• Print
Monday April 16, 2007 10:52 PM


Lasting Legacy


Dawson honored after a 27-year run with the Rockets


Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- He could be less than a month away from retirement, but Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson would rather talk about his team's postseason push than the end of his career in Houston.

Frankly, he doesn't want to create a fuss.

He'd rather remain the mostly anonymous figure who has been working behind the scenes in the Rockets organization.

"I've never been comfortable with the spotlight," Dawson said. "I love working for an NBA team and I love being involved in basketball. But I've never wanted the spotlight."

He just couldn't avoid it any longer.

Nearly three decades after leaving behind a job as a shoe salesman, Dawson will wrap up a career with the Rockets that began on the sideline and will end with his name hanging in the rafters alongside such greats as Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

The Rockets honored the retiring general manager Monday night when they hosted the Phoenix Suns in their regular season home finale. The team dropped a banner in Dawson's honor and recognized him with a special halftime tribute.

Dawson revealed last year that his 27th season with the team would be his last. He'll end a 40-year basketball career that saw him become the only coach to serve on all four of the Houston staffs that reached the NBA Finals.

He will be succeeded by assistant general manager Daryl Morey following the Rockets' run through the playoffs.

"Carroll Dawson's finger prints are on all the successful moments that the Rockets organization has had," former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

Dawson has coached nearly every legend that has put on a Rockets uniform and made deals that brought stars like Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to Houston.

He has been the face behind the team for decades.

"He's been a Red Auerbach-like figure for the Rockets, but without the publicity," Morey said. "He's been navigating the Rockets for the past 27 years. And it's been a pretty good run."

BIG KID FROM A SMALL TOWN

Alba. That's where his story begins. Dawson grew up in the humble surroundings of the small East Texas town that rests about 75 miles outside of Dallas. The population: a mere 200.

Dawson had a tight relationship with his family, deriving much of his East Texas sense of humor from his father.

From what he's gathered in conversations with Dawson, Tomjanovich said the future Rockets general manager didn't have shoes until he was in the sixth grade. He also suggested that Dawson may or may not have ridden a horse to school every day.

"It's kind of amazing that we developed such a great friendship because we came from such different backgrounds," Tomjanovich said. "I came from an inner city, Northern town of Detroit and he came from Alba. They didn't even have a stop light. It was a blinking light."

Dawson eventually grew into a star center on his high school basketball team. During his senior year, the 6-foot-5 big man carried Alba to a 44-3 record.

He earned the opportunity to play basketball at Paris Junior College in Paris, Tex. and, after being recognized for junior college All-American honors, he transferred to Baylor University in Waco for his final two years.

He led the Bears in scoring and rebounding in each of his two seasons. As a senior in 1960, Dawson was recognized on the All-Southwest Conference team after averaging 16.4 points.

Bill Menefee, then an assistant coach on Bill Henderson's staff at Baylor, said Dawson had an impressive inside game.

"He could play," Menefee said. "He was certainly one of the best centers that I ever coached."

Shortly after wrapping up his college career, Dawson was drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Fort Knox as a tank commander even though getting in and out of the armored vehicle was a bit of a challenge for his frame.

He got to play basketball, though. Dawson remembers playing against Oscar Robertson when the Hall of Famer had a brief stint in the National Guard before turning pro.

Still, Dawson didn't love being in the Army.

"I didn't like the service," Dawson said. "It was one of the best things that ever happened to me as far as discipline and work ethic. But I wouldn't want to go through it again."

His best prospect after the Army? Dawson was offered an assistant coaching position at Baylor after Menefee took over head coaching duties.

Dawson admits that he was dumbfounded by the job offer.

Why him? What did he know about coaching?

"I was a 24-year old kid and I had only done a little bit of coaching in the Army," Dawson said. "He didn't even know that I had done any coaching in the Army. I didn't know why he was taking a chance on me."

'HE CAN GET ANYONE TO OPEN UP'

Menefee, an 85-year old retired coach and athletic director, stopped coaching basketball almost 34 years ago. He still lives in Waco and attends Baylor sporting events.

