A Retrorocket

June 12, 1994

They hate me, they hate me not.... They hate me, they hate me not.

Robert Horry plucks the petals from some imaginary daisy and drops them next to his size 15's. In one breath he embraces the Houston Rockets, with whom he has ridden into the NBA finals. But in the next he damns them for trying to mess with his career and his mind. "I know what he's thinking: They did it once, will they do it again?" says Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

What the Rockets did on Feb. 4 was trade Horry, a second-year forward from Alabama, and reserve forward Matt Bullard to the Detroit Pistons for forward Sean Elliott. But Elliott, who was suffering from a kidney ailment, failed his physical with the Rockets. Two days after the trade Horry and Bullard were shipped back to Houston. "Team says you're the future, then turns its back on you, then it's forced to take you back," declares a confused Horry.

Four months later it is the best deal the Rockets never made—especially given what happened in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, in which Houston eliminated the Utah Jazz 94-83. The slender, 6'10" Horry scored 22 points and in the final two minutes of the game made a crucial block on Jazz forward Bryon Russell and a dunk to seal the victory with 1:30 left. "When Rob plays like that, we're unbeatable," said Rocket forward Mario Elie afterward.

In the first week of February the Rockets had lost 10 of their previous 19 games and fallen off to 31-11 after a 15-0 start. Tomjanovich had become frustrated with Horry's unselfishness, which was allowing defenses to ignore him while double-teaming center Hakeem Olajuwon and power forward Otis Thorpe. "It got to where he was so sensitive to everybody else's needs that he was neglecting his own," says Tomjanovich. Moreover, Horry's modesty was hiding multiple skills, including a three-point shooting range, a solid dribble drive and an emphatic finish on the break.

Tomjanovich caught much grief for using the 11th pick of the 1992 draft to select the unheralded Horry, whom he then made his personal project—so personal, in fact, that Rudy T's wile, Sophie, became one of Horry's closest friends. "The trade was very tough for me," says Tomjanovich. "I couldn't sleep. I mean, I like the guy so much."

The nontrade has hardened Horry. "I still ponder whether I want to stay here in Houston," says the 23-year-old, whose five-year, $7 million contract runs through the 1996-97 season, "but they pay us so much money, you have to be a professional." And, sometimes, a selfish professional, which Horry has become—selectively—on the floor. He averaged 8.6 points before the trade, 11.4 thereafter in the regular season and 12.3 in the first three rounds of the playoffs. In the postseason he had 23 three-pointers, after having nailed only 44 in the entire regular season. "I take more shots," Horry says. "They traded me for not shooting. What are they going to do, trade me again for shooting?"

Maybe late wants Horry to play for a title. Last Thursday he was unharmed in a car crash en route from his suburban Houston home to the Rockets' playoff-hiatus minicamp in Galveston. After the brakes on his truck locked in the rain at 50 mph, Horry hit an oncoming car head-on and walked away with only bruised shins. "I could easily be in a hospital right now," Horry said late last week.

Or in Detroit. Every day Horry looks at the Pistons hat he keeps. "That," he says, "is my reminder."

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHHorry made the Jazz sorry that he stayed with Houston.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)