Blows, cancer, Olajuwon, rings … Rudy Tomjanovich, the genius who denied being one

Among the phrases and phrases that the NBA has left throughout its history, never has had as much meaning as the one pronounced by Rudy Tomjanovich after the achievement of the ring that the Rockets won in 1995: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.” The North American competition has always seemed like a Hollywood movie in which the perfect words were always spoken at the right time, but this one in particular takes the cake. Its significance is part of the history of the League and reveals much more than the character of a mythical team that won the championship in two consecutive seasons. It also refers to the way of being of a coach who has not captured as much as others of his generation (Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich or Chuck Daly) or the one immediately after, but who has a capital importance in North American basketball .

Tomjanovic gets in 2020 his eternally postponed induction into a Hall of Fame that owed him one. A man tied for almost the entirety of his career to a Houston Rockets whose history is impossible to understand without his (sometimes) underrated figure and that he has always been able to surpass himself. Already as a player, he spent his entire sports career with the Texas franchise, although he lived his first year in San Diego, the city where the Rockets resided at that time. Chosen in position 2 of the 1970 draft, he was a forward, although his career in the NBA was marked by a very curious episode and unfortunately not very flattering for him. It was on December 9, 1977 when a small tangana was organized in the middle of the court during the game that faced the Rockets and Lakers. Rudy ran up to see what was happening when power forward Kermit Washington punched him hard in the face that took him by surprise, fracturing his jaw and knocking him unconscious.

The action had consequences for the Los Angeles, suspended for 60 days, missing 26 games and forced to pay the most expensive fine at that time, $ 10,000. Tomjanovich got the worst of it and even feared for his life. Her face shattered, it took her five months to fully recover, although her tenacity and consistency allowed him to return to the courts the following season, in which he averaged 19 points and 7.7 rebounds in his fifth and final All Star. Rudy retired in 1981 after 768 games in which he averaged 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds. .

Making Olajuwon great

Tomjanovich did not immediately jump to the bench. As a student of the game, he spent a couple of years training before starting as Bill Fitch’s assistant in 1983-84. It was a transitional year for the Texans, who had played the Finals in 1981 with the forward still active. but they had curdled a 14-68 the following season that had led to the dismissal of Del Harris and the arrival of Fitch, who was accompanied by Tomjanovich himself. With the new coaching staff came Ralph Sampson, who along with Olajuwon the following year (in that Jordan draftd …) formed those twin towers that lost in the 1986 Finals. The landing of a new coach in 1988, just a few months after Sampson’s move to Gonden State, Rudy’s position did not change, who waited for an opportunity that came in 1991, when Chaney was fired after three consecutive first rounds and a 26-26 record in the fourth that certified that the project was stagnant.

Although Tomjanovich arrived as an interim and failed to reach the playoffs in the 30 games he led that season (16-14), he managed to stay with the position and reach the Western semis the following year, with a Olajuwon who exploded to 26 points and 13 rebounds, to which he added more than 4 blocks and 72 double-doubles in 82 games and the award for Best Defender. The Sonics eliminated them in seven tough games, but the Rockets’ moment was yet to come. On the 1993-94 Olajuwon repeated as Best Defender, but also won the MVP, collecting both awards in the same season for the second and last time in history (the other was Michael Jordan in 1988). It was the quintessence of the pivot, who averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds, with 3.6 assists and 3.7 blocks, sentenced the Blazers in the first round with 34 ++ 11 + 4.8 + 3.8 on average, the Suns in seven crazy games in the semifinals (28.7 + 13.6 + 4.6 + 4), to Utah in five games (28 + 10 + 4.4 + 4.6 with almost 3 steals) and to those Riley Knicks who became a cartoon version of the Bad Boys, with a tough, dirty and almost scoundrel game that did not was able to stop Olajuwon. Although it was on point: 3-2 up and match ball that they could not specify in the sixth (they fell 86-84), nor in the seventh, which gave the Rockets the long-awaited ring (90-84) with Olajuwon somewhat duller for the suffocating New York defense and his peer, Pat Ewing, but he was MVP of the Finals with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 4 blocks on average. His consecration.

“Never underestimate the heart of a champion”

The great feat, however, was the following year. Not even with the addition of Clyde Drexler did the Rockets improve and stayed at 47-35 that left them in fifth place in the West and without a field advantage in the playoffs. The playoffs were like a movie and Olajuwon, who kept his numbers in the regular season (28 + 11 + 3.5 + 3.4) He was the hero again, this time in good company. Houston beat the Stockton and Malone Jazz, who had won 60 games, with 34 points from the pivot, in 5 games, the fifth of them in Salt Lake City and all that that implies. The semifinals the feat was even greater, since everything seemed to complicate with a 3-1 against and match ball in the last competitive Suns of Barkley (59 victories). In the 227 previous occasions in which such a result had been given, only in eight had the comeback been achieved, certified by a triple from Mario Elie (and 29.6 + 9 with 51% shooting from Kakeem) in the seventh game known as The kiss of the death. The Conference finals were a monologue by Olajuwon (34.6 + 11.6 + 5.4 + 4), against which David Robinson (24.4 + 12 in that series) could not do anything, who would later declare to Life Magazine that of, “Hakeem? You can’t do anything against Hakeem” (“Hakeem? You don’t solve Hakeem”).

