Hall of Fame: Class of 2020

Q&A: Rudy Tomjanovich on his long-awaited Hall of Fame call

After 15 years, the legendary Rockets player and coach is glad to finally call himself a Hall of Famer.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Rudy Tomjanovich is one of only three coaches to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal.

Rudy Tomjanovich had gotten so used to the “Sorry, maybe next year” phone calls from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he almost looked forward to the “silver lining” of hearing from disappointed family, friends, even strangers. “It’s humbling,” he said of people’s support.

Now Tomjanovich will have to find other reasons to stay connected, with his inclusion as a coach in the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 to be enshrined May 14-15.

Just as the former Houston Rockets’ All-Star and leader waited 15 years after his NBA coaching career ended to be voted into the Hall, he and the other 2020 inductees have had to wait an additional nine months through the pandemic for the actual ceremony. The Class of 2021 will be announced May 16, with its ceremony Sept. 9-11.

Rudy Tomjanovich has been selected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for the Class of 2020.

But for a man whose greatest coaching achievement came out of a No. 6 spot, beating the top three seeds in the 1995 NBA playoffs — and who gave us the timeless quote, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!” — having to navigate a bumpier road to the shrine in Springfield, Mass., seems no big deal.

Tomjanovich is one of only three coaches to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal, finally joining Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens in the Hall. He also was the last of the eligible coaches who’ve won back-to-back NBA championships to be enshrined (Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra still are working.)

Longtime assistant Jim Boylen said: “The thing about Rudy, he has this aura about him, but it doesn’t come from being arrogant or cocky. It comes from he enjoys the work. He enjoys the togetherness, enjoyed the practices. He just had a way of pulling people together.”

In 11-plus seasons as Rockets coach, Tomjanovich posted a 503-397 regular season record and 51-39 playoff mark. When he resigned in 2003 after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, his 33-year affiliation with the Rockets as a player, assistant coach and coach ended.

Rudy Tomjanovich celebrates the Rockets’ championship in 1995.

He returned to coaching with the Lakers in 2004-05 but stepped down after 43 games, citing exhaustion. Most recently, Tomjanovich, 72, joined the Minnesota Timberwolves in December as a player personnel consultant.

He spoke with NBA.com about his election to the Hall, his playing background as a five-time All-Star and his approach to coaching drew raves both from stars such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley and his rosters’ fringe players.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

NBA.com: First, congratulations on the upcoming enshrinement. But second, how is it possible that you are the first University of Michigan alumnus to go into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as an NBA player or coach?

Rudy Tomjanovich: I was shocked. I could not believe that. I thought Cazzie [Russell] had gotten in. Cazzie was a big hero for me. And then I thought Chris Webber — I believe he will be in soon. Then Glen Rice, another great player.

When you got the call and the news hit you that, yes, you finally had been voted into the Hall, how did that feel?

The interesting thing for me, I’ve gotten the question “What comes to mind [when you think about your career]? Is it the championships? Is it this, is it that?” What came up for me were the hard times — what I call, the storms you go through with adversity at different times in our careers.

I’m just so happy I was able to hang in there and get through those times. And to have this waiting at the end is just like the cherry on top.

You were voted in as a coach, but this never happens without your playing career from Michigan through 11 NBA seasons. How did you get started in the game?

Basketball has done so much for me — not only in a financial way, but as a human being. I grew up with two very shy parents, and I was extremely shy. But being into basketball got me to mix with other people. Gave me a sense of accomplishment and all that.

I was hoping to get a scholarship, because we couldn’t afford to send me to school. I had a mentor, my Uncle Joe, who really gave me a game plan. I was a good student — I worked hard at it — so he said, “You’ve got to pick a sport and be good at it.”

I came from a city [Hamtramck, Mich.] that was surrounded by Detroit, only one square mile, but it was a real good sports town. In fact, our city won the Little League world championship in 1959 when I was 10. … The funny thing was, I was an all-star in baseball but in basketball, for the junior high team, I did not play one possession in the regular season. I sat on the bench. Then I got in against the teachers in the faculty game and I got one shot at the French teacher. I had him isolated on the side. I faked him, he went up in the air, I had a wide open shot … and I shot an air ball.

My love for baseball wasn’t there. I had gotten a bad coach, and it got to where I was hoping it would rain so I wouldn’t have to go. … When I told my uncle I just wanted to focus on basketball, he was like, “Are you kidding? You never even got in the game.”

So you took off as a player from that point?

