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Houston Sports Hall of Fame 2020: For Rudy Tomjanovich, the work never stopped

Second in a series

He doesn’t talk much about that first season in the NBA.

It wasn’t what he expected; what just about anyone would have expected of the second player taken in a draft loaded with some great players. Of a player who had rewritten the record books at Michigan his senior year. Of a 6-9 raw talent with a knack for scoring; a tough player who led the nation in rebounding and finished his college career as the Wolverines’ all-time leading rebounder.

Instead of stepping into the starting lineup, Rudy Tomjanovich pretty much rode the bench. And bided his time.

At the end of the season, the San Diego Rockets threw a banquet and Tomjanovich was honored for the worst mustache on the team. His award? A mustache in a case.

He was not amused.

“I took it as ‘this is what I have to show for my year in San Diego,’’’ Tomjanovich said.

After he left the event, he threw it down and kicked it down the street.

The next day, he was in the gym.

“It put a fire under me,’’ he said. “I took a negative and turned it into a positive.’’

It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Every time life threw the kid from Hamtramck — a tough 2.1 square miles of a town tucked into Detroit — a curve, he dug deep and found a way to turn things around.

When the ninth-grade coach didn’t put him on the roster, he challenged that coach — a former linebacker — to a one-on-one and wound up on the team. When he realized his street game needed more fundamentals, he hit the gym. When the Rockets moved to Houston his second season and he found himself playing on the only NBA team in a football-centric state, he made the All-Star Game five times and won the fans over.

And when even he wondered if he was up to the job as Rockets coach? He put together a team that delivered back-to-back NBA titles.

That famous warning of his after that second win — “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion’’ — is iconic.

So is Rudy T.

The man with a broad smile, an easy laugh and a last name so long that "Rudy T." worked best on the back of his jersey, is still one of Houston’s favorite sons. When he walks onto a golf course or into a restaurant, people recognize the man who brought those first two world titles to Houston; the man who joins über Olympic gold medalists Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton on Jan. 21 in the Houston Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020 presented by PNC Bank.

And in case you forgot, he’s an Olympic gold medalist too. Two years after coaching a USA team devoid of any stars to a bronze medal at the 1998 FIBA World Championships, he coached the USA to an 8-0 record and a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The only thing not on his resume’? The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and, yes, he’s on the ballot. Once again.

It’s a head-shaker. The only coach with two NBA titles not in the Hall. A guy who always seemed to be underestimated as a player, but one more than worthy of that one last honor.