What Rudy Tomjanovich Learned by Coaching the GreatsMay 12, 2021
Even as a noted players’ coach, Rudy Tomjanovich had a hunch Kobe Bryant would need some time to embrace their new partnership.
After five years and three N.B.A. championships under Phil Jackson, and having thrived in a read-and-react triangle offense, Bryant was suddenly playing for a lifelong Houston Rocket with different sideline sensibilities.
“It was an adjustment for him because I was a play caller,” Tomjanovich said.
What Tomjanovich shared with Jackson, if not an offensive philosophy, was a gift for reading superstars and ultimately connecting with them. His time with Bryant was short during the 2004-5 season, when Tomjanovich quickly deduced that the stress of coaching had become damaging to his health, but at least one Laker urged him not to walk away.
“Kobe tried to talk me out of it,” Tomjanovich said in a telephone interview, reflecting on his resignation, as well as his connection with Bryant, after just 43 games.
In the buildup to this weekend’s pandemic-delayed inductions for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2020, Tomjanovich, 72, has been telling old stories often — most of them, naturally, from his 32-year run as a player, scout and coach in Houston. The class is headlined by Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Bryant, who will be presented by Michael Jordan and inducted posthumously. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, that grief-stricken fans and peers are still struggling to process.
Tomjanovich, after twice being named a finalist but not in 2019, earned his place among the 2020 inductees for his coaching achievements in Houston — particularly his championship partnership with Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets won back-to-back titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, first with Olajuwon as the lone All-Star, then as a lowly No. 6 seed after a midseason trade reunited Olajuwon with Clyde Drexler, his college teammate from the University of Houston’s men’s basketball teams known as Phi Slama Jama.
Those Rockets teams were routinely dismissed as champions of circumstance, branded as beneficiaries of Jordan’s 18-month hiatus from the N.B.A. to try to transform himself into a Chicago White Sox outfielder. We’ve since learned, through “The Last Dance” documentary series, that Jordan’s iconic Chicago Bulls were not a lock to handle Houston without a big man anywhere near Olajuwon’s level.
“I heard it from the horse’s mouth — and that’s Michael,” Tomjanovich said.
He said that Charles Barkley, in his first season as a Rocket in 1996-97, arranged a dinner at his home in Phoenix for the Rockets’ coaching staff. There were two very special invited guests: Tiger Woods and Jordan.
“It was the first time I really got a chance to talk to Michael,” Tomjanovich said. “Nobody can ever know who would have won, but he said they were concerned that they couldn’t stop Hakeem. It was great to hear it from him.”
Bladder cancer brought a cruel halt to Tomjanovich’s three decades in Houston after the 2002-3 season. Yet the way he managed an array of big personalities across 12 seasons as the Rockets’ coach helped Tomjanovich emerge as the Lakers’ choice to replace Jackson — after some flirtations with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and an attempt to lure Miami’s Pat Riley back to Hollywood. Tomjanovich, then 56, signed a five-year, $30 million contract to coach the Lakers, who traded Shaquille O’Neal to Riley’s Heat four days later.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Tomjanovich said. “First of all, I was excited that the cancer was gone. I thought, ‘I can’t pass this thing up,’ but then I just felt like I was hurting myself and I had to let it go. I love to coach good players, and Kobe was great. I thought I could do it, health-wise and body-wise, but I couldn’t. People said it was a lot of money to give up, but what good is money if you’re going to make yourself sick?”
It was the rare Tomjanovich comeback story without a happy ending. As a player, he survived a vicious on-court punch from Kermit Washington in December 1977 and recovered to reach his fifth All-Star Game in 1978-79. As a coach, Tomjanovich steered the Rockets to playoff upsets of the teams with the league’s top four records (Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and Orlando) in the 1995 playoffs to win title No. 2, including a second-round rally against the Suns after Houston fell into a 3-1 series deficit.
“That’s how we got one of the greatest quotes ever in basketball,” Robert Horry, one of Tomjanovich’s Houston stalwarts, said on Monday. “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
That defiant rebuttal to Rockets skeptics, from a beaming Tomjanovich after Houston completed a 4-0 N.B.A. finals sweep of O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, became his signature line.
