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.

March 1995By Comments

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, that they could be the stars, because he wanted no part of celebrity. Just let him be Rudy T.

He is passionate on this subject. “The celebrity thing I’ll never get comfortable with,” he told me one afternoon in his office, where he sat in his gym shorts, smoking a cigarette. “It’s fleeting. Here today, gone tomorrow. I want to be a regular guy who goes to the corner store, who goes to a movie, and not have people look at me. I don’t want to be part of the entertainment. It’s not healthy. Let’s look at it. It’s a game. We’re bouncing a ball. The ball goes in the basket. You’re supposed to look at me in awe? Come on!”

For the record, Rudy Tomjanovich is not a regular guy. He is six feet eight, makes in the area of $500,000 a year, and is extremely intelligent and well read. Also, there are no corner stores near his sizable two-story house in southwest Houston. Still, he has spent his entire life waging the classic blue-collar struggle for respect from a world that he feels was always writing him off.

There is an elliptical quality about Rudy T’s past, a sense of crucial things missing. Tomjanovich’s hometown neighborhood in Hamtramck, Michigan, has been razed whole in the name of urban renewal, and Interstate 75 cuts through the space where his parents’ house once sat. Though his father lived until Tomjanovich became an assistant coach, he never really understood how playing a game could lead to a career. “He was a mystery man,” Rudy T says. “He grew up in the upper peninsula and came down to work in a factory. He was Croatian and he met a girl in the factory who was Croatian, and they got together and became my parents. People called him Rudy. I found out later that wasn’t really his name. It was Steve or Bill or something. Maybe he thought Rudolph would sound more like a lover or a singer.’’

Whatever else Rudy T’s parents might have been, they were not his role models. “They were never demanding and never pushed us to do anything,” he says. “I was always a good student, even though they never said, ‘Goddammit, you didn’t get good grades.’ I just went out and did it on my own.” Because of chronic back troubles, his father was often unable to work, meaning the family would go on welfare and the father and son would pick up the government food with the generic labels in full view of the neighbors. “Biggest embarrassment ever,” he says today.

It was the neighborhood of Hamtramck, rather than his household, that molded Rudy T. “Out my front door,” he recalls, “was a street that was predominantly white, Polish, and other ethnic groups. Out my back door was the alley, and across the next street were the projects. A very rough place. Most of my best friends were black, and I loved going out the back door and playing in the alley. That’s where I first shot baskets.”

The version of basketball Rudy Tomjanovich learned as a teenager was pure street stuff. He didn’t know jack about fundamentals. When it came time to try out for the Hamtramck High School junior varsity team, one of the coaches watched Rudy T put a few mean moves on his opponent, then took him aside and told him, “Don’t even waste your f—ing time. You ain’t got what it takes.”

“That helped big-time,” Tomjanovich says, the edge in his voice barely noticeable. It helped Rudy T call upon the inner resources he had developed entirely on his own and make an authority figure eat his words. By his senior year in 1966, Tomjanovich was one of the hottest offensive talents in the state, and he received a scholarship to the University of Michigan. Again he had to build a reputation from scratch. “Everybody was saying I was a skinny weakling,” he remembers. “So my first varsity game was against Kentucky, and I go out and get twenty-seven rebounds and thirteen blocked shots. I jumped around so much that I ripped the arch in my foot.”

Tomjanovich rewrote the Michigan record book. Forty-eight points in one game. Thirty rebounds in another. The leading career rebounder in school history. Yet little national attention was paid to the Hamtramck star forward. It was the age of Lew Alcindor, Pete Maravich, Elvin Hayes, Bob Lanier, and Calvin Murphy. In the 1970 NBA draft, when the three-year-old San Diego Rockets selected Tomjanovich instead of Maravich as the second overall pick, San Diego fans were outraged, and the headlines screamed, RUDY WHO?

“That hurt,” he says. But the $100,000 contract was big money for a Hamtramck boy, and so he and his newlywed—Sophie Migas, a good Polish girl from his hometown—packed up their belongings and drove west, determined to make believers out of the San Diego skeptics. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance. Rockets coach Alex Hannum kept his rookie on the bench that first year—”A political deal that I don’t want to get into,” Tomjanovich told me. The only recognition he got that year was at a team banquet, when he was awarded a trophy for having the worst mustache in the organization. Rudy T didn’t think it was funny, then or now. “It was a bad mustache,” he concedes. “I looked like Hitler. But that’s what I got a trophy for, and it made me so mad.’’

