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Chron: Rockets first title still something to celebrate

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by Tyree, Jun 13, 2004.

  1. Tyree

    Tyree Member

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    For the players and coaches who delivered it, the Rockets' first championship in 1994 remains something to celebrate
    By FRAN BLINEBURY
    Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

    Ten years and half a world separate him from the time and place. But Hakeem Olajuwon, currently a language studies student at the University of Jordan, can simply close his eyes and go back. It is June 22, 1994, and the late-night scene at The Summit is so hot, so loud, so joyous and so completely out of control that it feels like a string of firecrackers has exploded inside your head.

    There are winners running up and down the court with a glee they barely know how to express. There are losers, heads down, trying to walk through the mob to reach their locker room. There are fans kissing, strangers hugging and an entire city vibrating like one giant tuning fork. There is confetti falling and We Are the Champions blaring from the loudspeaker. Yet one man — the one who more than any other made it happen — might as well be tucked inside a cocoon.

    All around him is a palette of color and unbridled emotion. Olajuwon, with the game ball in his arms, is standing serenely to one side of the court, taking it all in. It is intentional, purposeful, like so much of the way he goes about his craft, to burn that picture in his mind's eye, to be called up at will in the future, filling him with the warmth of memory.

    "That mental picture is still fresh," Olajuwon said recently in an e-mail from his home in Amman, Jordan. "When I talk about my career, the memory of that game comes back. I'll never forget the sound of the buzzer at the end of the game — that's when you knew you could finally
    exhale."

    A decade has passed since the night the Rockets defeated the New York Knicks 90-84 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win the first major sports championship in Houston history. So much has changed about the nation's fourth-largest city in 10 tumultuous years — from Enron to Tropical Storm Allison to the advent of light rail — yet perhaps nothing has altered the way Houston looked at itself more than the exploits of one professional basketball team, led by a transplanted "lifer" from Hamtramck, Mich., in head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and an adopted son from Lagos, Nigeria, in Olajuwon.


    A city enraptured
    Gone by the time the final horn sounded were all of those painful Houston sports memories. No more nightmares in Buffalo. No more ninth-inning collapses at the Astrodome.

    "This city has been so good to me and my family through the years that it was so gratifying to deliver," Tomjanovich said.

    "Any championship is special," Mario Elie said. "But when you're the first, that's a very special place. Nobody can ever move us out of there. We raised the bar and the way Houston thinks of itself. It's not about possibilities anymore. After us, everybody knows it can happen.

    "To this day, I go out to eat or just about anywhere on the streets, and people will come up and start talking to me about those days. It will always live with me and live with this city."

    Kenny Smith, the Rockets' starting point guard that season, recalls the craziness that enveloped the city the night of the clincher.

    "An hour or so after we won Game 7, I got in my car and was ready to drive home like normal," Smith said. "But I turned out of the tunnel, and the traffic was stopped on 59, and it was just one big, happy party. I think we changed everything."

    "Ah, man," said Sam Cassell, then a nervy rookie out of Florida State and now a 33-year-old veteran with the Minnesota Timberwolves, "you're talkin' about the times of our lives. Do I think about them? Only every day when I'm back home in Houston in the summer."

    It was an amazing season that began with a searing 15-0 start that broke the NBA record and served notice that the Rockets were a real contender.

    It was a gritty, testing playoff run that saw the Rockets turn the humiliation of their "Choke City" experience — blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead at home to fall behind 2-0 against Phoenix — into a rallying point and a battle cry that wouldn't let them quit. Clutch City.

    It was a regal, dominating, almost incomparable season by Olajuwon that had him sweeping the regular-season Most Valuable Player award, the Defensive Player of the Year award and then MVP of the Finals.

    And it was an intense, grueling, debilitating victory over Patrick Ewing and the Knicks that fittingly went the full seven excruciating games, the last time the league championship has been decided at the limit.


    Sour taste in '93
    For all the Rockets accomplished that year, it was a championship born out of the frustration of failure from the previous season. The Rockets had followed up a seven-game losing streak at midseason by going 41-11. Then in the spring of 1993 they finished one game behind Seattle in the overall standings.

    That one-game difference meant Seattle held home-court advantage in the best-of-seven second round. The home team won every game of the series, and the Rockets lost Game 7 103-100.

    "That was a bad experience," said Robert Horry, who would win five NBA titles with the Rockets and Lakers and is now a member of the San Antonio Spurs. "But it made us who we were the next year."

    "Everything grew out of the disappointment of losing to Seattle the year before," said Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson, who was then an assistant coach. "It hammered home to everybody that the regular season, the home court was important."

    The game that took their record to 15-0 came Dec. 2 in New York and maybe was an omen. The Knicks had talked loudly leading up to the game that the Rockets would not break the record in "our house." But the Rockets thumped the Knicks from the start and won 94-85. Nobody knew it then, but that victory allowed the Rockets to eventually finish with one more win than the Knicks (56-55) and ultimately put Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals in Houston rather than New York.

    "All the difference in the world," Olajuwon said.


