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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.

He shakes it off and refuses to let that omission bother him. Earlier this year, he told KRIV he doesn’t have time to let that possibility "rent space in my head. There's a lot of other good stuff to think about.

“My life turned out better than my dreams."

Indeed it did.

As with so many other things in his life, those dreams began on the rough-and-tumble streets of Hamtramck where he used to throw baseballs against a curb and field them until, that is, he discovered shooting a basketball.

“I was a big imagination kid playing games against myself,’’ he said. “The great thing about basketball you could play it by yourself. I would make up games.’’

He grew up a block away from the projects and the older kids took him under their wing. One day, those kids found an old door, put a hoop on it and hung it up on the garage — just so Rudy T could practice.

“The problem was there were potholes all over the driveway so you couldn’t dribble,’’ he said. “Sometimes it would go through the net and hit one of those potholes and roll all the way down the alley.’’

Games were at the playground where future college and NBA players would play until dark. A few years ago, he went back while taping an NBA TV project.

“They just happened to be putting a new slab of cement down and I wrote in the concrete ‘Rudy T was here’,’’ he said. “So that court now has my name on it.’’

Back in the day, there was really one way to get out of Hamtramck — you had to work at it.

“You really had to be a tough son of a gun to go out and make something of yourself,’’ said longtime Rockets play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell, one of Rudy T’s closest friends.

“He a very underestimated player. A lot of people don’t realize how good an athlete he was. He was 6-9 and with great athletic ability, but he really outworked everybody.’’

He never stopped. Challenging that ninth-grade coach to a one-on-one to make the team was only the start. He had fallen in love with the game and it wasn’t loving him back.

He outworked everyone until it did. At Michigan. With the Rockets, starting with that second season. Then, up through the coaching ranks.

“Success just never came easy for Rudy,’’ Worrell said. “He just had to work at it. And he never tooted his own horn like some people did.’’

Rudy T just put his head down and refused to listen to what others said. There was always voice in his head pushing him. Sometimes, he said, it just wouldn’t shut up.

“I was way tougher on myself than other people were toward me,’’ he said. “My insecurity or whatever it was that drove me to excel was the same as it was in school. My parents, they really didn’t care. They didn’t even get to high school.’’

His mother made it through sixth grade, but he’s not sure his dad finished elementary school.

“I’m not sure how they got away with that in those days, but they did,’’ he said. “So, all of that achieving stuff was inside of me. In school I had to do well in my classes. If I came home with C’s, it wouldn’t have been a problem for them, but it would have been for me.

“Even in coaching, I felt I had a great responsibility to do as well as I could. I put in so much time working (on what could make him better).”

After those two championships, he even put himself in the hospital at one point with exhaustion.

“I was spinning my wheels, trying to figure out another way to get them there,’’ he said. “That was after the championships. Once you get a taste of that, you’d think you’d be satisfied, but no. You know you can make this happen. You’ve got to find a way to do it again.’’

Rudy T was the second pick of the 1970 NBA. Bob Lanier was No.1 and Pete Maravich and Dave Cowens were Nos. 3 and 4. Others in that draft including his longtime friend and teammate Calvin Murphy and Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who went 18th and 19th, respectively.

That first season under coach Alex Hannum was tough, but when the team moved to Houston, Rudy T found a spot with new coach Tex Winter, structure and a new way to look at the game.

“I had a lot of heart, but not a lot of fundamentals,’’ he said. “I played hard. I could jump and I could shoot. Putting it all together was the problem to play winning, good basketball.

“I thought I was doing the best I could. Tex Winter had a term for every movement, not only of a player moving across the floor, but every movement that you made. So, he put terminology on it and that type of stuff really opened up my mind to understand better. It wasn’t go-over-and-get-that- ball. I would stay away from it and let the play develop and get better open shots instead of clogging things up. That was invaluable, saved time and it was a great break to have someone like him in my life at that time.’’

Rudy could always shoot. In college, he had a sweet little bank shot from 18 feet that he could hit from either wing.

“It was pretty much of a line drive that wouldn’t go straight into the basket, but if you hit the board with a lot of spin on it, it was like a marshmallow — you’d hit the board and it fell right into the basket,’’ he said. “(Early in his career) I couldn’t make those mid-range shots on those angles because I tried to shoot it straight in. Then an assistant coach at Michigan brought it up and within a week I tied the school record for scoring on bank shots. And I was as surprised as anybody they were going in.’’

The Rockets didn’t have deep pockets back then, so it was Rudy T and Calvin, who happened to be his road roommate for nine of the 12 years he played. The Rockets were no Boston or Los Angeles, which meant Rudy T didn’t get a lot of notice nationwide until he started making those All-Star Games.

“I just thought my game would stand up with anyone,’’ he said. “When I had chance to play with Celtics and Knicks at All-Star Games, they were top-notch players. I’m not a primary guy where you give the ball to and I’m going to create something. I like figuring it out. If a faster guy is covering me, how am I going to get open? How can I use my body and the plays to get open? I used that same (thought process) to create plays when I became a coach.’’