In the summer of 1971 Rudy T got the news on television that the Rockets had been sold to a group of businessmen in Houston. Sophie Tomjanovich was dismayed. “My whole vision was cattle and tumbleweeds,” she says. “And when we flew there, my God, it was so hot.” But Houston turned out to be a godsend. The new Rockets organization fired Coach Hannum and replaced him with Tex Winter, a college coach who didn’t even know the NBA rules. But he knew fundamentals, and while the young forward was lacking in this area, Winter also knew talent when he saw it. “We worked on drills, all the things I needed, all the things I believe in today,” says Tomjanovich. “Tex Winter saved my career.”

The Tomjanoviches moved into a townhouse in Westbury Square. They fell in love with the neighborhood, where they could window-shop on weekends and walk to nearby restaurants every night. Playing ball in Houston was something else. It was a football town, and the fans paid the new basketball franchise little mind. The games at Hofheinz Pavilion were sparsely attended, while the occasional games staged at the Astrodome were utterly forlorn experiences. Tomjanovich was getting his minutes, and as usual he desperately fought to prove himself. “I was so damned hyper and just couldn’t relax,” he says. “Every power forward in the league wanted to fight me because I wouldn’t stop, just climbed everyone’s back to get the offensive rebound.”

The Rockets had the great University of Houston center Elvin Hayes and the diminutive star Calvin Murphy, and the ball seldom came Tomjanovich’s way that first season in Houston. He responded by working like a demon on his shooting touch, sneaking into high school and college gyms and tossing in jumper after jumper while Sophie dutifully chased down the ball and threw it back to her husband. After Hayes was traded in the summer of 1972, Rudy T led the Rockets in scoring. A season later, he was an NBA All-Star; he would retain the honor for four successive seasons. Tomjanovich became one of the deadliest outside shooters in league history. Yet the critics still dogged him. He was too slow. He couldn’t play defense. “I used to look forward to the negative press—it would just fire me up to work harder,” he says today. But the burning inside was at times too intense. “He wanted to be in every minute of the game,” says Carroll Dawson, who joined the Rockets as an assistant coach in 1980, when Tomjanovich was still a player. “He hated the guy who came in to substitute for him. He was the worst that way.”

On December 9, 1977, Rudy T was forced out of the game, and nearly for good. While trying to separate players during a fight in the middle of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, he was sucker-punched in the face by Laker Kermit Washington. It took three towels to mop up the blood from the single blow. Tomjanovich spent the next four days in intensive care while doctors fought to repair his two broken cheekbones, broken jaw, fractured skull, impaired vision, loose teeth, and lacerated mouth. He couldn’t bear to see his misshapen face in the mirror. Because one of his tear ducts was blocked, the doctors made an incision on the side of his nose, so that Rudy T could cry.

More than the physical damage, what would rankle Tomjanovich about the punch from Washington was that the much-publicized incident threatened to overshadow his many hard-earned accomplishments. Today no subject gives Tomjanovich more discomfort. His words are clipped and evasive. Did the punch affect the trajectory of his career? “No. The reason being, I wasn’t going to let it.” Did he, as reported, have lingering sinus problems? “Who knows why you have sinus problems, living in Houston?” Was it true that he and Washington now speak to each other? “I talk to him like I talk to you. I talk to every man. All the emotion, the craziness, the racial connotations”—Washington is black—”all the publicity. You move on.”

Seven months later, Rudy T was back on the court, scrimmaging in the summer leagues. He returned to the Rockets in 1978 and was again an All-Star. But Rudy was injured early in the following season, and the new Rockets coach, Del Harris, opted for a brawnier lineup. After Tomjanovich recovered, he found himself not starting for the first time in nine years. When the Rockets reached the NBA finals in 1981 for the first time ever, he sat glumly at the end of the bench as the Rockets lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. “Del said to me, ‘I’m going to go with these guys, you’re just an insurance policy,’” he recalls. “He’s an intelligent man, and his system was working. I have to give him credit.”

But riding the bench drove Rudy T nuts. He spent the off-season “killing myself lifting weights,” contemplating the upcoming two years left on his contract, and thinking, “There’s no way I can sit on the bench for two years and collect money.” A trade with Utah was discussed. At first the prospect interested him. “Then,” he says, “reason came in. I said to myself, ‘Why move your family because you have to prove that you’re a tough son of a bitch?’” The Tomjanoviches stayed in Houston, and on October 2, 1981, Rudy T ended his eleven-year career.

For two months he sat at home, driving his pregnant wife and two children crazy. What to do in the next life? He enjoyed writing and playing guitar, but John Updike and Eric Clapton were not tossing in their beds fearing the competition. An office job would not suit him. He had to be able to move. And yes, he realized: He had to stay around the game.

