San Antonio. The Rockets followed this skid with another six-game winning streak, then another losing streak, then four straight victories before losing again. Though this is the roller-coaster life of the NBA, Rockets fans are wondering: How could a team look alternately so invincible and so awful? The private hell of Rudy Tomjanovich is that there’s only so much a coach can do.

Throughout the spring of 1995, the Houston sports talk shows will wrestle with the question, Why don’t the Rockets look like world champions this year? Seldom asked is the more intriguing question: How did the Rockets become world champions last year? For Houston was by no means the most talented group of players. His three-point shooting skills notwithstanding, Kenny Smith is one of the least-reared point guards in the NBA. Smith’s backcourt mate, Vernon Maxwell, is a magnificent competitor but a streaky shooter and cannot seem to shake the demon within that causes him to be thrown out of games. Forward Robert Horry is flashy but a notorious underachiever. Hakeem is Hakeem, of course, a marvel to behold. Yet even Olajuwon has caused the Rockets problems. He has never seemed interested in assuming full leadership status, and his superstardom often inhibits his teammates’ attempts to create their own opportunities on offense. Without question, the Rockets could not have prevailed against the New York Knicks in last year’s championship series without Hakeem. But the real reason they succeeded was Rudy Tomjanovich.

In three short years,” says Rockets assistant coach Carroll Dawson, “he turned this team into world champions. I don’t know of another person who could have held this team together, keeping all their egos and personalities in line to where they could function as a unit.” Tomjanovich transformed the Rockets by transforming himself, over 25 years, from a high-scoring seventies-era player to a quintessential coach for the nineties, stressing defense and a structured offense while convincing the players that they could flourish as individual stars within his system. He also convinced them that they could take all the credit,

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