HOUSTON -- On Feb. 4, 1994, the Houston Rockets sent Robert Horry and Matt Bullard to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott, a trade that has been forgotten by just about everybody except the people involved. When Horry and Bullard arrived at The Palace of Auburn Hills, they were greeted by Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer. Coach Don Chaney shared the plays he would run for them. The next day, they put on their uniforms in the Pistons locker room for a home game against the Nets. "Our allegiance switched from the Rockets to the Pistons," Bullard said.
Right before they were about to take the floor, general manager Billy McKinney approached, and told them they would not be able to play. Horry and Bullard were ushered to a luxury box, where they sat in bewilderment. Two days later, the trade was rescinded, when Elliott failed a physical because of a kidney ailment. Horry and Bullard returned to Houston, and when they walked into the Rockets practice facility, coach Rudy Tomjanovich shouted: "Welcome back!" Bullard cussed under his breath.
"The trade messed me up that whole year," Bullard said. "It hurt my heart. I was not in good shape mentally. I was part of the team, but I never completely felt like a Rocket." A backup forward, Bullard went from 43.1 percent shooting to 34.5, and his scoring and rebounding averages were cut in half. He fell out of the NBA the following season and signed with PAOK Thessaloniki in Greece, where the rivalries were so intense that riot police had to work every game. Bullard, an American who barely knew the teams, could not muster the same level of hatred. "I was just there to do a job," he said.
Bullard learned overseas what it means to be a professional basketball player -- always invested, but never attached. "It doesn't matter if you're in the NBA or Europe or the D-League," he said. "You go out and do your best and be as good a teammate as you can." After one year in Greece, Bullard was back in the NBA, and spent five more seasons with the Rockets. He now works as their broadcaster, but on Dec. 8, he experienced a flashback to the three days when he was a Piston.
In a trade that will hang over this entire season, Houston shipped Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Goran Dragic to the Hornets, who sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, who sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets. Players were held out of practice on the eighth, but Martin still went to the training facility that night. "I wanted one final workout here," he said. Rockets coach Kevin McHale saw Martin and sat him down for 30 minutes. McHale explained that there was a hang-up with the deal. As Martin drove home at 11:30 p.m., general manager Daryl Morey called and said the trade was off, vetoed by commissioner David Stern. Martin was still a Rocket after all.
Bullard sought out Martin, Scola and Dragic in the coming days, to see how they were coping. He found that Scola and Dragic, both international players, were largely unfazed. They reacted to the veto the same way he did to the Greek rivalries. "Those guys have been pros for a long time," Bullard said. "They are already in a foreign country. It doesn't really matter what jersey they are wearing." Martin, an American who grew up with the NBA and established connections to its teams, appeared shell-shocked by comparison. It didn't matter that he'd only been in Houston for a season-and-a-half. "I felt like I was looking at myself 17 years ago," Bullard said. "He was hurt."
Martin poured out the pain in the gym, with harder practices and extra workouts. He is among the most efficient offensive players in the league, the rare guard who can score without many shots or dribbles. Once a 12th man in Sacramento, Martin averaged 23.4 points on 43 percent shooting last season in Houston, and he seemed to find a home. "I'm blessed to be where I am," Martin said. "I won't hold any grudges. All that matters is how I respond."
He made just 2-of-12 shots in the preseason, and afterward asked Bullard, "How am I playing?" Bullard shot back, "I'm not worried about you." The day before Christmas, Martin beat teammates Chase Budinger and Jonny Flynn in a shooting game, and joked that they let him win to boost his confidence. "When I wake up Dec. 26," Martin said, "all of this has to go out the window." But that night, in the opener at Orlando, he went 1-of-10 and missed all six three-point attempts. In the Rockets' second game, however, he scored 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting and they beat the Spurs.
Everybody has reacted differently to the trade that wasn't. Lamar Odom was so devastated that the Lakers traded him to Dallas for nothing but a draft pick and a trade exception. Gasol was disappointed but determined not to show it. "I'm tough like that," said Gasol, a jab at the masses who call him soft. Martin said he was helped through the process by McHale, and Gasol by Mike Brown, but both coaches are in their first year. They have not had time to build relationships, and besides, Brown never played in the NBA and McHale never left the Celtics.
They cannot relate, and in truth, only a few can. Before a game between Houston and San Antonio this preseason, Bullard walked up to Elliott, now a Spurs broadcaster. He wanted to know how the player on the other side of the transaction felt about it. Elliott explained that he spent the first four years of his career in San Antonio, was traded to Detroit in 1993, and never fit in there. When the Pistons shipped him to Houston, he rejoiced, and when he failed the physical he nearly retired out of frustration. Like Bullard, his numbers plummeted, from 17.2 points per game to 12.1.
In the summer of '94, the Pistons sent Elliott back to the Spurs, and five years later he won a championship. Then he underwent a successful kidney transplant. Bullard also won a title with the Rockets and Horry won seven with the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs. According to the Houston Chronicle, Morey shared that bit of trivia with Martin, and Bullard repeated it.
"I told all our guys the same thing," Bullard said. "This will work out. But you have to give it time."