At the Finals, everyone already took for granted a feat that turned a young man into Hakeem’s master class Shaq (32.8 + 12 + 5 + 5.5 for the not inconsiderable but insufficient 28 + 12.5 from O’Neal). That mythical team, with Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, Clyde Drexler, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell or Mario Elie, represented what Tomjanovich believed the most, the tenacity, passion and heart that he managed to conquer in an NBA that he saw as for the first time a sixth classified won the ring, finishing with the four best records of the season and without a field advantage in any of the qualifying rounds. And all this, leaving a trail of victims along the way and without Jordan, that as Olajuwon remembered recently it was. But he fell in the semifinals against the Magic.

Those playoffs that Rudy summed up in that never underestimate the heart of a champion were formidable, with Hakeem averaging 33 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.8 blocks. Drexler 20.5 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, Robert Horry 13.1 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists and Smith 10.8 points and 4.5 assists. Some believe that, indeed, that team of Rudy Tomjanovich and Olajuwon could have been the last of the shoe of the Bulls of Jordan, Pippen and Phil Jackson. But we will never know, of course. What we do know is that the technician, as was usual for him, avoided the qualification of genius and, devoid of egotism or arrogance, he gave full prominence to a team that has transcended more than him, its maker.

A bitter end for Tomjanovich

It would be unfair to give a negative connotation to the final word when we speak of Tomjanovich. Although the moment was somewhat sour, of that there is no doubt. The coach still had time to sneak into the semifinals the following year, which was Hakeem’s last superhero year (27 + 11 at 33). Nor can it be said that he was shipwrecked in the following years, where he had at his command teams of more names than talents, bringing together legends of advanced age or stars. that they were beginning to lose light but that they wanted, and this desire was expressed aloud by them, to be at the orders of the technician. With Barkley, they reached the Western finals in 1997, the last time they were close to the ring, but fell 4-2 to a team they had beaten in previous years: the Jazz, who beat them after a tremendous blow in Texas in the sixth encounter when the seventh was almost assured and with Stockton scoring a triple winner that gave him and Malone their first Career Finals.

There was still time to reunite Barkley and Olajuwon with Pippen in the lockout year (1998-99), but to no avail. 31-19 in 50 games and Fifth place in the West and loss to young Lakers Shaq and Kobe in the first round. The series was the realization that the moment had passed. Hakeem, who averaged a not inconsiderable 19 points and 9.5 rebounds (2.5 blocks), stayed at 13.3 + 7.3 in that series for the 29.5 + 10 + 4 + 4 of an O’Neal that certified the end of the cycle. The pivot was traded after the 200-01 to the Raptors, where he finished a legendary career without pain or glory, while Tomjanovich, who still had time to mentor Yao Ming’s first steps in the NBA, said goodbye to the benches after 2002-03, a season, the fourth in a row for the Rockets without a playoffs, in which they finished with a 43-39 record, a victory behind the Suns’ eighth place. His record as a Rockets coach was 503-397 in the regular season (56% wins) and 51-39 (57%) in the playoffs. And, even with all that legacy, he had time to train the United States in a World Cup in Greece in which he won a meritorious bronze by not having NBA players and in the Sydney Olympic Games, where the North Americans conquered gold in that Dream Team 3.0. Almost nothing.

Tomjanovich’s goodbye was forced, by a diagnosis of bladder cancer that had a great impact at that time and that he overcame after a harsh treatment that undermined him physically and morally but he survived following in the wake of that innate character in him, of tenacity, perseverance and passion. He made a return threat (it was not a threat, but as if it were) in 2004, when he accepted a 5-year, $ 30 million deal to carry the Lakers post Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, starring Kobe Bryant. He retired after 39 games citing fatigue, although he denied that it was because of the treatment. In one way or another the Lakers mourned his loss, as they were 24-19 with him and finished with a 34-48 record, behind even the bad brother that the Clippers were at that time in a more accentuated way than now. Total, 10-29 after the departure of Rudy, who was replaced by a Fank Hamblen, traditional assistant to the Zen Master, who had little to blame for the Los Angeles disaster and his first playoff absence since 1994.

Almost 25 years after that famous phrase, Tomjanovich, 71 years old and already without health problems, is recognized with his inclusion in a Hall of Fame, a reward more than deserved for a legendary career. Robert Horry, who was under his command, to those of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, would testify for the As Journal later, “my favorite was always Rudy Tomjanovich. He cared about us, asked us if we wanted to play in a certain way or not.” And he nostalgically remembered the 1995 ring, whose credit he attributes in part to its coach, a pioneer in certain aspects of the game such as the small ball widely used today: “We did incredible things, we evolved, we took risks with the small ball. .. it was incredible what we got “. His legacy, away from the cameras, is not dwarfed when we look back and realize all that he has achieved. It is historical and we would be wrong not to talk about it all. After all, never underestimate the heart of a champion.

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