Rudy T visited the office of Rockets general manager Ray Patterson. “Can we work out a deal?” he asked. Patterson sent him on to Del Harris, the coach who had cut short Tomjanovich’s career. Harris thought about it. Then he asked, “Would you like to scout?”

Tomjanovich was back in basketball. The pay was terrible—not only compared with his $250,000 salary as a player; compared with anything. They paid him by the game, and that first year he ended up losing money on the deal. Then there were the hours. He was on the road every day, scouting both college and pro teams while paying his daughter Nicole to tape games off the home satellite system. “Rudy, this is nuts,” Sophie told her husband. “I hope you like this, because it’s crazy.”

In 1983 the head coach was Bill Fitch, a well-respected but highly demanding man who had never been a professional basketball player and looked down on coaches who had been. Once again, Tomjanovich had something to prove. “He immediately applied his hard work ethic to scouting,” remembers Carroll Dawson. “I’d check his reports before Coach Fitch read them because Fitch was a very meticulous coach, and after about a year I didn’t even worry about it because Rudy never did anything wrong. I thought he was the best scout in the league.”

First as a scout and later as an assistant coach, Rudy Tomjanovich watched the game from his new perspective. He watched Fitch impose a much-needed structure on the Rockets’ two young superstars, the Twin Towers, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. He watched with anticipation as the Twin Towers led Houston to the NBA finals in 1986, then watched with horror as the dynasty-in-the-making collapsed. Rockets guards Mitch Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd had tested positive for cocaine and were banned from the league, Sampson was traded as an unfulfilled promise, rookie Derrick Chievous was discarded as a bust, and Fitch was fired and replaced by Don Chaney. He watched as Chaney’s emphasis on defense slowly took hold of the team, resulting in a 1990-91 record of 52-30, a franchise best. He watched as Chaney was honored as NBA coach of the year, then watched as Chaney was fired the following season after a 26-26 start.

When Rudy T looked around next, he discovered that he was the interim head coach of the Houston Rockets. “The players had always respected Rudy,” says strength coach Robert Barr, “and there was always some mumbling from way back about how they wanted Rudy to be the coach.” But Tomjanovich never held such an ambition. It suited him more to be one of the guys. “All of a sudden,” he remembers, “I’ve got to buy these clothes to look good when I’d rather be in a warm-up suit and be an honest person.” According to Dawson, “He had always played hard but was never a leader as a player.” The prospect of telling a player to sit on the bench was galling to him. Furthermore, Rudy T had always been a shooter first, a rebounder second, and a defensive player somewhere far down the list. “It got to be a joke,” Rudy says. “How could this guy get the players to play defense?”

But the task was thrust upon him. Whether he liked it or not, his performance would inevitably be viewed as an audition. Still, the mission at hand was to finish out the last thirty games. Under Tomjanovich, the Rockets went 11-4 before Olajuwon was injured and the team lost ten of its last fifteen games. General manager Patterson announced that he would take a few weeks before appointing the head coach for the 1992-93 season. Tomjanovich didn’t covet the job, but the success of those first fifteen games before Hakeem went down inspired a familiar roiling in his guts. It always irked him that when he strolled around the city, he’d see Houstonians wearing Chicago Bulls T-shirts. “God,” he thought, “I’ve got to get them proud of our guys.” It also occurred to him that he had no choice but to nominate himself. Dawson would have been the obvious successor but for his high blood pressure. Instead, as Dawson reminded Rudy T, “If you don’t take it, a new guy will come in and we’ll both lose our jobs.”

On May 20, 1992, Patterson promoted Tomjanovich to head coach. Rudy T knew that he was inheriting a talented team but one burdened with underachievers. He served notice that day that he would rule the Rockets with a firm hand. “Everybody knows me as a nice guy,” he said at a press conference, “but I’m meticulous on details, and I’ll enforce them. I’m willing to take whatever drastic measures there are—cutting playing time, fines.”

In June Tomjanovich made his first major decision as a coach by selecting Alabama forward Robert Horry as the eleventh pick of the draft, ahead of several marquee stars. The Summit crowd viewing the selection on closed-circuit monitors booed when Horry’s name was announced. But Tomjanovich had been there before—RUDY WHO?—and his judgment was on target: Horry would prove to be the first wise draft pick by the Rockets since Olajuwon had been selected eight years earlier.

The next savvy move he made was to relocate the team’s preseason training facility to Galveston, where, in an isolated setting, he could promote the kind of togetherness he had come to believe in as an unheralded star. “He made it very clear,” says Olajuwon, “that this isn’t his team, it’s our team. So if you want to go somewhere, you have to sincerely do it together.” In addition to aggressive defense, Tomjanovich emphasized a well-spaced offense in which the in-and-out passing between the center, Olajuwon, and the perimeter players would be accomplished by sliding the latter players toward the ball so that Hakeem could better see his options. “He instilled the players’ belief in his game plan,” says Kenny Smith. “It’s going to take the players to maintain the structure, but they have to believe that the structure is beneficial. And I think our guys believe it.”

