Rudy Tomjanovich is the working man’s Hall of Famer.
When the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame Class was officially unveiled on April 4, different names dominated the attention in different corners of the country. Nationally, many of the headlines centered on the iconic trio of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and the late Kobe Bryant. Led by those three NBA greats, the 2020 induction group is already being championed as the most talented of all-time.
Locally, Baylor’s Kim Mulkey deservedly grabbed the lion’s share of the spotlight. Mulkey, who has led the Lady Bears to three NCAA titles in her two-decade run here, is deeply beloved in Waco, as evidenced by the neighborhood parade that passed by her house that day full of honking, cheering well-wishers.
Outside of Houston and parts of Michigan, Rudy T wouldn’t have been one of the headliners. Which is probably fine with him. Tomjanovich has never craved attention. He’s a grinder, a punch-the-clock plugger who made good by the sheer volume of his grit and gumption.
Everyone can appreciate a person like that.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way off the bat. Rudy T is my favorite basketball coach of all-time. That shouldn’t come as any shocking revelation to longtime readers, who would be aware of my affinity for Houston teams. Am I playing favorites by crafting an appreciation for the coach who first brought an NBA title to the state of Texas? Sure I am. At least I’m honest about it.
Secondly, I find little need to rehash Rudy T’s identity as the unfortunate recipient of the most infamous sucker punch in NBA history. It’s been written about plenty, and even formed the crux of an entire John Feinstein-authored book. Undoubtedly, for some, that’ll be what they remember most about Rudy T’s life. It almost killed him, but it should not define him.
If anything exemplifies who Tomjanovich is, it’s probably his hardscrabble upbringing in Hamtramck, Michigan. Neither of his parents, who were of Croatian descent, finished high school. His father, Rudy Tomjanovich I, was a shoemaker who brought home about $35 a week. “We weren’t exactly raking in money like the Rockefellers,” Tomjanovich wrote in his 1997 autobiography “A Rocket at Heart.” “No, there wasn’t a lot of money in our home, but there was always love.”
His parents’ work ethic rubbed off on young Rudy. During his teenaged years, he spent every free hour he had at The Courts, a Hamtramck playground whose pickup games regularly featured grown men in their 20s and 30s. He developed into a splendid player, becoming an All-American at Michigan and a five-time all-star in the NBA with the Rockets.
As a coach, he paid his dues ten times over. He spent nearly a decade as an assistant, including a stint as an advance scout, an oft-thankless position that gave Rudy an appreciation for all the various cogs in an NBA franchise’s machine.
When he became the Rockets’ head coach in the summer of 1992, Tomjanovich sought to give those scouts more of a voice. He didn’t want to put them in a cave somewhere and forget about them – he wanted them to feel like they were part of a team.
Togetherness was the hallmark of the 1993-94 Rockets, Rudy’s second team as head coach. That was a team built around one singular superstar, Hakeem Olajuwon, but complemented by some integral pieces in Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Mario Elie and Sam Cassell. Whereas the phrase “Clutch City” ascended to buzzword status after the Rockets rallied from an 0-2 hole to beat the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs, the most-repeated phrase in the locker room was, “Together.”
Sometimes the concept of the “Players Coach” gets misconstrued, relegating softness to the label. That couldn’t be farther from the truth with Rudy T. He was a Players Coach, for sure. And he could be firm when needed. But he also understood what it was like to be an NBA player. He knew the best way to communicate, especially over the course of 82-plus games, was through honest dialogue and positive reinforcement.
“It made sense to me that I should treat players the way I wanted to be treated when I played – with respect, understanding and honesty,” Tomjanovich wrote in his book. “These guys were not kids anymore.”
Carroll Dawson, the longtime Rockets assistant who joined Rudy T in making the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, told the Tribune-Herald that year, “When Rudy became our head coach, he got the players on the same page immediately. The players just didn’t want to let him down.”
After the Rockets won it all in 1994, they pulled off one of the most remarkable repeats in NBA history the following season. They traded one of their championship cornerstones in Thorpe at midseason to the Blazers to acquire Clyde Drexler. They went into the playoffs as a 6 seed, yet knocked off the 60-win Utah Jazz, the 59-win Phoenix Suns, the 62-win San Antonio Spurs, and the 57-win Orlando Magic. To this day, they’re the lowest-seeded team ever to claim the title.
In the post-championship aftermath, Tomjanovich coined what became a signature line when he said, “I have one thing to say to those non-believers: don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!”
Tomjanovich also won a gold medal as head coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 2000. He eventually retired from coaching in 2005 following a brief stint with the Lakers. He vanquished another foe in bladder cancer, and now is healthy and happily retired, enjoying life at age 71.
Like Mulkey, Rudy T had to wait several years before gaining Hall of Fame inclusion. He was overdue, as the only retired NBA coach with multiple championship rings who hadn’t yet made it to Springfield. But now the shoemaker’s son has his Hall pass.
Don’t ever underestimate the work ethic of a Tomjanovich.