'Hey, Call Anytime'

July 04, 1994
July 04, 1994

Table of Contents
July 4, 1994

World Cup
Pro Basketball
John Wetteland
Lance Armstrong
SI's 40th Anniversary
Point After

'Hey, Call Anytime'

Rudy Tomjanovich, coach of the champion Houston Rockets, is a regular guy. Just ask the President

He is still the shoemaker's son. He will tell you with pride about how people would bring their tattered boots to his father's little repair shop in the factory town of Hamtramck, Mich., and how Rudy Tomjanovich Sr. would mend them so well that the customers never had to come back. Now, as coach of the Houston Rockets, the newly crowned kings of the NBA, the shoemaker's son gets standing ovations when he walks into local restaurants, and when President Clinton called to congratulate him the other day, he felt cocky enough to end the conversation by saying, "Hey, call anytime." He has come a long way from Hamtramck, but maybe not so far after all, because he is still very much the shoemaker's son. Rudy Tomjanovich Jr. also knows how to fix things, and how to make them last.

This is an article from the July 4, 1994 issue Original Layout

There is no better example of this than the repair job Tomjanovich did on the Rockets, whose 90-84 win over the New York Knicks in the seventh game of the NBA Finals gave the city of Houston its first major championship since the Oilers won the American Football League title in 1961. Tomjanovich took a team heavily populated by players other teams didn't want and cobbled together a champion. He didn't do it alone, of course. Hakeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, the Rockets' wondrous center, won his matchup with New York's Patrick Ewing and was named the series MVP, and Houston guards Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell, who were outplayed through most of the series by the Knicks' Derek Harper and John Starks, picked Game 7 to turn the tables. But the process that made the Rockets champs began long before the Finals. It goes back at least as far as Feb. 18, 1992, the day that the Rockets, then playing .500 ball, named Tomjanovich their coach.

"Look at this team," Maxwell said after Game 7. "Kenny's been traded a couple of times, OT [forward Otis Thorpe] has been traded, San Antonio just about gave me away, and that's three of our starters. There are probably people around the league who arc wondering how we ever turned into a championship team. Well, Rudy T is a big part of the answer."

Tomjanovich dismisses the notion that the Rockets' transformation from an average team into the NBA's best was the result of any grand design on his part. Unlike his counterpart in the Finals, New York coach Pat Riley, he has never been cast as a genius and he hasn't written a book on motivational philosophy. Riley showed his players a tape of a championship parade before Game 7, but Tomjanovich used no such ploys. "If I have to come up with a great speech or something to get them to give their best, then I've got the wrong guys to begin with," he says. His greatest strength may be that he sees himself not as a psychologist or a master strategist but as an ordinary guy from a blue-collar Detroit suburb, the kind of guy who when asked for a description of forward Robert Horry's tailbone injury in Game 4 of the Finals, replied, with a shrug and a smile, "A sore butt." It is in keeping with Tomjanovich's style that while the Rockets were giving one another champagne showers after winning the championship, he was looking for a beer.

He had earned a cold one. Tomjanovich more than held his own against the revered Riley—the owner of four championship rings as a coach and one as a player—not so much in matching strategy with the Knick coach but in displaying unerring instincts in handling his personnel. Smith struggled mightily at point guard for most of the series, but Tomjanovich resisted giving up on him completely, even when the Knicks seemed to take control after their 91-84 win in Game 5. "He knew we were going to need Kenny eventually," Maxwell said. "He wasn't going to crush Kenny's confidence for the sake of any one game." In fact, Tomjanovich had Sam Cassell at the scorer's table ready to replace Smith at one point in Game 5, but when Smith committed a turnover, Tomjanovich called Cassell back, not wanting to embarrass Smith by pulling him immediately after a misplay.

Gestures like that have earned Tomjanovich respect and affection from his players, and they also allow him to get away with occasionally ruffling their leathers when he makes an unorthodox move. He acts on hunches, which is why some of the Rockets' minutes fluctuate dramatically from game to game. "I know not everybody is going to like every move I make," he says. "The only thing I promise them is that I'll always be honest with them. They may not agree with what I think, but they at least know I'm not playing games with them."

It is a simple approach, but Tomjanovich has learned that simplicity works. Watching the Rockets pass the championship trophy among themselves last week, it was easy to forget how adrift this team was only two years ago. The Rockets were treading water at 26-26, and Olajuwon was in a bitter feud with management and hoping to be traded. When then owner Charlie Thomas fired Don Chancy, the Rockets turned to Tomjanovich, Chaney's second assistant. "I really wasn't sure I wanted the job," Tomjanovich says. "Carroll Dawson, the other assistant, was the guy who really deserved the job, but he had eye and blood-pressure problems. We needed a coach, at least an interim coach, in a hurry, and I didn't have that much of a choice."

