Last Call On the verge of a breakup, the creaking Rockets are trying to summon the pride and proficiency to ignite onen final--and glorious--playoff run

April 20, 1998
April 20, 1998

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April 20, 1998

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Last Call On the verge of a breakup, the creaking Rockets are trying to summon the pride and proficiency to ignite onen final--and glorious--playoff run

It was two hours before game time, and only a few early-bird fans
sat in the stands at the New Arena in Oakland, but Charles
Barkley was already on the court, playing to that small audience
while taking on teammate Joe Stephens in a semiserious game of
one-on-one. Even at 35, with his skills gradually deserting him,
Barkley is a better show before a game than most players are
during it. Stephens, a 25-year-old end-of-the-bench forward who
looks 15, seemed more than happy, perhaps even a little honored,
to be part of that show. He dutifully played straight man as
Barkley forced him to take wild, fadeaway shots, rejected his
jumpers and provided a sound track of trash talk designed to
abuse and amuse.

This is an article from the April 20, 1998 issue Original Layout

"Get that mess outta here, young fella. This ain't the CBA."

"Don't you know who you're facing? Didn't they have cable where
you grew up?"

"Coach, Charles can't play tonight. He hurt his hand blocking
all Joe's shots."

"You mean to tell me that's the best shot you can get against a
35-year-old man?"

Age has its privileges, and one of them is getting to toy with
wide-eyed young teammates. But of late the rest of the NBA
hasn't been nearly as deferential to the ancient Rockets, who
seem to have gone from experienced to elderly in less than a
year. After finishing 57-25 and falling two wins short of the
Finals last season, Houston, 40-39 after Sunday's 103-95 loss to
the Seattle SuperSonics, is likely to go into this postseason at
the bottom of the playoff ladder, looking like nothing more than
a first-round appetizer for the Western Conference's top-seeded
team, be it the Sonics, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz.
The Rockets, who have six players 34 or older, prefer to think
of themselves as a playoff sleeper, and coach Rudy Tomjanovich
is quick to point out that in 1995 Houston came from nearly as
far back in the pack--the sixth seed--to win its second straight
championship. Barkley, who wasn't with those Rockets, is quick
to point out that the past guarantees nothing. "A great
philosopher once said that there are only three things in life,"
he says. "There's what other people think you are. There's what
you think you are. And there's what you really are. And what we
really are is the Number 8 seed."

It has been a year of injuries and locker room turmoil for
Houston. Through Sunday the Rockets had had only one player,
reserve forward Othella Harrington, available for every game,
and they were rocked in January by an aborted trade with the
Toronto Raptors for point guard Damon Stoudamire that would have
sent, among others, Houston's forward-center Kevin Willis,
forward-guard Mario Elie and guard Matt Maloney to the Raptors.
The three Rockets had their bags packed when the deal fell
through at the last minute. "The guys were hurt by that, and I'm
not saying that there aren't still a few scars there," says
Tomjanovich. "But I don't think it's a big issue anymore."

The biggest issue at the moment is the injury Barkley suffered
last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, which may be the
final, devastating blow to the Rockets' postseason hopes. He
aggravated what had been diagnosed as a sports hernia (a tear in
the stomach wall, lower than a typical hernia), a condition he
had been playing with all season and planned to have corrected
surgically this summer. At week's end Houston's medical staff
hadn't determined whether the injury would require an immediate
operation, which would keep Barkley out of the playoffs, but the
way the Rockets' fortunes have gone this season, Houston would
be wise to plan for a postseason without Sir Charles.

Barkley's ailment is another reminder that to watch Houston
these days is to see greatness at twilight. In Barkley, guard
Clyde Drexler, 35, and center Hakeem Olajuwon, also 35, the
Rockets have three players destined for the Hall of Fame. But
infirmity has caught up with each this season. Through Sunday,
Drexler had missed 12 games with rotator cuff tendinitis,
bursitis in his left shoulder and a strained right groin;
Barkley had been sidelined for 10 with a strained left groin, a
left shoulder strain and a hematoma in his right foot; and
Olajuwon had sat for 33 games after arthroscopic surgery on his
left knee. Drexler is finishing his farewell tour as he prepares
to take over as coach at the University of Houston next season.
Barkley, a free agent after the season, will probably continue
playing, but there's no guarantee he will do so in a Rockets
uniform. Elie, 34, and guard-forward Eddie Johnson, 38, who will
also become free agents, aren't likely to be in Houston next
season, either.

