At Drexler's Bar-B-Q in Houston last Friday there was a Dennis
Rodman look-alike contest that attracted a motley collection of
contestants -- men, women and children -- all coiffured in the
fluorescent hues favored by the flamboyant San Antonio Spur
forward and competing for playoff tickets. So many hungry
Rodmaniacs showed up, the joint ran out of food and had to close
early. Too many hams. Not enough ham.
Typical, isn't it? Clyde Drexler, one NBA star who can seldom be
spotted off the court without a high-powered telescope, gets
upstaged in his hometown at his family's restaurant. ``What are we
supposed to do, have a Clyde Drexler look-alike contest?'' said
Clyde's mother, Eunice, a part-time cook at Drexler's, which is
owned by Clyde's brother James. ``Clyde doesn't have orange hair
or tattoos. He's just Clyde.''
During his 11-plus seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers,
Drexler was an eight-time NBA All-Star and a member of the 1992
Olympic Dream Team. But around Houston, where he starred at
Sterling High and at the University of Houston, he is still just
Clyde. And most people outside his Friends & Family calling circle
would be hard-pressed to say just exactly what Clyde is all about.
But as decidedly understated as Drexler is, one could not
overstate his impact on the Western Conference finals between the
Houston Rockets and the Spurs, which at week's end stood tied at
two games each, with Game 5 scheduled for San Antonio's Alamodome
on Tuesday. While Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon (last season's Most
Valuable Player) and San Antonio's David Robinson (this season's
MVP) were the centers of attention, this was a drama in which the
supporting cast was playing a critical role. Thus, as Drexler
went, so went the Rockets. He was the Drex-factor.
The series was billed as the Texas Shoot-out, a gunfight between
two cities separated by just 200 miles along Interstate 10. San
Antonians revel in recalling that when a guy named Les Alexander
came to San Antonio three years back with an interest in
purchasing the Spurs, he met with members of a local civic group
who, afraid Alexander would move the team, called an emergency
meeting to ensure that they could get someone else to buy it from
then Spur owner Red McCombs. Several months later Alexander bought
the Rockets, which he still owns.
In Houston the citizenry responds with San Antonio jokes.
Q: What is the best thing to come out of San Antonio?
San Antonio. Houston. Heck, after the first four games it was a
wonder they didn't just save gas, split the difference and finish
the series in Austin. The home team lost each game, leading to
speculation about the importance of a road-court advantage. ``For
all future home games, I'm thinking about putting my guys up at
the San Antonio Marriott,'' said Spur coach Bob Hill. ``Or maybe
we'll just stay in Houston and fly home on the days of the games.''
Hill was reacting to the Spurs' defeats in Games 1 and 2 in San
Antonio, the most deflating drubbing in those environs since Davy
Crockett and the boys went belly-up at the Alamo. The 7-foot
Olajuwon tossed in 27 and 41 points in those games and even
unveiled some new and improved spin moves as Houston -- riding the
momentum gathered in improbable come-from-behind, early-round
series victories over the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns -- won
94-93 and 106-96.
The Spurs, who had won a league-high 62 games in the regular
season before dispatching the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles
Lakers in the early rounds, responded to their dismal showings
with a series of meetings. The day after Game 2, Hill assembled
his Spurs just so they could yell at one another. ``That little
get-together was emotionally charged, fiery, confrontational,
humorous and candid,'' said forward Sean Elliott. ``Let's just say
all the truths came out.''
Then in the team prayer meeting immediately before Game 3, spark
plug point guard Avery Johnson said, ``This is a life-and-death
situation as far as basketball is concerned. We were the best team
in the NBA for 82 games; we need to remind ourselves of who we
In a ringing endorsement of group therapy, the Spurs won the third
game 107-102 behind 29 points from a rejuvenated Robinson, 21
from Elliott, 20 from Johnson and 19 from guard Vinny Del Negro.
Then, in Game 4, the Spurs dominated the Rockets, outrebounding
them 64-39, including 19 by Rodman, in a 103-81 trouncing. Much as
they had in the previous game, Del Negro and Johnson drove the
lane with impunity and knocked down open jumpers, combining for 33
points. ``It's like all of us had to go on a retreat and find
ourselves,'' Elliott said. ``Now we're baaaaack.''
Said guard Doc Rivers, ``In the first two games we stunk. Winning
is a good deodorant.''
It escaped nobody's notice that after scoring 48 points and
getting 17 rebounds in Houston's two wins, Drexler's performance
mirrored his team's fortunes again in Game 3. He collected 17
points in the first half, and Houston led by nine at intermission.
In the second half he scored just four points, missing all four of
his shots in the fourth quarter, and the Spurs bounced back to
win. In Game 4 he picked up where he had left off, scoring 12
points on just 11 shots and disappearing for most of the second
half. Asked after Game 4 if Drexler had played too unselfishly in
the two Houston defeats, Rocket coach Rudy Tomajanovich shrugged,
smiled and waited for another question.
At halftime of Game 3, after seeing how Drexler and fellow
Houston bombardiers Mario Elie, Robert Horry and Kenny Smith
were riddling the Spurs, Hill had made a crucial adjustment. He
chose to stop double-teaming Olajuwon and instead to let
Robinson go one-on-one with the Dream. That way the hot Rocket
shooters would not be wide open when Olajuwon tried to kick the
ball back out to them. In his usual dazzling fashion, Olajuwon
got his 43 points, but Hill's main goal -- containing Drexler
and the other Rocket shooters -- was accomplished. ``We need to
guard Clyde enough,'' Hill said afterward. ``He may be the key
to their success from now on.''
