One starting guard is an inch shorter than his sister, and she's two inches shorter than their mother. His first sport was baton twirling. The other guard wanted to be a brain surgeon, except he couldn't stand to be around sick people. Last year, in his rookie season, the center was traded twice. He might still be on the bench if the then regular center hadn't decided that basketball interfered with his religion and retired briefly in midseason.
One forward was drafted out of high school. By the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's so superstitious he'd drive a witch doctor into walking under ladders. The other forward, an All-Star for the last two years, has a recognition factor about as high as that of the ball boys. He could clean up on I've Got A Secret. On successive nights. Recently a hometown fan, an elderly lady he encountered at a promotional function, said of course she knew who he was and that she had often enjoyed seeing him play. It went on like that for 20 minutes. Then he stood up. "My," she said, "how does a person as tall as you manage to play so well on hockey skates?"
This diverse crew plays basketball for the Houston Rockets, although until lately not in front of too many people. At the moment the Rockets are solidly in second place in the NBA's Central Division despite being consigned to enduring mediocrity by preseason experts. They are in the vanguard of a bunch of unlikely teams currently driving hard for playoff positions. It's been that kind of season in the NBA.
"It's a matter of confidence," K. C. Jones, coach of the Washington Bullets, said earlier in the season to explain why theoretically bad teams were beating theoretically good ones. "No one is afraid of anyone else any more."
Certainly there is no lack of confidence among the Rockets, although it had long been more a matter of each player believing in himself rather than in the team. Now, working together as a unit, something no Rocket group had managed since the franchise was established in San Diego in 1967, Houston has won eight of its last nine games and 12 of the last 16. After weekend victories over Cleveland and Phoenix, the Rockets' record was 37-31, putting them 4½ games in front of the third-place Cavaliers.
"It's taken a long time," says Johnny Egan, now in his second full year as the Houston coach. "To win, you have to have a couple of guys who'll sacrifice. This club never had that before. We have guys who have been in the league three, four years and who are only now beginning to realize that there is more to the game than scoring. They wondered why they didn't get recognition. We told them if you average 25 points and lose, nobody will know you. If you average 15 and win, you'll get the recognition. Still, it's awfully hard to change a player who thinks offense."
For sheer firepower, the Rockets have always been awesome. Not triumphant, just awesome. In its first seven seasons, Houston never averaged fewer than 107.4 points a game and always lost more games than it won. During the 1969-70 season the Rockets averaged a numbing 118.7 points and finished with an even more numbing 27-55 record. That was because they gave up an average of 121.8 points. For the fans, it was depressingly like watching reruns of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and all their guys were Clantons.
Egan, who spent 11 years in the NBA as a 6' playmaking guard, took over the coaching job from Tex Winter 48 games into the 1972-73 season and from the beginning stressed defense. For his assistant he chose Larry Siegfried, the brilliant, somewhat eccentric ex-Celtic with the computer mind.
Egan was brought in by Ray Patterson, who had just taken over as general manager in Houston after building a championship team for Milwaukee. The Rockets were drawing not quite 4,000 fans per game and one of Patterson's main projects was to put people in the stands, which would not be easy, he knew, because hardly anybody in Texas seemed to realize basketball was played in Texas. Patterson discovered this on his first day in Houston when he was flagged down by a city cop for speeding.
"What do you do?" asked the cop.
"I'm the general manager of the Houston Rockets."
"No, I mean for a living."
Thinking rapidly, Patterson mumbled something about his connection with the Milwaukee Bucks.
"Ah," said the cop, "you mean with Abdul-Jabbar and those guys?"
Slowly, Patterson, Egan and Siegfried began to overhaul the team. Last season the Rockets lost 50 games but 36 of them were by 10 points or fewer. And although they won but 32 games, the team was out-scored for the whole season by just 11 points.
Egan blames habit for the slow pace of the transition. His people have always been shooters. Rudy Tomjanovich, the unrecognized All-Star, averaged 30.1 points one season at Michigan. Calvin Murphy, the 5'9" guard who looks up to his sister, once scored at a 38.2-point clip at Niagara. Mike Newlin, who canceled his plans to become a surgeon, had a 26-point average one season at Utah. Superstitious ex-baseball player Ed Ratleff was a 22.8 scorer one year at Long Beach State. And Kevin Kunnert, the 7' center who was traded away first by Chicago and then by Buffalo last season, averaged 19.2 his senior year at Iowa.
"You can explain to a man what you want him to do and he'll nod and say he understands," says Egan. "But then in the heat of battle habit takes over and he does what he always did, and if he's a shooter that means putting the ball up. That's what we are trying to do: change the habits. Our system is just starting to sink into these guys. The repetition is paying off. Now we are winning and they are starting to believe in it"
For Kunnert and Ratleff, each in his second season, the system fits more comfortably than with some of the others. Even when he was scoring big numbers in college, the 6'6" Ratleff played unselfishly. "He doesn't care if he scores eight or 38," says Egan, "just as long as we win." The 185-pound forward rebounds, blocks shots, plays pressure defense, finds the open man, is high in steals. And, when called upon, he can score, too. During the current streak, he had a high of 31 against Phoenix.
Kunnert has been a pleasant surprise. Until Zaid Abdul-Aziz, a recent convert to Islam, retired for one game in December, Kunnert was a little-used sub. Zaid, who began the season as Don Smith, came back two days later, but by then Egan had decided to go with his 230-pound second-year giant. With each game Kunnert has become more sure of himself and more of a factor. "I feel more confident now that I know I'm going to play," he says. "The guys will throw the ball to me and know I'll give it back. When you come in off the bench, sometimes you're open and they look at you as if they didn't see you. It's a matter of maturity. It used to be discouraging when someone put up a bad shot. We're not doing that now."
For a team that did not grow up on victory, winning seems to fit the Rockets well. They are even enjoying the new pressure.
"Usually at this time we are just looking for a combination to start next season," says Tomjanovich, who is now in his fifth year, carries a 20-point-plus average and All-Star status for the second season in a row. Rudy T. has to be one of the least known authentic stars in sports.
Tomjanovich long ago learned about fame. He was a high school star in Hamtramck, Mich., and one night his team played a Catholic high school just two blocks away. His future wife, Sophie, was a cheerleader for the opponents. That night Tomjanovich, then 6'7", skinny and the only white starter on his team, scored 51 points. A year later he met Sophie when both were freshmen at the University of Michigan and reminded her of the game. She said she didn't remember him.
A guy who can handle his ego in that situation can handle anything. Even being taken for a 6'8" hockey player.