No. After trying out for the team, a buddy came running to me and said he saw the list and I wasn’t on it. The coach was a former linebacker at Michigan who was only coaching freshman basketball for some extra money. Before he could announce the team, I challenged him to a game of 1-on-1.

Every time I’m dribbling, he’s thinking it’s like a fumble and a loose ball, so he’s diving all over the place, beating the heck out of me. I managed to win the game against him, so he gave me a uniform and I made the team. But it all could have ended right there.

For all your accomplishments as a player — All-American at Michigan, five-time NBA All-Star, a stretch of seven seasons during which you averaged 20.7 points and 8.7 rebounds — your playing days for fans of a certain age are reduced to memories of the horrible incident with Portland’s Kermit Washington. Once you got your health back from The Punch, why was it important to you to get your career back?

First of all, just a love of the game. No doubt I wanted to go back out there. I didn’t want that incident to be the end of my career. As soon as I could, I got to working out again. Then the next year, I had a pretty good year. I got voted into the All-Star Game because I think a lot of people were happy to see me back. I didn’t want to accept it, because I felt it was a sympathy vote. But people told me, hey, the coaches would have voted you in anyway.

It got old very quickly that, once I was done playing, somebody would say, “Oh, I remember you, you’re the guy who got hit.” I had a better career than just that incident. I was so lucky to get another opportunity as a coach to make people forget about that.

It’s like people say about the first paragraph of someone’s obituary. As a coach, you pushed that incident way down in the story, thanks to the back-to-back NBA titles, an Olympic gold medal in 2000 and now the Hall. Did you sense you would be successful as a coach?

I got a lot of on-the-job training. I had some very good advice from Carroll Dawson, who was my assistant coach and later on became our general manager. He had coached in the college ranks, and he’s a very practical guy. I was blessed to have somebody with his wisdom around. Y’know, Pat Riley had Bill Bertka, and Phil Jackson had Johnny Bach and Tex Winter. Well, Carroll was my guy like that. He was like my older brother, we were so close. I knew I was going to get his best — everything he knew he passed on to me.

Dawson was part of your origin story as a head coach, right?

[Laughs] First of all, I really enjoyed being an assistant. I did all the jobs — advance scouting, college scouting and I was the video guy. Carroll was on the staff with me, and an unfortunate game we lost, we blew a 20-point lead and the boo birds were out. It was an ugly feeling leaving the arena, and Carroll and I felt that because it was so negative, there was a chance that something  could happen with [boss] Don Chaney that night or the next day.

We were called into the office and we went down there to fight for Don, who had been the Coach of the Year the year before. They said it was too late, the decision had been made and then general manager Steve Patterson went into an office with Carroll and me. He said, “Out of one of you guys, we’ve got to get a coach for this team.” Carroll had some physical problems where he didn’t want to put himself through that. So Steve said, “Rudy it’s your job if you want it.” I talked to Carroll and he said, “If you don’t take it, we’re probably both out of jobs. This is survival.”

We devised a new system, doing things a little bit different from other teams. The way we spaced up the floor when we threw the ball to [Hall of Fame center] Hakeem [Olajuwon] made it a lot easier to see the open men. He had such a great career before that, but he became a champion when he began making them pay for double-teaming by passing the ball out.

Besides Carroll, who did you learn or steal the most from?

All of them, but the guy I had in my second year was Tex Winter. He was a detail guy who had a terminology for every movement on the floor. As a young player, that’s exactly what I needed. I didn’t have any of that stuff in my game. I was just a physical player who played hard and could really jump and shoot.

With Tex, I got to see the subtleties of staying away from the ball. He had so many names for so many things, and I did the same when I was a coach. It would almost be our own language, which you could say in front of the other team and they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

Thanks to him, it went from chaos to where it looked like I knew what the hell I was doing.

I think it was Riley who said that, for a coach, you either feel pain or relief. That’s about as good as it gets. Was that true for you?

As a player, you worry about getting your job done. As a coach, you’re worried about everything. You’re running the ship and you’ve got to take care of people’s feelings and, a lot of times, problems that aren’t even real but are perceived in somebody’s head. Coaching is problem solving. not only with your opponent but with yourself too. Always trying to fix things.

How did you get your reputation as a “players coach?”

Well, what was very big and still is very big, you’ve got to be a player-friendly organization to get the free agents. We worked very hard, starting with college players when we brought ‘em in, to show them that. I was always there in these meetings — I did a lot of the scouting work.

Plus, just being in the league, I played better when the head coach was an ally. Yeah, he’d make corrections but if I knew he cared about me, I just seemed to play better. That’s what I sort of did with my players. Everybody wants to be appreciated. I would take time to let guys know I saw what they were doing — especially guys who weren’t the big stars.