He is still working in the league, hired in December by the Minnesota Timberwolves as a front-office consultant. He referred to his induction as “the cherry on top of it all” and said that coaching gave him what he craved most other than championships in his final years as a player.
A new identity.
“I heard that for a while and it was getting old — ‘Oh, you’re the guy who got punched,’” Tomjanovich said. “It was really good to push that in the background.”
Tomjanovich didn’t coach Duncan, but said he would never forget the dread he felt upon seeing him as a rookie in San Antonio, teaming with David Robinson. “The first time they threw him the ball, I watched how he caught it and where he positioned it under his chin and how he looked to the middle,” Tomjanovich said. “I got sick to my stomach.”
He did briefly coach Garnett and, not surprisingly, clicked with another star. Tomjanovich coached the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Garnett was one of his loudest leaders. Two scares against Lithuania, including a semifinal that the Americans easily could have lost, will surely stay with members of that team, since U.S.A. Basketball, to that point, had not lost with N.B.A. players.
“I’m telling you, that was a big, big boulder that you’re carrying around,” Tomjanovich said. “You don’t want to be the first.”
Perhaps he and Garnett will have a chance to share a relieved laugh about it at some point during Saturday’s festivities. Every moment of levity is bound to be relished on what figures to be, at various points, an unavoidably somber evening.
Horry, the role player supreme, has as much reason to watch as anyone. He won two of his seven championships alongside Duncan in San Antonio and regards Tomjanovich as “the best coach to play for.” He also played for Jackson and Gregg Popovich, but rates Tomjanovich at the top “because he had a feel for the players and a feel for the game.”
“I only still talk to one of them,” Horry said, referring to Tomjanovich.
Yet Horry added that he was unlikely to tune in, as much as he wanted to celebrate Rudy T’s big moment. There is so much to anticipate with this class — what sort of speech we get from the spotlight-shy Duncan is high on that list — but also an unjust and unfillable hole in the whole occasion without Bryant able to take his rightful turn on the podium.
Bryant joined the Lakers at 17, grew up over the course of 20 seasons in Los Angeles on the biggest of N.B.A. stages and, after such a long and prosperous career, had his life cut tragically short. As a regular analyst on Lakers broadcasts, Horry said he feels that sting every time the team’s network runs what it calls “Mamba Moment” highlight tributes to Bryant, his teammate on the Lakers’ three-peat championship teams from 1999-2000 to 2001-2.
Horry’s daughter, Ashlyn, had a rare genetic condition and died at 17 in 2011. He said he thinks often about Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, and “having to talk about not just losing a daughter but a husband, too.”
“It’s too sad,” Horry said.
The plan here is to revel as much as possible on Saturday’s joys, like the overdue recognition for a decorated coach like Tomjanovich, while bracing for the sadness we will all understand.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: In last week’s newsletter, you wrote that no one foresaw that three of last season’s final four teams would be in danger of landing in the playoff play-in tournament. That is demonstrably untrue. I am no N.B.A. prophet, but I was published in your newsletter before the season started saying that it was tremendously unfair to ask the four best teams from the season before to return to play after as little as 71 days off. I can only assume that many other voices expressed similar concerns. — Avary Mitchell (McKinney, Texas)
Stein: I have never disagreed for one second with what you wrote in December. The truncated turnaround from last season to this season was always going to be roughest on the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and Nuggets — and, yes, unfair in a lot of ways.
But I don’t remember anyone saying that they expected any of those teams to slip all the way to No. 7 in its conference.
I reread your letter, and the same holds for you. There’s a difference between denouncing the disparity in teams’ off-seasons and predicting that the defending champion Lakers would finish seventh in the West.
Injuries and Covid-19 disruptions have been a major factor for the Lakers, Heat and Celtics, on top of the unfairness, but all have still managed to slip further in the standings than any of the worst-case-scenario pundits were projecting when the season began.
Q: You have been writing a lot about the Nets’ recent signing of the former CSKA Moscow guard Mike James. I want to ask you about the guard from my country who recently joined CSKA: Gabriel Lundberg. He does not have a Luka Doncic pedigree, but he was the driving force behind Denmark’s upset of Lithuania in November. Does he have an N.B.A. future? — Martin Ronnow Lund (Denmark)
Stein: Thank you, Martin, for what (I think) will be recorded as our first question from Denmark.