Over four decades after giving Dawson his first job in basketball, Menefee still chuckles when he considers why he took a shot on some kid with no coaching experience.

Frankly, he figured that Dawson could do one thing.

"He had no coaching background," Menefee said. "None. But I liked his personality and the way he related to people. I thought he would do a good job recruiting for me."

Menefee didn't regret his decision.

The Baylor coach had Dawson take recruits out to dinner and his assistant usually left an impression on his company. Rather than making a sales pitch or preaching about how wonderful his playing experience was at Baylor, Dawson related to the recruits.

"He never started off by asking questions," Menefee said. "He knew if he did that, the recruit could say, 'No.' Instead, he tried to open them up. Carroll knew all the country singers. He would even pull out a deck of cards and start doing card tricks. A recruit would look at him and say, 'Hey, what did you do there?' He can get anyone to open up."

Dawson picked up coaching along the way. He served a decade under Menefee at Baylor, coaching the freshmen team, teaching three physical education classes and even selling football tickets in Baylor's box office. Eventually, he succeeded his mentor in 1973 and remained the Bears' coach for three-plus seasons.

"Bill told me the fact that I turned out to be a good coach was just gravy," Dawson said.

Dawson, however, nearly left the coaching business for good in 1977.

After leaving Baylor, he became a scout for the Dallas Cowboys for two seasons and then took a job as a salesman for Converse.

He'd probably still be selling shoes if Del Harris hadn't dialed his number.

BACK TO COACHING

Dawson couldn't say no to Harris.

Not twice anyway.

The coaches met when both were working as college assistants and instantly became friends. Harris eventually became an assistant coach with the Rockets, allowing Dawson to frequently visit him when he came to Houston on recruiting trips. When Harris landed his first head coaching job in the NBA with the Rockets in 1979, he asked Dawson to join his staff.

Dawson declined on Harris' first try.

"I told him that he had never been a head coach and that I had never been an assistant in the NBA," Dawson said. "I didn't know so I didn't do it. Well, he finished his first season and came back to me. He said, 'You're coming this time.'"

And he never left.

Dawson ending up staying with the Rockets as an assistant coach for 16 seasons. During his coaching career, Dawson became renowned for his work with big men. He worked with pivots like Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Above everything else, Dawson loved teaching the game.

Olajuwon has always credited Dawson with helping him develop his jump hook.

"From the beginning of my career to the end of my career, CD has always been my coach," Olajuwon said. "He always helped me on the technical aspects of my game. He contributed a lot to my career and I'm very happy to have worked with a coach like CD."

Dawson, unsurprisingly, scoffs at the notion that he had that big of an impact on Olajuwon's career.

"I've always given credit to the players because those are the guys that work hard," Dawson said. "Olajuwon always added something to his game over the summer. That's what all the great players do and that's what he did. He might be known for the jump hook, but he could do so many things. We didn't actually start winning with him big time until he learned to pass the ball. We'd talk before every summer about what he was going to work on and he'd come back in the fall with something added to his game. He worked."

LIGHTNING STRIKES

Don Chaney, who was the NBA's Coach of the Year in 1991 after a 52-win season, was dismissed as the Rockets' head coach midway through the 1991-92 season.

The job, most believed, would go to Dawson.

"I was probably in line to do it," Dawson said. "But I couldn't."

Dawson's career path from lifetime assistant to NBA head coach had been altered in an instant in 1989.

During a golf outing with Tomjanovich at Southwick Golf Club in Houston, Dawson was preparing for a shot when his playing partner felt "a powerful force" brush him back. Tomjanovich cringed, tensing up his muscles. He later recalled that it would take him over half of an hour to loosen up.

Tomjanovich quickly turned to Dawson after the jolt. He saw his friend standing in a fixed position with his club still positioned in mid-air. He wasn't moving.

Dawson had been struck by lightning.

"I never really saw the lightning hit him," Tomjanovich said. "He showed me where the lightning had burned his hand through the glove, but it wasn't a big deal to him. He was such a strong guy."

Dawson's vision, however, had been impaired. He lost his left eye because of a detached retina and, since the incident, has suffered periodic vision loss in his right eye.