    How time flies
    They are, of course, all a decade older now, every one of them gone from the Rockets except Dawson, who has moved into the front office, and Rudy T, now in the role of a consultant. Only Cassell and Horry are playing in the NBA. Carl Herrera is pursuing a basketball career in his native Venezuela. Vernon Maxwell is in jail.

    "Ten years? Are you kidding me? I hadn't even thought about that," said Smith, now a national analyst on TNT who seems to have every other number and stat on total recall. "In my mind, it only seems like four or five."

    "I don't think about it in one specific way or in terms of one specific play," said power forward Otis Thorpe, who is retired and living in Round Rock. "It means that these days I can sit down in front of a TV and watch the championship games in all sports with an extra sense of appreciation. I can say, 'I achieved that. I know what it takes to get that done.' "

    Olajuwon had reached the NBA Finals in his second pro season in 1986, when the Rockets lost to the Boston Celtics. It took him eight more years to get another chance.

    "Success doesn't come easy in anything you do," he said. "You always have to overcome obstacles and challenges, and that is what gives you the taste of satisfaction when you finally do succeed. That's what winning a championship is all about — life lessons."


    Test of character
    Choke City was the label they had to overcome. Actually, it was the headline on the sports section of the Chronicle the day after the Game 2 catastrophe against Phoenix.

    "Nothing that ever took place, the first championship and especially the second, wouldn't have happened without 'Choke City,' " Tomjanovich said. "It became the last thing that made us a team. It drove us."

    "Oh yeah, we needed it," Elie said. "It tested our character. It actually propelled us."

    So they climbed back to beat Charles Barkley and the Suns in seven games. They dusted off Utah in five games to win the West. Then it was the Knicks in the NBA Finals.

    New York was a brutish, defensive-minded team molded by coach Pat Riley after his move from the Lakers and the TV booth. For Olajuwon, it was a rematch with college rival Ewing, who had led Georgetown past Houston in the 1984 NCAA championship game.

    "From a big man point of view, there was special satisfaction in beating New York, because they had a legitimate big man," Olajuwon said.

    "It was Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball, and that just added a different level of accomplishment," Horry said. "If you're going to announce to the world that you've arrived, you do it in New York."

    It was the series many believe gave the NBA a changed face that exists today. The Rockets cracked 90 points only twice during the series.

    "I remember watching Kenny trying to bring the ball upcourt against Derek Harper," Matt Bullard said. "He was literally getting beat up."

    "It was New York, my hometown," Smith said. "It was so intense, I could hardly breathe."


    Assist from Rangers
    The teams split the first two games in Houston and arrived in New York with the Rockets back on their heels.

    "One of the things that has been overlooked through the years is that while we were in New York to play the Knicks, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup," Dawson said. "Our players got to see firsthand how a city could just go crazy. They watched the parade. It was like an assist from New York. I think it helped our guys want it more."

    It began to look like a return trip to "Choke City" when the Rockets blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3. But with the Knicks holding a two-point lead and Ewing, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason providing a triple-team blanket, the shot clock was running down when Olajuwon spotted an open teammate at the last possible second.

    "I saw it was Sam," Olajuwon said. "All I thought was, 'Good!' "

    And it was. Cassell's 3-pointer with 32.6 seconds remaining put the Rockets in front 89-88. He added four free throws. Seven points in barely half a minute, and the rookie, whom the New York tabloids had linked to a late-night dalliance with Madonna during the series, saved the Rockets.

    The Knicks won the next two. Game 5 was noteworthy for being interrupted in midstream while NBC cut away to the infamous O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase. The game was off the air for most of the third quarter. The fourth quarter was shown in a split-screen format — half basketball and half murder suspect on the run.

    "It just made the whole thing more of a circus," Bullard said. "It added to the mystique of the series."

    The Rockets were returning home down 3-2 with all of the burden on them. Or so it seemed.

    "We were in the elevator, leaving the Garden, and I had my head down," Elie said. "Dream (Olajuwon) just looked at me and said, 'Mario, we are going home. It will be OK.' "

    It was. Because of Olajuwon.


    Dream finish
    New York's John Starks was electric in Game 6. He scored 16 of his 27 points in a fourth-quarter comeback. He'd hit five 3-pointers.

    The Rockets held an 86-84 lead as Starks had the ball in his hands directly in front of the Rockets' bench with the clock running out. He let go a wide-open trey with two seconds left.

    "I'm standing there, lined up perfectly behind Starks and the shot, and I'm watching and saying, 'Damn, it can't end like this!' " Tomjanovich said. "Then he shows up. The Dream."

    Olajuwon had slipped but then recovered and, on his second effort, reached up with his right hand to get barely a fingertip on Starks' shot. The ball wound up in the arms of Thorpe, who cradled it like a priceless vase.

    Game 7. Starks' shot had vanished. He vainly shot 2-for-18. Olajuwon finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

    When Maxwell nailed a 3-pointer with 1:48 left in the game, he rolled on the floor, his teammates piled on top of him, and the celebration began.

    The final horn made it official.

    "You start running all around, looking for somebody to hug," Bullard said.

    "You're just overwhelmed because it's so big," Thorpe said. "You can't begin to describe it."

