Houston Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson on new head coach Jeff Van Gundy, Yao Ming, and the game.
Houston Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson has been with the team for 24 years, a span that includes trips to the NBA finals in 1981 and 1986, plus the back-to-back championships of 1994 and 1995. The GM since ‘96 and an assistant coach before that, Dawson is also executive vice president of basketball for the four-time WNBA champion Houston Comets.
But his NBA and WNBA career is not the only reason Dawson will join his longtime friend and colleague Rudy Tomjanovich in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on February 12: the Alba native was an All-American at Paris Junior College, an All-Southwest Conference player at Baylor, and a Bears hoops coach from 1963-1976, the last three years as head coach. He also spent two years working for the Dallas Cowboys as a scout.
A big-man specialist whose charges have included Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Ralph Sampson, and of course, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dawson now adds Yao Ming to that list as a new era for the Rockets begins under head coach Jeff Van Gundy (see “Don’t Look Yao,” January 2004).
texasmonthly.com: What made Van Gundy rise to the top for you?
Carroll Dawson: We were lucky in the sense that, if there was ever a year we had to look for coaches … gee whiz, there was a lot of them out there! Just look at the four we interviewed: Paul Silas, Jeff, Larry Brown, Mike Dunleavy. You’d be lucky to get any of the four. Van Gundy fit this team, as a guy that needed to hug them one day and kick them in the tail the next. Because we’re not there yet. Rebuilding is not the most fun thing you ever go through. I’ve been here almost 25 years, and we had Olajuwon for 17 of those. Rebuilding around him was pretty easy
texasmonthly.com: Any regrets about adding Barkley and Pippen instead of trying to rebuild sooner?
CD: No, I don’t regret that at all. We felt like we had one more championship in us and we came close—got beat in the Western Conference Finals on a three-pointer by John Stockton [in 1997, with Barkley but not Pippen]. If you’re that close, you’ve gotta try. It’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team with the best chemistry. In ‘94 and ‘95, the two years we won it, if you’d rated talent we were probably between five and ten, but we had one of the better teams. You’ve got to work hard, but you need to be lucky too. If somebody says they did it because they’re a genius, I don’t believe that at all.
texasmonthly.com: But somebody does have to make certain decisions—eighteen months ago some people said you shouldn’t draft Yao Ming.
CD: I can’t find those people now. I got criticized like crazy for that. I kept the publications from all over America that said how stupid I was—that we should trade the pick, that he’s another Shawn Bradley, or another Rik Smits. When we won that pick, the owner [Leslie Alexander] and I sent Steve Francis up [to the NBA draft]—I just didn’t feel lucky that year, karma-wise. I was with the Cowboys in the mid-seventies when Coach Landry was doing biorhythms, and I had the feeling if I checked my biorhythms at the time they wouldn’t have been very good, so I wasn’t going to the lottery. Steve said he was gonna win it and he did.
From the time that we won the lottery everybody would call me, I’d say no, we’re not going to trade the pick, we’re going to draft Yao Ming, and that helped us a great deal when we had to go over there and face the Chinese basketball association. No matter what anybody said, whoever got that first pick would have taken Yao Ming, because everybody had done their homework. We started watching him when he was seventeen years old. I sent our international scout over there three times, and every time he came to America we saw him. He wasn’t a secret to anybody in the league.
texasmonthly.com: What’s it been like having a player whose celebrity is league wide and worldwide?
CD: He’s like a rock star. When our strength coach Anthony Falsone went over there, they’d go out and play a game in the Asia Games and there’d be three or four hundred people who were just media, plus thousands of people waiting to see him. He handles it well. He has a way about him—the way he carries himself, the way he plays the game, the way his life is. He’s the easiest guy to pull for that I’ve ever seen in this league. I give his parents a lot of credit. I’ve told him, I like you the way you are—you can eat hamburgers or whatever, but don’t get too Americanized. He’s just very respectful.
texasmonthly.com: But it is true the team needs him to be a little less respectful—to play more aggressively, even selfishly?
CD: He plays the game the right way—if you’re open, you get the ball. But the guy shoots over 50 percent, just like Olajuwon, so you want to get him 20-25 shots. You can’t say that about a lot of people in this league.
texasmonthly.com: Is Van Gundy’s workaholic rep at all exaggerated?
CD: Yeah, he’s a workaholic, but most people that get to this level are. Rudy put in many hours, but they were more late at night. What was really good was that Jeff had a lot of respect for Rudy. Rudy is always gonna be a Rocket, so he and Jeff talked. After Jeff took the job Rudy spent a whole day giving him his thoughts on the team. It’s been an easy transition because you had two real good professional people.
texasmonthly.com: So getting back to the playoffs is the first goal?
CD: Then once you get there you want to get as far as you can. In the history of this league, you win 42 games and make the playoffs—until three years ago, when we won 45 and didn’t make it. Last year we won 43 and didn’t make it. So that just shows you how the Western Conference has grown. But with the coaching staff we’ve got now, our team is growing up. We’ve added some veteran guys like Jim Jackson, Eric Piatkowski, and Adrian Griffin, guys to stabilize us a bit and get us where we want to be. We have one of the younger teams, but now we’re getting to that position where I think we can make a niche for ourselves in the West. I love a parade.