So while some teams will enter the playoffs with their sights
set on a championship, and others will be looking for postseason
experience that will serve them well in the future, Houston will
have a different goal--to make a dignified exit. "If we're going
out, we want to go out the right way," says Elie. "We want
people to say, 'Man, those Houston Rockets were tough right to
the very end, weren't they?'"

The Rockets insist that they have enough spring in their old
legs to make a playoff run, and occasionally they have shown
flashes of their former dominance. Through Sunday, in games in
which Barkley, Drexler and Olajuwon had all appeared, Houston
was 21-14. On Feb. 10, Barkley voluntarily switched to a
sixth-man role and provided a boost off the bench. Moreover, one
starting combination Tomjanovich has employed, featuring Willis
and Elie at the forwards, Olajuwon at center and Drexler and
Maloney at the guards, had gone 13-3 since it was unveiled on
March 12. "I don't think there's a team out there that relishes
the idea of playing us," says Drexler. "We're confident that
when we're healthy, we're a pretty good team, definitely better
than your typical eighth seed."

But the way the Rockets have sometimes played down the stretch
has given even Houston optimists pause. They lost six straight
games, including a 25-point throttling at the hands of the
Orlando Magic on March 27 and a 10-point defeat by the Golden
State Warriors on April 2. "I can't sit here and tell you that
we're going to become world-beaters or anything," Barkley says.
"I don't know if our season is going to end in the first round,
the second round or what, but for all those little kids out
there who wear my jersey, I want them to know that I will never
give up." That's why Barkley was on the court so early before
last Thursday's 93-89 victory over the Warriors. By the time
Stephens showed up for the comic one-on-one game, Barkley's
shirt was already damp with sweat from practicing his low-post

The Rockets obviously need Barkley and Drexler to be at the top
of their games in the postseason, but the real key to their
chances is Olajuwon. Through Sunday, in the 34 games since his
return from the knee operation, he had averaged a disappointing
(for him) 16.9 points and 9.7 rebounds. His season's scoring
average of 16.4 made it virtually certain that he will finish
the season with an average under 20 points for the first time in
his 14-year career. Olajuwon dismisses with a wave of his hand
any suggestion that he is a lesser player than he once was. "I
do not think I have lost anything," he says. "I feel fine. I'm
just trying to get everything back in sync." But he clearly has
not been the devastating low-post scorer he was in the past. "I
don't know if the knee isn't quite right or if it's just that
he's getting older, but he definitely doesn't have the explosion
he used to have," says a Western Conference center. "Right now
he's a very good center, not a great one."

Houston needs Olajuwon the great, and it needs its big three to
be not only healthy but also in top condition (which, even in a
best-case scenario, Barkley seemed unlikely to be), because
Tomjanovich will probably have no choice but to extend their
minutes in the playoffs. "They don't have any Energizer
bunnies," says NBC analyst Isiah Thomas. "They don't have any
young guys running around who can do things over the course of a
game that will allow their big three to stay fresh enough to
take over for a short stretch late in the game." Although
Willis, 35, has had a fine year, averaging 16.1 points and 8.4
rebounds through Sunday, and Elie continues to make his
trademark clutch shots, the rest of the Rockets' supporting cast
has been a disappointment.

It's ironic that Drexler, the only Rocket definitely headed into
retirement, has had the best individual season. He acknowledged
recently that if Houston had won the title last year--the
Rockets fell to the Jazz in six games in the conference
finals--he would have retired then. Instead, through Sunday he
was Houston's leading scorer, at 18.5 points a game, and his
average of 5.5 assists was the highest among the league's
shooting guards, which suggests that he hasn't started
concentrating on his coaching future just yet. Drexler hasn't
turned to Tomjanovich for any coaching advice, but Rudy T may
have captured the essence of the profession, and the state of
the Rockets, for Drexler already. "I told Clyde that if he wakes
up in the middle of the night next year thinking about a
problem, he can just call me," says Tomjanovich. "Because I'll
be up."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROCKY WIDNER GROUNDED Sir Charles's aggravated hernia threatened to torpedo Houston's hopes even before the playoffs began. [Charles Barkley and two others in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROCKY WIDNER DREAM FADE? Once peerless, Olajuwon may now be merely very good. [Hakeem Olajuwon and another player in game]
"When we're healthy, we're definitely better than your typical
eighth seed," says Drexler.