That's because, as a member of the Rocket organization for the last 24 years, Tomjanovich has been a good company man. From 1970 to '81 he was a sweet-shooting 6'8" forward who made the All-Star team five times. He then spent two years as a scout and nine as an assistant coach, and he wasn't planning on climbing the ladder any further. "I would have been happy to have been an assistant the rest of my career," he says. "When I was a player, I thought you had to be a lunatic to get into coaching in the first place. I saw what it does to guys—the pressure, the late nights studying film, the time on the road away from your family. I didn't need that, and I didn't have the kind of ego that absolutely had to be in charge."

Others who knew him well had similar misgivings. When Tomjanovich took the job, his daughter Nichole, a student at SMU, sent him a card saying, "Everyone's happy for you, Dad. But I don't know if you're doing the right thing." But once Tomjanovich had the job, his competitive instincts took over, just as they had most of his life, all the way back to Hamtramck High when he was so incensed at missing the cut for the freshman basketball team that he challenged the coach to a game of one-on-one.

"He beat the crap out of me," Tomjanovich says. "He was an ex-linebacker, and he thought every bounce was like a fumble. I was a skinny kid, but he saw that I really wanted to be on the team, so he gave me a uniform."

This time Tomjanovich was the coach, and he went about mending the Rockets. He urged management to make peace with Olajuwon and resist any temptation to trade him. He explained to his players that he expected a deeper commitment to defense from them, which came as a surprise since Tomjanovich was far from a defensive whiz during his playing days. "I always remember the frustration of having someone tell me to go out there and play defense without giving mc any guidelines," he says. "They would just tell me to stop my man. Well, how do you want me to stop him? Instead of just yelling 'Play defense!" at them, we give the players a definite plan—a way to slow down the other team's transition game, a set of principles for when to help on defense."

Tomjanovich didn't ask his players to work any harder than he did. "He's the only man I know who never takes a shortcut," says Dawson, who is still a Rocket assistant and has become one of Tomjanovich's closest friends. "He does more than a head coach probably should, because he doesn't delegate a lot. No detail is too small for him to worry about. I don't think he's had much sleep since the playoffs began. Rudy knows that there's no substitute for putting in the hours."

His approach didn't work immediately. The Rockets finished the '91-92 season with a 16-14 record after he took over, but a six-game losing streak during that stretch was the turning point. "We hit that slump, and the players saw that their way wasn't working, that we couldn't expect to outscore people," Tomjanovich says. "Two things could have happened. They could have bought into the approach our coaching staff was trying to sell them, or they could have completely collapsed. If they had chosen the second way, I wouldn't be here right now."

Tomjanovich has had to overcome bigger obstacles than losing streaks. After an All-America career at Michigan, he was the second pick of the 1970 draft, following Bob Lanier's selection by the Detroit Pistons. Tomjanovich had a pro career full of highlights, but it is best remembered for its darkest moment, when Kermit Washington of the Los Angeles Lakers hit him with a devastating punch during a game on Dec. 9, 1977. Tomjanovich suffered a fractured skull, fractured jaw, broken nose, concussion, facial lacerations and leakage of spinal fluid.

An oral surgeon testified in Tomjanovich's civil suit against the Lakers, which resulted in a settlement of $2 million, that his patient's face had to be rebuilt "like a jigsaw puzzle." Tomjanovich missed the rest of the '77-78 season, and although he returned the next year and played three more seasons, he was never quite the same player. He and Washington, who was fined $10,000 and suspended for 60 days, have talked several times during the intervening years, and Tomjanovich has accepted Washington's apology.

It is not a subject he cares to discuss at length, but Tomjanovich does admit that it bothers him to know that the incident is the most memorable of his career. "I worked all those years, did some good things, and this is what I'm remembered for," he says. "But it's like it happened to somebody else. Everybody has something like that in their lives, something horrible that they just have to get through somehow. You survive it because you really have no choice. Surviving is better than the alternative."

While Tomjanovich is not one to dwell on the past, he and the Rockets are likely to savor the present a bit longer. "People always say there aren't words to describe how good winning a championship feels, and now I know they're right," Tomjanovich said moments after Game 7 ended. Then he let out a sigh, a satisfied sound, the kind the shoemaker might have made when he finished a job, and finished it right.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANTomjanovich took a step toward success by urging his bosses to make peace with Olajuwon (34).PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN IACONORudy T was one of the NBA's sharpshooters until an on-court punch rearranged his face.PHOTOBOB STRAUS[See caption above.]PHOTOPHIL HUBERThe coach led the parade as Houston went wild for the Rockets.