Saint Rudy

Finding people who are happy to trash Les Alexander and John Thomas is like finding people willing to make fools of themselves on television: There's a nearly inexhaustible supply. But a bad word about Rudy Tomjanovich is as rare as criticism of the Constitution. "Rudy's a standup guy," says Summit operator Mike McGee. "He's not a poser. He's genuine, he really is. Rudy cares."

Even the people who have been most badly burned by the Rockets owner and his hatchet man sing the coach's praises. "Rudy's a saint," says one casualty who is still looking for work.

The praise isn't just for Rudy T's affable manner and unfailing generosity, though everyone has a story to tell about the coach picking up a bar or restaurant tab, or making a point of saying hello to even the lowliest office worker -- by name. Anyone who has worked for the Rockets, and many outside the organization, can recall the times Tomjanovich has put himself on the line and fought for employees whose heads were on the chopping block: When Alexander wanted to fire radio color-man Jim Foley, who'd been with the club doing public relations work since the franchise moved to Houston in 1971, Tomjanovich intervened and saved Foley's job.

The contrast between the basketball and business sides of the operation has an almost bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde quality. But it's the basketball side that the public sees, and Tomjanovich -- whose back-to-back titles attest to his skills as a coach -- is also a masterful frontman, always there for the media interview or public appearance. Nor has success spoiled him. "In my opinion, Rudy's the same guy he was when I first met him in 1979," says McGee.

Though associates describe the relationship between Tomjanovich and Thomas as "chilly," the coach remains loyal to Alexander, who at least has had the good sense to stay out of the basketball decision-making. When Alexander initially balked at the club's trade for Mario Elie, which Steve Patterson had arranged, Tomjanovich prevailed on him to clear the transaction.

To many Houstonians, Tomjanovich is the Rockets, having been associated with the club -- first as a player, then as a scout and assistant coach -- for 27 years. The city has repaid that loyalty in kind -- a relationship that Alexander seems to comprehend. Perhaps as a result of the public outcry that greeted the firings of Calvin Murphy and Turbo, Alexander also understands that crossing his coach would be a huge mistake. So the owner even bends his unbendable rules when Tomjanovich insists: After Alexander at one point banned the serving of meat on the team's charter flights, Tomjanovich quickly had flesh reinstated to the menu.

But Alexander's not the only one who realizes that his fortunes and the team's are directly linked, and that no matter how many businesses and sponsors and ex-employees he's alienated, others will step into the breach as long as Clutch City thrives.

"The basketball side is carrying the business side," says one longtime observer.

-- Bob Burtman

 
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