Revisionist history reveals that the defending NBA champion
Rockets probably would never have made it this far had it not been
for the Feb. 14 deal with Portland that brought Drexler and his
20.7-point career scoring average to Houston in exchange for power
forward Otis Thorpe. At the time, Houston's record was 29-17.
Drexler was in Dallas with the Trail Blazers that evening when he
heard the news, and he quickly flew to Houston. When he arrived at
the Summit, he was greeted by a marquee that read WELCOME HOME,
CLYDE and a tumultuous standing ovation. Then he sat courtside
with Alexander, both men beaming.
But later, in the Rocket locker room, some of Drexler's brand-new
teammates conducted their own Valentine's Day Massacre. ``I hate
the deal,'' Horry said. ``We're trading a power forward for a
smaller guy. I don't see it helping us right now.'' Welcome home,
Many critics of the deal wondered aloud where the now-scrawny
Rockets would get their rebounds. They asked how volatile Vernon
Maxwell might react to having another shooting guard in town when
Mad Max, who was scheduled to return on Feb. 28 from a 10-game
suspension for assaulting a fan, rejoined the team. (In fact,
Maxwell interpreted the trade as a slap in the face; eventually,
he was granted a leave of absence that will extend at least
through the playoffs.)
Others worried that Drexler, who once set a record by dunking on
an 11'1" rim, was, at 32, nothing more than an aging circus
attraction. And some skeptics stewed over Drexler's reputation as
a coach killer. In 1989, after Drexler's feud with Portland coach
Mike Schuler resulted in Schuler's firing, then Golden State
Warrior coach Don Nelson said of Drexler, ``He's destructive. He
chips away at what an organization is trying to do.''
Finally, there were suggestions that Drexler couldn't win
championships after his Houston Cougar teams twice failed in the
NCAA Final Four, in 1982 and '83, and his Portland teams twice
lost in the NBA Finals, in '90 and '92.
As the Drexler era began in Houston, the injury-riddled Rockets
fizzled. Drexler averaged 21.4 points, but Houston was only 17-18
with him in the lineup. The only notable improvement came in the
club's March TV ratings, which jumped 15% with Clyde back home.
Says Drexler, ``It was tough when it didn't turn out the way we
In the postseason Drexler finally appears to be comfortable. He is
thriving in the role of secondary option to Olajuwon for both
scoring and culpability. ``He took all the blame for every failure
in Portland, and that was a huge load for him to carry,'' says
Elie, who was one of Drexler's teammates on the Blazers in the
'92-93 season. ``But ever since Clyde got here, I've noticed a new
fire burning inside him. I think all of us would love to win a
title for him. He's such a class act, such a gentleman.''
That graciousness is evident on the court even in the heat of
battle. After a jarring Spur run that led to a Rocket timeout in
the third quarter of Game 1, a briefly disgruntled Drexler
returned to the court, tossing his towel on the floor in front of
trainer Ray Melchiorre. Drexler then turned and apologized to
Melchiorre for not handing him the towel. Moments later, standing
at midcourt, Drexler paused again, apparently uncertain whether
Melchiorre had heard him above the din at the Alamodome. He
sprinted back to the bench and caught Melchiorre's eye. ``Ray, I'm
sorry about that,'' Drexler said to Melchiorre. ``About the towel.
Sorry I threw it down.''
In fact, it has been suggested that when the game is on the line,
Drexler might be too easygoing, that he might not possess the
drive to take over a game. Buck Williams, his former Portland
teammate, was among those who felt Drexler sometimes hesitated in
the pinch. ``Whether we win or lose, Clyde, let's do it with the
basketball in your hands at the end of the game, just like Isiah
or Magic or Larry,'' Williams once told him. ``I want you to
demand the basketball. You're too nice.''
For a guy who spent much of his NBA career somewhat in the shadow
of fellow Dream Teamers like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson,
Drexler has remained surprisingly anonymous. He is an ardent
family man who last week cut short an NBC interview because he was
late to take his three kids to the zoo. ``Clyde has accomplished
so much in his 12 seasons, yet he doesn't have all the TV
commercials or the big sneaker deals,'' says Horry, whose
admiration for his new teammate has grown since February. ``He is
just a regular guy who isn't too interested in the glamorous part
of the job.''
However, there were signs, literally, that Drexler was fiercely
committed to what could be his last, best chance at a championship
ring. In his locker there is a reproduction of a Houston Post
front page trumpeting last year's Rocket title and featuring the
headline CHAMP CITY. Thorpe left that memento behind, and Clyde
decided to keep it there for inspiration. ``I'm trying desperately
to win a championship, but I'm not obsessed with it,'' Drexler
says. ``If I never win a title, that won't mar my accomplishments.
There have been some great players in the NBA who never won it
all. You can't say that guys like Charles Barkley and David
Robinson aren't super players. Before Michael won, did anyone
doubt that he was a super player?''
Whether or not this is Clyde's year to win that ring, he will
still be found before many Rocket games eating his pregame meal
among his family at Drexler's. They call his favorite plate the
Clyde Special and, like the man himself, it is no-frills -- a beef
sandwich with potato salad, beans, chips and a lemonade.
``Whenever I go back there, I still see some of the same guys I
saw on the corner 20 years ago when I was busing tables,'' Clyde
says. ``They see me, and they light up and say, `Clyde, way to go,
man.' And now I'm living this dream of pursuing the ultimate
basketball goal back in my hometown.''
``Sure, Clyde wants to win a championship for the Rockets,'' says
Eunice, seated below a photo of her son at Drexler's. ``But no
matter what happens, we're all just glad he's back home again.
Glad he's so close.''
So close to where Clyde Drexler has always quietly hoped to be. At
the Summit. And the summit.