What gave the structure credibility was Rudy T’s willingness to let the players modify it. Tomjanovich had seen the fruitlessness of Bill Fitch’s rigidity; Rudy T had also never forgotten how it made him feel when Alex Hannum didn’t deal straight with him during his rookie season. Tomjanovich made a point of talking honestly to his players and letting them talk back. This made him a player’s coach, but he was also a coach’s coach and made Dawson and the other assistants feel indispensable. “If you don’t like coaching under Rudy,” Dawson says, “you will not like coaching.”

The payoff was immediate: Rudy T’s Rockets amassed a franchise-best 55-27 record in the 1992-93 season, won the Midwest Division for the first time in seven years, and advanced to the Western Conference finals before losing to Seattle in a seven-game series. Tomjanovich was voted NBA coach of the year by his peers—a genuine honor with ominous overtones, as his predecessors Del Harris and Don Chaney had been similarly honored and then given the gate the following year. Rudy T wasn’t going down the same road. He scribbled plays and viewed tapes until four in the morning all summer long, showing up at the Rockets office with what looked like saddlebags under his eyes. In the June 1993 draft he used the Rockets’ first-round pick on Sam Cassell of Florida State—another unsung star, like Horry and Tomjanovich, but a fearless point guard who would prove crucial to the Rockets’ championship drive the next year.

The 1993-94 season read like a masterful script from Tomjanovich’s own hand. His Rockets charged out of the gate as disciples of Rudyball and won their first fifteen games, tying an NBA record. He kept Smith his starting point guard as an act of faith but liberally used backup Scotty Brooks while letting the rookie Cassell develop at a reasonable pace. When the rookie was ready, Brooks was removed from the rotation as Rudy T had been in 1981, but the coach let his player know that he knew it wasn’t easy, that he appreciated Scotty’s upbeat attitude. Tomjanovich worked wonders with the mercurial Vernon Maxwell: By the end of the season, Max was an inspirational leader who rode the others about playing tough defense. Rudy T gave the blue-collar substitutes Mario Elie and Carl Herrera significant minutes while keeping the starting lineup constant throughout the season, so as to maintain a sense of individual security.

The Rockets won the Midwest Division with a 58-24 record. They dispatched Portland with little effort, survived two home losses to win a seven-game series against Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, manhandled Utah in five games, and at last prevailed against the muscle-bound Knicks in a seven-game championship series that was as grueling as any ever. Characteristic of Tomjanovich’s career, his crowning accomplishment would be mitigated by critics who called the ‘94 NBA finals an artless seven-round wrestling match. “We were a great team, with all the qualities you need to win,” he says, bristling. “We had speed, finesse, power, an inside game, and an outside game. But it came down that it was going to be a war with New York, and what were our choices? We could beat a racehorse team like Phoenix and then turn around and beat a hand-to-hand-combat team like the Knicks. What they’ve said about our team bothers the hell out of me.” Due respect was still withheld from Rudy T. Even so, he had achieved the ultimate—for himself, his team, and the city of Houston. He was a champion. And for a man at the top, he now realized, there was only one direction available. Now that was something to worry about.

One night last December I sat again at the Los Andes bar until three in the morning, listening to Rudy T talk, in effect, about how the 1994-95 season was going to be the death of him. His team had won that night, and a win is a win, but they weren’t dominating the way champions are supposed to. The fact that the Rockets didn’t look altogether dominant last season either, and yet somehow managed to walk away with rings, wasn’t lost on him, but it provided little comfort.

These nights, he couldn’t sleep. He would knock back a few at Los Andes, hit the Gallant Knight or the Satellite Lounge or one or his other favorite live-music haunts, meet up with his strength coach and buddy Robert Barr, down a few more light beers, and find his way home at about three or four, where he would watch game tapes for another hour or so. He would dream about the Rockets. Then he would roll out of bed at nine, get his hair wet, put on his warm-up suit, say hello and good-bye to Sophie, and without eating breakfast climb into his Nissan Pathfinder and drive to the Summit or the Houston Baptist University gym, talking on his car phone to Carroll Dawson along the way. At the morning practice he would oversee the shoot-arounds with his familiar baggy eyes, but otherwise he would seem rested, even placid. The sound of a dozen bouncing basketballs seemed to be a tonic to him. This was his home, this blur of muscles, this cacophony of squeaking shoes and swishing nets. And Rudy T had made it back here, safe and sound.

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