A funny thing happened to a whole lot of Texans right in the middle of Super Bowl week. On Wednesday night more than 22,000 members of that football-crazed society paused long enough in Houston and in San Antonio to take in another kind of game. What it was, pardner, was pro basketball.
In San Antonio 11,000 turned out to watch the Spurs defeat the Denver Nuggets 137-133—a déj√† vu shootout recalling the two clubs' run-and-gun exhibitions in the late and great ABA. Two hundred miles up the trail, the Houston Rockets were in the process of a) benching all their starters in front of 11,000-plus fans; b) rallying from 18 points behind; and c) defeating the New York Knicks 108-107 with a miracle comeback led by the NBA's last left-handed Jewish guard, Dave Wohl, who d) was traded to the Nets two days later. Ah, wilderness!
For a long time Texas was, indeed, a veritable basketball wilderness, but the emergence last year of George Gervin, James Silas and their explosive friends in San Antonio gave that city some excitement besides border gang fights. And now the Rockets have become the turnaround attendance story of the year. Or, at least, the week.
Annually, Houston has had some of the best pure shooters in the league, not to mention the best pure puncher in Calvin (Baby Muhammad) Murphy, but defensive shortcomings and coaching ambiguities have led to failure. Financial woes have beset club president Ray Patterson ever since he left the champion Milwaukee Bucks four years ago to test his rebuilding skills in Houston. The team had passed through two owners plus a holding company before the merger, and the ABA sacrificial offering of $700,000 to each NBA member helped save the franchise.
January 17, 1977
Moreover, the Rockets always have had a difficult time competing against the successful program at the University of Houston which, even now, showcases probably the finest backcourt player on campus in Otis Birdsong.
Who should arrive this season to, as they say, "turn it all around" but a man without a job, a man without a shot and a man without a college. They were, in order of appearance, Coach Tom Nissalke, John Lucas and Moses Malone.
April. The Rockets' Patterson hired Nissalke, one of pro sports' truly incredible survivors. It was Nissalke's sixth pro team in six years, but Patterson figured he knew his man; he had coached Nissalke as a prep at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., and when he became headmaster there he gave Nissalke his first coaching job.
June. Nissalke greeted Lucas, the 6'3" guard from Maryland whom the Rockets had chosen No. 1 in the entire NBA draft. A unique selection, Lucas is the only NBA No. 1 pick in the past dozen years to be chosen for leadership and playmaking qualities rather than for shooting and scoring. Also, he is believed to be the first man to enter modern pro ball without a jump shot. Lucas' scoring weapon, says teammate Ed Ratleff, is "that silly one-legged pump."
October. Lucas welcomed Malone, the 6'10" vagabond 22-year-old whom he had met during Malone's five-minute career at Maryland before Moses embarked on his journey through the pro bulrushes of big cash, big cars, two leagues and five teams. Houston was Malone's third team in one week. Nissalke, who had Malone at the Utah Stars in 1974-75, might have traded for him solely out of fear that his own wayfaring records would be shattered.
At Houston, Malone proceeded to play at times as if he had written a commandment or two on offensive rebounding. Houston began winning a whole lot of important games. Eight in a row. Three overtime games in a row. Said Patterson, somewhat obscurely, "Getting Moses only compounded the Nissalke-Lucas-Malone syndrome." Or something.
Lucas took Malone in hand, moved him into an apartment above his own, shouted things like, "Jam that SOB, Mo" and told him to stop mumbling all the time. In short, Lucas inspired him.
Malone still is several years away from parting the waters for Houston. He has terrible hands and his outside shot is a one-foot slam dunk. But even before the two new players became established as starters, in Houston's 18th game, they had some awesome moments.
While Cool Hand Luke had 21 points and 14 assists against Buffalo, Moses had 17 points and 18 rebounds against Washington. Lucas scored 25 points with seven assists against Detroit, Malone had 16 rebounds and seven blocked shots against Philadelphia. Houston fans would be treated to Lucas hitting nine straight shots against Washington and Malone taking down 20 rebounds against Seattle. Outrageous stuff like that. And all those big numbers led to Rocket victories.
Although Houston was in a four-de-feats-in-five-games slump at week's end, the Rockets still had a 20-15 record (seventh best in the NBA). With San Antonio, they were in the thick of the Central Division battle, in which five teams—all playing over .500—were separated by only four games.
Just as significant, the Rockets and their jewel of an arena—the magnificent, 2-year-old Summit—had drawn a total of more than 40,000 for their last three home dates. Through 19 games Summit attendance stood at 158,332, which was more than the team drew in the entire 1973-74 season.
Somebody asked Nissalke what was the big difference. After he had run through the standard answers of togetherness, concentration and spirit, he was interrupted in mid-cliché with, "Where would you be without Lucas and Malone?"
"In Beaumont," said Nissalke.
The coach's contributions have been just as important. Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets' All-Star forward whose scoring production had fallen off last year, says, "From the beginning Tom was positive. He said we would win. He said we would be contenders at mid-season. Nobody ever told us that. He gave us discipline and direction. I've been dying here. I wasn't growing as a player. I felt like I had handcuffs on. I'd hit four in a row and be taken out. It was like I was being conditioned to be unproductive."
This season Rudy T is averaging nearly 23 points a game, up four from last season. He gives equal credit to Lucas. "This kid came in here yelling, 'Hey, big guys, hit the glass, get downcourt, I'll get you some dunkers.' "
That a rookie would see fit to impose his personality on a troubled, veteran outfit is yet another aspect of Lucas' game. What he did was rearrange Houston's backcourt, forcing one or the other of the two excellent scoring guards out of the starting lineup, beginning with Murphy. When Murphy came back Mike Newlin had to sit down. And though both older men deny it, Lucas made them bear down and play harder. And he did it without ruffling any feathers.
"Luke can get me the ball anywhere on the floor," says Murphy, who is having his best season.
"You can't get mad at him," says Newlin. "He has such a zest for life. Lucas doesn't overwhelm you with talent. He's just smooth. He asserted himself without infringing on anybody else's space, which is really an art. He could be ramming in 40 points a game, but he'd find someway to credit the team."
For his part Lucas says it never crossed his mind not to lead. "I don't put on airs," he says. "I don't look for reactions. People just better be ready to play when they hit that floor with me."
Lucas says he knows his limitations. "I'm not going to score big in this league, or be spectacular," he says. "I'll have some bad games. [He had two pitiful ones last week against New York and Denver.] But I know how to win. I've been a leader since grade school. I've always wanted to be President of the United States. I still do."
The Rockets are probably too slow and too lame on defense to win their division, but Lucas' confidence alone sometimes seems to carry them. When Houston had a 6-5 record, the rookie went on television and blasted local doomsayers who were confidently predicting another .500 season. "As far as I'm concerned," Lucas warned, "we're going to be 77-5."
Then Houston won those eight straight. The rumblings could be heard in Beaumont.