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Fran Blinebury

Rockets' icon Patterson brought NBA life to Houston


Posted Aug 31 2011 9:55AM

HOUSTON -- There was the time at the NBA's meetings in Salt Lake City in 1984 when Ray Patterson walked into a banquet hall, took a seat on the other side of the room and motioned for me to join him by crooking one finger.

It was just a few weeks after the Rockets had claimed their second straight victory in the then-annual coin flip for the No. 1 pick in the Draft and won the right to stuff Akeem Olajuwon into the same stable with Ralph Sampson, the No. 1 pick from 1983. League executives were outraged that the Rockets' shower of good fortune and were proposing legislation that would replace the coin flip with a more wide-open lottery system.

"They think they're going to do something to hurt me," Patterson said with a snort. "Well, when I heard their plan, I laughed so hard I almost lost my lunch on the table.

"Look, with Ralph and Akeem, there's no way we're ever going to finish with the worst record in the Western Conference again next year and get back into the coin flip. But with all our young players, it's conceivable we could miss the playoffs and get into the lottery.

"What will all those wise guys think then if we sneak into the lottery and get Patrick Ewing, too?

"Hah!"

When word came that the 89-year-old Patterson had died Wednesday night at his home in Sugar Land, Tex., it was that image of smiling defiance that danced in my memory.

There was virtually nothing you could tell Patterson that he couldn't do and almost nothing that he wouldn't tell you he could. He was a wheeler, a dealer, a salesman, a charmer, a blusterer and an indefatigable believer in whatever notion he was pushing at the moment.

He might even have been the mid-wife who delivered the league into its current 21st century position. It's easy to say now that Houston, San Antonio and Dallas have combined to win seven championships over the past 18 seasons and the Larry O'Brien Trophy practically comes with a drawl, y'all, but there was a time when people thought the NBA would never fly in Texas.

That was 1972 when Patterson swooped in following a three-year stint as president of the expansion Milwaukee Bucks and began flapping his arms as if they were wings.

"Ray Patterson is the Rockets' franchise," said Jim Foley, who accompanied to Houston from Milwaukee and served as media relations director and broadcaster for more than three decades. "There would not be a Houston Rockets franchise today had not Ray Patterson come to Houston."

Patterson nurtured those early days when the team played hop-scotching home games in Houston, San Antonio and Waco. He shepherded the franchise through five different ownership changes during his tenure and through it all did more spin dribbling than Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy.

There was the time Patterson vowed John Lucas, who had violated the league's substance abuse rules, would never play another game in a Rockets uniform. Then, six weeks later, Patterson was standing at a podium welcoming Lucas back.

"Either I changed my mind," said Patterson, "or you misunderstood me."

There was the time Patterson swore Sampson would never be traded, the Chuck Nevitt would become one of the five best centers in the NBA and that Allen Leavell was a good enough point guard to take the Rockets to a championship.

And there was the time I sat on the other side of his broad desk and heard these words: "It's not what you do that counts, but what you're perceived as doing."

For 18 years, that was Patterson with the Rockets -- a guy who rolled with the punches and always avoided the knockout blow. He was a man for all seasons with a bottomless pit of rhymes and reasons. He could sell sand in the desert and the proverbial sleigh full of refrigerators at the North Pole.

Patterson brought a young prospect named Moses Malone to Houston in 1976, watched him win two MVP awards and lead the team to The Finals in 1981. Then he traded Malone away at the peak of his career in 1982 to set up the scenario of winning those successive coin flips that delivered the Twin Towers lineup. Then came another Finals berth in 1986, and ultimately, helped set the path for the Rockets with Olajuwon to win back-to-back titles in 1994 and '95.

A man who could peddle moonshine at an AA meeting, Patterson often was called the ultimate survivor, a guy who looked out for himself and never denied it. Or felt a need to do so. Most of all, he was a pragmatist who dealt in reality rather than the romance of the games we watch and play.

He sometimes sold bells and whistles, the sizzle instead of the steak, but we were always the ones coming back wanting more.

I laughed with him and I commiserated with him. I questioned him and debated loudly with him. But I never knew him to run out of answers or ways to reshuffle the deck.

Ray Patterson, the old dog, loved new tricks. Bringing the NBA to life in Texas was always his best.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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