There was a time, way back at the start of this NBA season, when opponents actually got psyched up to play the Houston Rockets. The Rockets had been the surprise winners of the Western Conference crown last spring and took the heavily favored Boston Celtics to six games before losing in the championship series. Soon thereafter they bolstered their front line by acquiring Forward Elvin Hayes, a 12-time All-Star, from the Washington Bullets. When they opened this season with a pulsating 113-112 double overtime win at Los Angeles before a national television audience, their future looked bright indeed. And then Houston self-destructed into a club that Coach Del Harris calls "another struggling under-.500 team that everyone wants to play."
At week's end, the Rockets were still losing, Harris was squabbling with several players—most notably Hayes—and something had to be done. An air-clearing team meeting preceded a 108-101 win over lowly San Diego Saturday, but the Rockets were still only 13-18 on the season and in third place in the Midwest Division, eight games behind league-leading San Antonio. In 1980-81 Houston finished the regular season at 40-42, just good enough to qualify for the playoffs; this season the Rockets will probably have to do a lot better to even have a shot at another Cinderella story. Because of the concentration of power in the Pacific Division, where five of six teams are above .500, it's more likely that the only Western Conference qualifier from the Midwest will be the division winner.
Harris points to a number of statistics to explain Houston's plight: By last weekend, despite leading the league in offensive rebounds and attempting more shots than anyone but the Lakers and Kings, the Rockets were only 19th in scoring. Their 46% shooting from the floor was the third worst in the league, and they were last from the line, at 68%. Last year's numbers were 49% and 77%, respectively. The only Rocket above the team average in both categories was Center Moses Malone—51% from the field and 75% at the line. And there are no statistics that measure tenacity. "We got good last year when all of us had been traded or fired by the public," Harris says. "From that point we were like soldiers on the front line. We could look at the next man in the foxhole and depend on him to help stop the enemy."
Some of the Rockets turned out to be summer casualties. Billy Paultz, a reliable frontcourtman, sustained a preseason back injury, and the trade for Hayes has limited his playing time. Guard Tom Henderson, last season's quarterback down the stretch, had added some 20 pounds to his already unsvelte body by the time training camp began. He's still not in top shape, and before a 19-minute stint against the Clippers Saturday, he had played only 10 minutes in the Rockets' previous eight games. His running mate, Mike Dunleavy, has been slowed by a pulled stomach muscle.
Another factor undermining the special chemistry Houston had last spring is the knowledge on the part of eight Rocket players that their contracts expire after this season. Houston's system is based on individual sacrifice, usually to that great Paint God, Malone. It's hard to negotiate a raise on seven points a game.
It's also hard to teach an old forward new tricks, which means Hayes isn't helping matters. A poor passer who was never known as a selfless player in his heyday, Hayes was dealt to Houston for two second-round draft choices as part of Washington's rebuilding program. The Rockets, who have never broken attendance records in football-crazy Houston, may have figured bringing the Big E back to his college town to play for his old team—he began his stellar pro career with the San Diego Rockets in 1968-69—would inspire him. It seems now there may have been nothing left to turn on. With his 13.7 scoring average, 45.9% shooting and eight rebounds a game, the 36-year-old Hayes has done little but clog up Malone's territory inside.
Nonetheless, Harris feels the Rockets have taken too long to adjust to the changes in the lineup. "What works for you one year won't automatically work the next," he says. "Through the course of a season every team makes adjustments, whether it's in first place or last. If not, you'd still have Russell, Cousy and Sharman playing for the Celtics."
Robert Reid is one of the few Rockets with a binding contract for next season, but more than a $300,000 salary was on his mind when he quit the Rockets for 12 days and five games after a 110-98 win over Portland on Dec. 5. A member of the Pentecostal Church, Reid left to sort out conflicts between his faith and work, which among the religion's strictest adherents would be considered a worldly influence and, therefore, evil.
Some of the more devout Pentecostals won't let their children participate in school gym classes because the required attire goes against their code of modest dress. Reid was able to justify wearing his red Rockets shorts, but he was having trouble with other, unspecified things in the NBA life-style.
A second-round 1977 draft choice from tiny St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Reid has improved every season. In 1980-81 his averages of 15.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game were second only to those of Malone on the team, while Reid led the Rockets in steals. A 6'8" swingman, he received national acclaim for the defensive job he did in the NBA finals on Larry Bird, holding the Celtics ace to 15.3 points per game, nearly six under his season average. In Games 3 and 4 of the championship series, Bird scored just three baskets and eight points in each outing.
Reid never had any doubts about his ability. "When I left San Antonio to report to camp, all I had in my pocket was $20," he says. "The fare from the airport was $23. I told the driver, 'Give me your name and address. I'm going to be playing for the Rockets and you've got two tickets for the first game.' "
Reid says all the attention he attracted with his playoff performance contributed to his moral dilemma. "People started to recognize me after games," he says. "I'd let my chest swell up a bit at all the fame.
"Pretty soon any door is open to you just because you're an athlete. Some guys go through every door; some doors were open that I went through and didn't feel very good about afterwards. A Christian should be able to say, 'This is one door I can't go through.' "
Reid admits now that his decision to leave the Rockets wasn't fair to his teammates or the Houston management, and that his mother, Blondell, a Pentecostal minister in San Antonio, had nothing to do with his departure. "No one understood what was going on inside me, but people needed something to pin my leaving on and my mother was an easy scapegoat," Reid says. "People freak out when it's something they can't handle, and that's how they feel about sanctified people. We are peculiar in the way we dress and the way we act. People see a sanctified person and say, 'There goes one of them Holy Rollers.' They make fun because they don't understand it."
The 44-year-old Harris, who was a preacher for 10 years, beginning at age 17, says he wouldn't presume that he knows "just what Robert was going through, but I can understand it as well as anyone else. Your mind is 80 percent on the game and 20 percent elsewhere. Then you go home and it's 60 here and 40 there and you become fragmented and can't be true to anything. I think it took guts to take the time to go and find out about yourself like Robert did. I also think the timing could have been better, like in the summer."
For a while last week, Harris seemed to be hoping that Hayes would take a sabbatical of his own. Earlier in the season Harris and the Big E, who's still an effective shot blocker, had argued about the amount of playing time Hayes was getting, but thereafter an uneasy truce held until a 102-93 loss to Atlanta on Dec. 29. After sitting out for most of the final quarter, Hayes sounded off again, "I came down here to play, but I'm not playing. I'm a much better player than I've been here."
The next night, with four minutes left in the fourth quarter of what would become a five-point loss to San Antonio, Harris called for Hayes to enter the game. The Big E seemed to hesitate before getting up to report to the scorer's table. When he finally arose, Harris told him to sit back down. Hayes's version is that Harris didn't give him a chance to respond to the call. "If you're any kind of player and you're going to get four minutes of time," Harris said, "you should want it to be the last four."
After Saturday's team meeting, peace seemed to be at hand. "You can measure a season by games or by the crises a team goes through," Harris says. "The important thing is how you respond to the problems: Do you learn from them or do you respond negatively and destroy your team?"
"I came here because I saw it as a chance to get another ring," Hayes says. "Del and I have been confused about what role I'm to play in achieving that goal. Things have been straightened out, and we can go on from here."
Henderson, one of Hayes's teammates on the Bullets' 1978 championship club, believes from experience that communication isn't crucial. "For a year and a half Dick Motta [then the Washington coach] and I didn't speak to each other. I was quarterbacking his team, but not one word passed between us."
The Rockets can only hope that silence is golden again.