I’ve done some checking on Lundberg, since I admittedly don’t have much of a file on him, and it’s fair to say that N.B.A. teams are well aware of him now. At 26, he has made a storybook progression from playing in the Spanish second division as recently as the 2017-18 season to emerging as a force with a European powerhouse like CSKA. The performance (28 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists) you referred to against Lithuania certainly registered in front offices here, even though Lithuania didn’t have access to its N.B.A. players.
There will be questions about his size (6-foot-4) as a shooting guard and his one-on-one skills, but I am told he plays with great confidence — to go with his great back story. Perhaps he can be the first Dane to really break through in the N.B.A.; helping a James-less CSKA reach the EuroLeague final four ensures he will be well scouted.
Lars Hansen was the first Danish-born player to be drafted and had a brief stint with Seattle in the late 1970s, but he moved to Canada at a young age and represented Canada in the 1976 Olympics. David Andersen, who had a Danish father, had stints with Houston, Toronto and New Orleans in the N.B.A., but he was born in Australia and played internationally as an Australian. The Nets drafted the Copenhagen-born Christian Drejer with the 51st overall pick in 2004, but Drejer never played in the N.B.A.
Q: I read your recent newsletter on the play-in games format and, as a fan, I love it. I also love the Knicks. The last several years have been rough, but I want to know: Is Tom Thibodeau going to win the Coach of the Year Award? — (Peter Thurlow, Ridgewood, N.J.)
Stein: My official unofficial ballot, which I publish every season just for posterity, will headline next Tuesday’s newsletter. As a reminder: The New York Times does not participate in league award voting in any sport, but I still like going through the exercise of breaking down each race just for discussion purposes.
While saving my extended commentary on coach of the year and the other categories until then, I can share that I was indeed leaning toward Thibodeau entering the final week of the regular season because of his unquestioned influence in establishing the Knicks as this season’s foremost overachieving team. To actually win it, though, he’ll have to beat out the league’s only two coaches (Utah’s Quin Snyder and Phoenix’s Monty Williams) likely to wind up in the 50-win club in this 72-game season.
Since Portland’s Carmelo Anthony made his debut in the N.B.A. in 2003-4, five players have moved into the N.B.A.’s top 10 in career scoring: No. 3 LeBron James (35,318), No. 4 Kobe Bryant (33,643), No. 6 Dirk Nowitzki (31,560), No. 8 Shaquille O’Neal (28,596) and No. 10 Anthony (27,337). The five players displaced from the top 10 in that span, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, were John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes.
Russell Westbrook is the N.B.A.’s new career leader in triple-doubles in the regular season, after surpassing Oscar Robertson’s record 181 on Monday in Atlanta, but he still has some ground to make up to match Magic Johnson’s record of 30 postseason triple-doubles. Westbrook has 10 playoff triple-doubles — two more than Robertson’s eight. LeBron James, with 28, is Johnson’s closest pursuer on the postseason list.
In April 1970, after successfully blocking a trade to Baltimore, Oscar Robertson was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks from the Cincinnati Royals for the modest return of Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Robinson and Paulk spent only one season each in Cincinnati, and the Royals, just two seasons after the trade, moved out of Ohio to become the Kings and a team with two home cities: Kansas City, Mo., and Omaha.
Dallas’s Luka Doncic and Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard lead the league with 15 technical fouls each, followed by Russell Westbrook (14). Doncic and Howard each remain one technical away from a one-game suspension, but there would be no carry-over if a 16th tech was accrued in the final game of the regular season. Slates are wiped clean for the playoffs, with seven technicals in the postseason resulting in a one-game suspension.
Since Damian Lillard’s debut season in 2012-13, Portland has won 22 of its 31 games against the Los Angeles Lakers, according to Elias. It’s the Lakers’ second-worst record against an opponent in that span, better only than a 7-28 mark against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Trail Blazers’ home win Friday over the Lakers gave them a huge edge in the race to secure the sixth seed in the Western Conference and to avoid the playoff play-in round next week.
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