    One man still can. The one who stood there smiling and soaking all of it in. A decade later, from the far side of the world, he types onto a keyboard, and his emotion spills off the computer screen.

    "Seeing the confetti drop all around us was exciting, and the fans rushing to the floor was thrilling," Olajuwon wrote. "It was a great feeling to see the entire city celebrating with us. I can go into my memory, and I'm back there."

    Ten years in the blink of an eye.

    fran.blinebury@chron.com

    WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
    Catching up with the members of the Rockets' 1994 team:
    - Scott Brooks: Denver Nuggets assistant coach.
    - Matt Bullard: Radio/TV analyst for Rockets and Comets. Lives in The Woodlands.
    - Sam Cassell: Minnesota Timberwolves point guard. Lives in Houston.
    - Earl Cureton: Retired in Detroit.
    - Mario Elie: San Antonio Spurs assistant coach. Lives in Houston.
    - Carl Herrera: Playing professional basketball in Venezuela.
    - Robert Horry: San Antonio Spurs backup forward. Lives in Houston.
    - Chris Jent: Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach.
    - Vernon Maxwell: In a Florida prison for non-payment of child support.
    - Hakeem Olajuwon: Arabic language student at the University of Jordan. Lives in Houston and Jordan.
    - Kenny Smith: TNT analyst. Lives in Houston and Los Angeles.
    - Otis Thorpe: Retired in Round Rock.
     
    saleem, Plowman and don grahamleone like this.
  2. Tyree

    Tyree Member

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  3. supafrumpy

    supafrumpy Contributing Member

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    god it brings tears to my eyes...

    Rockets for life...

    It reminds me that its not about Yao or Steve or T-mac. Its about our Rockets.
     
  4. Rockets2K

    Rockets2K Clutch Crew
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    A-FREAKIN-MEN.

    What a great article.

    forget the arguments about who loves what players...this is what being a Rocket fan is all about......the team.




    sidenote....do we possibly have one of the largest populations of nba players and explayers living in this area...seems like it sometimes what with all the guys from our own team and players from other teams that you hear about keeping a home out here.
     
    don grahamleone likes this.
  5. tinman

    tinman You want to protect the world
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    I wish Vernon was out of jail :(

    I saw Otis Thorpe at McDonalds in La Grange!
     
  6. Dr of Dunk

    Dr of Dunk Clutch Crew

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    Yeah, our state income tax and weather rock. ;)
     
  7. jw1144

    jw1144 Contributing Member

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    I think I'm gonna cry...












    ...seriously.
     
  8. KaiSeR SoZe

    KaiSeR SoZe Contributing Member

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    I remember the second championship more clearly, I remember everyone going out to downtown with yellow and red brooms :D
     
  9. JPM0016

    JPM0016 Contributing Member

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    good times, good times
     
  10. rockHEAD

    rockHEAD Contributing Member

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    w00t! I remember it like it was yesterday! GO ROCKETS!
     
  11. Da Man

    Da Man Contributing Member
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    One side note, we won 58 games that year, not 56. The Rockets/Knicks game for the 15 game winning streak would not have had implications for home court advantage. But 10 years later, I guess we all like a little oomph in our stories.
     
    don grahamleone likes this.
  12. declan32001

    declan32001 Member

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    Yeah great article - I had to dig out the game 7 tape.

    I must be blind this morning I didn't see this: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/sports/2624762

    Some great quotes. Malone saying he'll never understand how Dream isn't considered the best center of all time, I didn't know he was that smart:).
     
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  13. robbie380

    robbie380 Contributing Member
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    nice article.....but someone still sounds bitter

     
  14. declan32001

    declan32001 Member

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  15. G.O.A.T.

    G.O.A.T. Contributing Member

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    What the heck is wrong with Ewing. I understand the man is upset, but don't bite the hand that is feeding you. This Houston "explitive" ought to boo you runner up "explitive" everytime you walk out on to our court.
     
  16. declan32001

    declan32001 Member

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    G.O.A.T. I don't think Ewing is worried about where his next meal is coming from. You have to love this, the entire Eastern media was ready to coronate the Knicks and proclaim Ewing a God.

    Seven games later his butt is dusted and Ewing's legacy is forever a peg down from Dreams. He's allowed to feel his pain under our banner. :D
     
    Hakeemtheking likes this.
  17. Rockets2K

    Rockets2K Clutch Crew
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    for at least 10 months out of the year anyway...:D

    july and August are killers...but thats what air conditioners are for.
     
  18. KaiSeR SoZe

    KaiSeR SoZe Contributing Member

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    I'm gonna throw him 94 championship tee next time I see him sitting on the bench:D
     
  19. bigboymumu

    bigboymumu Member

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    GOOSE BUMPS! Brought back lots of GREAT memories!
     
  20. rocketfan83

    rocketfan83 Member

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    Good memories. I'm just wondering what the chronicle will do for the June 22nd paper I can't wait to see.


    "They deserved to win it. It's one of my greatest memories and one of my greatest disappointments. And now here I am, 10 years later, coaching in Houston, and I've got that damn banner over my head every night to remind me."Patrick Ewing

    It's okay Pat. Hopefully you will help bring in the next banner
     
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