Rudy just kept finding ways to get better; ways to make his game work. He played 12 seasons and made five All-Star teams.

Still, Worrell said, he didn’t get the credit he deserved.

“He was just underappreciated for his true value,’’ Worrell said. “Not just to (the Rockets) franchise, but to basketball.’’

Ironically, he did make national headlines in 1977 when he tried to help break up a fight on the court against the Lakers and Lakers forward Kermit Washington knocked him out with one punch. It fractured Rudy T’s skull, broke his jaw and nose and caused both other facial injuries and spinal fluid leakage. Washington was subsequently fined and suspended. Rudy T underwent facial reconstruction and played three more seasons.

Once he recovered, the questions seemed relentless and that voice in his head was pushing him once again. He wondered if his career would be overshadowed and he would simply be remembered as “the guy who got hit.” It bothered him for a while, until it didn’t.

“I heard something and it really hit home — I had to rescue myself by forgiving him,’’ Rudy T said, “because if I have the resentment and it’s like drinking poison and expecting someone else to get it. When you drink that poison with bad thoughts about someone else, you’re only hurting yourself. So, I got over that.

“I wish it didn’t happen. I know he wishes it didn’t. I never felt like a victim. It’s almost like it happened to someone else.’’

A few years later, he transitioned into coaching as a Rockets assistant. Then, when Don Chaney was fired in 1992, he moved up. It wasn’t really as simple as it sounds.

He and assistant Carroll Dawson were called into the front office and were ready to fight for Chaney to keep his job. It was a moot point. Chaney was gone and then-general manager Steve Patterson laid out the options. The job would normally go to Dawson, but he had health issues, so they were offering it to Rudy T.

He didn’t want to take it, then Dawson promised to teach him what he didn’t know and said, “if you don’t take it, we’ll probably be out looking for jobs.’’

Rudy T said yes and, well, the rest is history. He and Dawson, another of his closest friends, went on to build two NBA championship teams.

“He vowed to help me with everything he knew,’’ Rudy said. “I was so lucky to have a guy so practical in his approach. It doesn’t happen if I don’t have him. We really worked together well. It was like having your big brother with you on the bench with you. I felt very secure with him.”

It didn’t stop Rudy from pushing himself as hard as he could. He was a players’ coach, a communicator. And, well, he also found himself and his players fighting back in 1994 when the Rockets lost two home playoff games they should have won to Phoenix. The headlines screamed “Choke City” — a reference to the Rockets and the Oilers, who lost in Buffalo in overtime after building 35-3 lead in a 1993 playoff game.

“I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to be remembered for this my whole life,’ ‘’ Rudy said. “That’s the fear you have that something could go wrong. Instead, it was about how we hung together and pulled it out.

“I just get goosebumps years later talking about it. How depleted emotionally and physically we felt after losing those first two games, then going to Phoenix and winning two games there two get back in it — against a great team.’’

A month later, he was holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

“I’ll be honest, I was numb and on a cloud for a while,’’ he said. “The family went to South Carolina to get away and I saw an ad on TV for the (NBA) championship tape. They had different angles of plays and I watched it. I was like, 'That’s us! I can’t believe we did that.' That’s when it hit me.

He had built the team his way — with players that fit his eye, not superstars. He collected quotes, read motivational books and connected with his players becoming one of the best communicators in the game. Of course, he had had Hakeem Olajuwon, a member of the first Houston Sports Hall of Fame class and a Basketball Hall of Famer, to build around, but he put together the remaining pieces of that first championship team — veterans like Mario Elie, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry and Otis Thorpe and rookie Sam Cassell.

“We made Houston a welcome environment,’’ Rudy T said. “It was player-oriented. I was grateful my guys were receptive.’’

A year later, the Rockets were back there again hoisting the championship trophy — this time with Clyde Drexler, who had come back home courtesy of a trade for Thorpe. People second-guessed that trade. Until they didn’t.

Don’t ask Rudy T to choose which NBA title was his favorite. He won’t go there.

“Championships are like kids,’’ he said. “You love them both. They were different. I can’t say one is better than the other.’’

And his schemes? He was actually using his own style of analytics.

‘’He was really ahead of the game,’’ Worrell said. “His offense was a forerunner to what (Rockets coach Mike) D’Antoni is running right now. Spacing the court. Having shooters in different places on the court surrounding an all-star center. That wasn’t run in the NBA back then.’’

Olajuwon and Drexler will be on hand at the Houston Sports Awards later this month when Rudy T takes the stage. It will be a testament to the player, the coach and the communicator. And, maybe, another step toward induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as well.

But for the moment, he’s content to think back on a great playing and coaching career and a great life.

“When you win one, there’s something there, that well, anyone can win one,’’ Rudy T said. “That’s not true, but that’s what your head tells you. During the playoffs it reaffirms what an unbelievable accomplishment we did together because there are good teams every year that fall by the wayside.

“Every year I look at some of these monster teams and they don’t get there. And to see what we did …”

He paused. “I looked at it as a vintage bottle of wine. And God, I think it’s even more valuable now.’’

And light years from that first season that ended kicking that mustache case down the road.

Melanie Hauser

Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

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