Because of the vision problems, Dawson didn't believe he could successfully succeed Chaney in 1992. So he instead tried to convincing Tomjanovich to take the job.

Tomjanovich didn't want it. He didn't think he was ready for the challenge and thought he needed more time to grow into coaching. Now, Dawson was asking him to learn on the fly.

"He gave me the bottom line that if I didn't agree, we might not be working," Tomjanovich said. "They might bring someone else in who would have their own coaching staff. I was in shock because I was close to Don Chaney and Carroll had always been the next guy in line. I thought maybe in a couple of years I might be ready to do it. I was in shock, but he wouldn't let the opportunity pass me."

He's glad that he listened.

With Dawson at his side, Tomjanovich built the Rockets into a championship team. He guided the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.

"I'm very proud of the fact that, being in a so-called football state, I was a part of a team that brought the first NBA championship to Texas," Dawson said. "If I ever wear a ring, it would probably be that '94 championship. That was the first one in the state. I'm very proud of that."

Does he ever regret not getting a chance to be an NBA head coach?

"I had prepared my career to be that," Dawson said. "The fact that it didn't happen never really bothered me. Because Rudy getting the job and him never really being a coach allowed me to put a lot of the stuff in that I wanted to try and see if it would work. I got to see if my thoughts worked. Rudy got so good that he eventually needed us to go back to our regular jobs as assistant coaches, but I got to try a lot of things. I thought we made a good team. Rudy listened because he didn't think he was due and I'm not sure I would have listened if I had gotten the job. So I think it worked out for the best."

MOVING UPSTAIRS

Dawson wasn't ready to quit coaching, but he knew that he couldn't keep doing it.

His vision was failing him.

During some games, his eye sight was so blurry that he couldn't see the other end of the floor. How could he keep coaching without his eyes?

So he moved into the front office. With the blessing of Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, Dawson became the Rockets' general manager in 1996.

"We talked to Mr. Alexander and he went along with it," Dawson said. "We hadn't had a GM for a couple of years. Leslie really doesn't get enough credit. He's not an ego maniac. He loves the game and he's in it for all the right reasons. He wants to win and he trusts us to do that."

Dawson quickly gained a reputation around the league for his willingness to make moves.

He took chances. Big chances. During the summer of 2004, Dawson made a move to acquire Tracy McGrady. He sent Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley to Orlando as part of a six-player deal for the two-time scoring champion.

Not all of his moves, however, worked.

Before the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, Dawson swung a deal with the Chicago Bulls to acquire Scottie Pippen. The hope was that Pippen would line up with Charles Barkley and Olajuwon to form one of the best front lines in NBA history. However, the stars never developed any chemistry and Barkley ended up on the injured list.

Dawson had another deal go awry during the 2001 NBA Draft. He shipped future NBA All-Star Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong to New Jersey for the rights to the No. 7 pick in the draft -- Eddie Griffin. Griffin, a Seton Hall star, was considered one of the most talented players in the draft pool, but he never developed into the star that the Rockets were seeking.

Dawson doesn't second guess those moves because he believes he was trying to give the Rockets a chance to win big.

"This franchise has always been risk takers," Dawson said. "We made a major trade for Clyde Drexler when we were defending our NBA title. With the Scottie Pippen deal, we felt like we still had a chance to make a run. There are very few times when you have a chance to make a run at a championship. It's so rare that you get to the Finals. I've been there four times in 27 years. So if you get a chance, you've got to take it. There are some teams that have never been to the NBA Finals that probably never will get there. So you have to take risks to give yourself a chance. You want your decisions to be sound and a lot of them won't work out. But a lot of them do."

He had one deal work out pretty well in 2002 amid criticism.

After landing the No. 1 selection in the 2002 NBA Draft, Dawson and the Rockets focused their attention on selecting Yao Ming. And they were ripped for it.

"Nobody in the nation wanted us to draft him," Dawson said. "Everybody wanted us to draft (Duke star) Jay Williams. The national people were laughing at us and saying that he's another Shawn Bradley. But we'd been following the guy since he was 17."