Watch how Houston truly became known as Clutch City by winning the 1994 NBA championship.

I think my formula was 80% positive, 20%  correcting things. Very heavy on the positive so that players would also recognize what I like. Players are going to try to do what the coach is looking for, but that has to be identified. So it’s very important to preach “our kind of basketball.”

Lenny Wilkens told me that when he first got to the league, he would get yanked at the first mistake he’d make. Tough way to play.

There would be times when somebody, usually a veteran, would say, “You’ve got to coach those guys harder. You’ve got to really let them know.” But I’d ask, “Can you play if you’re always looking at the bench, worried about mistakes? Would you like to play in that environment?” And I’d get, “No, no, no, I don’t want that. But you need to do that with him.”

You coached some tremendous players. What was that like?

I had great stars. Hakeem Olajuwon was not only a great, great player but a great person, very respectful, and so talented. He did so much for us on both ends of the court. … Hearing the things about Phil Jackson and [Michael] Jordan, telling him, “Hey, there’s a guy open on this team and you’ve got to find him,” the same thing happened with Hakeem. You don’t win championships unless you do those kinds of things.

It seemed as if many players were eager to play and live in Houston.

That was an intentional thing that we did as an organization. I tried to set up offensive systems based on the people that we had. If I had a completely different team, I’d run completely different plays because we tried to fit it to the people, not have people fit to some system I had. I think players recognized that and like to play that way.

What was the key to repeating as champions in 1994-95?

We were not on the right path. Something creeped into our game — bit of complacency or whatever. Being fat cats. We were just not playing championship basketball. A lot of it had to do with injuries that second year, but we had some really awful losses you don’t think a championship team should have.

Then when we heard that Clyde [Drexler] might be available, it really got serious. He’s the only guy who could have make it work in a midseason trade because of his relationship with Hakeem. Hakeem was used to getting all the plays, but with Clyde that was no problem at all.

Watch how the Rockets earned the title of dynasty with their back-to-back championship in 1995.

The crazy thing was, the coaches and I were preaching to the team that we were going to get better. The players — I found out many years later — the Clyde [Drexler] trade affected their playing time, because he was so versatile, and they did not feel good about that. I didn’t know it at the time, but when we had reunions, we found out how guys were feeling.

So we did not have a healthy team. We dropped to the sixth position, and our team was finally healthy the first game of the playoffs. We just grew together in the playoffs. That’s what was really crazy about that second year.

Do you favor one of those titles over the other, or is it like with kids?

Yeah, both of them. None of us had won a championship on that first team. I had been an assistant coach and a player when we went to The Finals but lost [in 1981 and 1986]. We had to get tougher to become a championship team. There were a lot of growing pains.

The year before [1992-93], we went through a seven-game losing streak where we were underachieving. But we ended that year 41-11. Then we started out 15-0 the next year and that’s when the Rockets found out as a team who they were.

A big part of your coaching career came in international competition. You led Team USA to the gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Games, but two years earlier, you went to the FIBA World Cup without any NBA players due to the 1998 lockout and got bronze. Meanwhile, teams around the world had learned from the Dream Teams.

We had one guy who wound up as [an established] pro, Brad Miller. That was his coming-out party in Athens. The expectations weren’t that high. But when you get the assignment for the Olympics, the amount of pressure on the team and the coach is amazing. Because no NBA team had lost in the Olympics before. It was nothing that we talked about, but you knew they felt it. As we saw these other teams play, they were getting a lot better and that style of play is different. You could out-and-out zone, and they’d throw different looks at you.

Rudy Tomjanovich led Team USA to a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics.

When the Professional Basketball Writers Association established an annual award in 2010 for a coach who cooperates with the media and the fans, and also excels on the court, you were already done coaching. So the PBWA named the award after you. Did you make it a priority to have good rapport with the media and fans?

It wasn’t a conscious thing. That’s just the way it turned out. I was really surprised. Some of the things I get credit for … I’m not crazy about the camera in the huddle, although I did let that happen. I think certain things should be private. We don’t go into [the networks’] meeting rooms and hear what they’re saying in pressure situations. But here the cameras are coming in for our huddles – that seemed like that should be a sacred space. Or having them in the locker rooms when the coach is making his speech, some guys start to play to the camera.

But I also know it’s a business, and the fans want inside stuff. Luckily, we haven’t had bad incidents because of that freedom. But that was a little bit weird.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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