Dawson actually sent highlight tapes to the Houston media to show why the Rockets were bent on picking the Chinese center.

"No one had seen him play," Dawson said. "We wanted people to see what we were seeing."

Five years after being chosen by the Rockets, Yao has transformed into one of the best big men in the game. He has made five All-Star appearances and was having an MVP-like season before fracturing a bone in his right leg in December.

"Now, no one really questions that pick," Dawson said.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Menefee would be proud if he ever watched Dawson negotiate a deal.

Before ever discussing a potential trade with another general manager or talking about a contract with a sports agent, Dawson typically lightens the mood with his humor just as he did when dealing with potential recruits at Baylor.

Do the other guys in suits know that he's merely trying to loosen them up so they'll talk more freely? Probably. But that never stops them from opening up with Dawson anyway.

"Carroll has a relationship with 29 other general managers," Rockets vice president of basketball operations/player personnel Dennis Lindsey said. "He doesn't have subplots with other coaches in the league and he doesn't have subplots where he can't deal with agent x because he honors his word and he takes time building those relationships. We literally have the whole field to deal with in terms of potential trades or moves. I don't know if all the other teams can say that."

Dawson's approach has benefited the Rockets on more than one occasion.

Since becoming the general manager, Dawson has always had a policy to return a phone call. He didn't care who was calling.

During the early stages of Dawson's time in the front office, he got a call from sports agent Jeff Fried. Fried had zero NBA clients, but the general manager returned the call anyway even though they didn't have much common business. Nothing, initially, came out of the call.

Then came the 1999 NBA Draft. During the draft, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies selected Francis with the No. 2 overall pick. Francis refused to play for the Grizzlies and immediately sought a trade.

His agent at the time? Fried. Dawson picked up the phone.

"Carroll calls Fried," Lindsey said. "Fried says, 'Glad you called. When I had no NBA prospects, you guys always returned my calls and helped me in the business. I want to reciprocate.' He said they'd do what they could on their end to make a deal happen."

The trade happened. Franics came to Houston and ended up playing five seasons with the Rockets.

All because Dawson returned a phone call.

BIG SHOES TO FILL

Since coming to the Rockets, Rafer Alston has been widely criticized for his streaky perimeter shooting.

He was working on that jumper during a recent practice when Dawson started needling him.

"He always walks by me in practice and asks, 'Did you make a shot?'" Alston said. "I'm sweating and he asks me if I made just one. I always thought that was funny. He's got a great sense of humor. I'm going to miss him."

Alston won't be alone in missing Dawson.

Before he came to the Rockets 27 years ago, Dawson was a seasoned college assistant who had never coached in the NBA. He'll leave having been involved in almost every major decision in the history of the Rockets organization.

He might not have ever had the most recognizable face on the staff, but he was always working behind the scenes trying to transform the Rockets into a winner.

"He's been a part of this team for many, many, many years," Alexander said. "He's been the backbone of the team. He's a great basketball guy and it's going to be a terrible loss when he's not here."

Morey will soon succeed Dawson.

During the 2006-07 season, the Rockets assistant general manager has been transitioning into his new role. He's been making trips to NBA cities throughout the season to meet with top executives from other clubs.

He typically hears the same thing on each stop.

"I always hear that I've got big shoes to fill," Morey said.

Despite vacating his post as general manager, Dawson won't be completely leaving the organization. He agreed in March to remain a special adviser to the team.

"I'm happy that they're going to keep me involved because I was kind of horrified about the thought of leaving this behind," Dawson said. "I'll be out of the way, but anything I can do, I'll always help this team."

What's next?

Dawson plans on spending more time with his wife, Sharon, and playing more golf. He's even considered teaching a basketball coaching class at Baylor since he'd like to pass along his wisdom to aspiring coaching minds.

Really, he hasn't finalized any grand plans. He'd just like to start retirement and not make a big fuss over 27 years.

He's been far more comfortabe building the Rockets behind the scenes.

"It wasn't my idea (to be honored for my work), but I appreciate it," Dawson said. "It's been my living and breathing existence. I'll always be a Rocket."