Geezer Follies

Aging and creaking, the Rockets prove better at entertainment than basketball, on and off the court

The Houston Rockets' season that began with Charles Barkley tossing a 110-pound guy through a barroom window has now reached the point where Hakeem Olajuwon talks of losing a battle with Satan.

In boxing, that's known as going up in class. In the NBA, it's more likely indicative of a very, very odd season.

In a year of utter inconsistency, only one certainty has emerged about the Rockets: Every injury that's hobbled one of their trio of superstars has (according to members of that trio of superstars) nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with their age. They're spring chickens. Why, almost every NBA team has a prostate specialist on call. So get off their (aching) backs.

Another certainty that is quickly emerging is that at least one member of Houston's sporting media will be congenitally unable to begin his postmortem on the 199798 season without somehow referencing "what a long, strange trip" it was. Betting pools are already springing up as to which "hep cat" will be first to fly his freak flag.

In the case of the Rockets, though, the offending expert could always plead truth as a defense. Besides hand-to-hand combat with both Beelzebub and a very small bar patron, Rocket fans have, since the end of last season, seen Coach Rudy Tomjanovich slam his car into a tree in a mid-afternoon one-vehicle crash (the fact that tests showed he wasn't drunk, and had simply blacked out and endangered the public, was considered good news); they've seen the team get horsewhipped by the dregs of the league; and, of course, they've wallowed in The Catfight.

The Catfight, where Barkley, Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler sniped at each other with all the erudition and subtlety of The McLaughlin Group, or three sixth-graders wrestling over a Sega game, has been the highlight of the year so far.

The incident occurred in November, after a loss to Portland at what used to be called the Summit but is now known as (Your Name Here!) Arena. Olajuwon's post-game analysis consisted entirely of the fact that he didn't get the ball enough.

"But in the last four or five minutes, (the coaches) were calling all these plays where I had to clear (out of) the post," he told reporters. "That's ridiculous. That's not basketball. That's not basketball."

Asked if he had mentioned his frustration to Tomjanovich during time-outs, Olajuwon harrumphed, "No, I'm the kind of person who doesn't put himself in that position." Meaning, apparently, that it's far more dignified to whine to reporters than to ask the coach a question.

Barkley's analysis of Olajuwon's analysis was breathtakingly insightful: "He's just being a big baby," said the self-proclaimed future candidate for governor of (thankfully) Alabama.

Not one to let a good bitch fest go by, Drexler chimed in against Barkley and in favor of Hakeem: "The big fella has a point," he said. "I think his number should be called more often."

As might be expected, this scintillating exchange provoked more local media coverage than Princess Di's funeral. Oddly enough, almost all of the acres and acres of coverage was devoted to telling the public that what they were reading about wasn't that important.

The Houston Chronicle's three sports columnists each tried to outdo each other in coming up with locker-room chaos among other teams that was a lot, lot worse than the Rockets contretemps. Dale Robertson evoked the "Luv Ya Blue" Oilers ("Gracious, the stories I could tell you," he wrote, before torturing readers by opting not to tell them but instead offer his thoughts); Fran Blinebury brought back the memory of the Philadelphia 76ers of 20 years previous; and Mickey Herskowitz -- well, no human being without an AARP card has ever gotten through an entire Mickey Herskowitz column, but it's a pretty good bet that he offered some anecdote about George Halas, Pop Warner or Branch Rickey.

Once the three Rockets superstars completed their subsequent ritual team-meeting, this-is-all-behind-us, it-was-good-to-air-things-out performance for the public, the Rockets took off on a ten-game winning streak (mostly against pathetic teams). Once again, all was right in Rocketland.

And all would have stayed right if those damned busybodies at the NBA office hadn't insisted on scheduling some decent teams to play our boys. Things went quickly downhill, reaching the most recent low point earlier this month when the lordly Olajuwon was ejected from a game after throwing a punch at an opposing player ("I fell into the trap of Satan," he thoughtfully explained to reporters, providing an instant candidate for Quote of the Year).

The outlook for these Rockets is bleak. The only ray of hope -- and it is by no means a small one -- is that they have been completely, utterly pronounced dead and buried by the local sports experts. Of such things are championships made.

Still, an objective review of the Rockets' Triage Trio seems in order. The diagnosis, not to mention the prognosis, isn't pretty.

Clyde Drexler: A hometown hero, as we are constantly reminded, Drexler is the oldest of the Rockets -- if not in age, then in spirit. He's been an old man ever since he entered the league: His trademark whining to officials has long had all the grace and dignity of some geezer holding up a supermarket line because the scanner overcharged him 15 cents. Clyde epitomizes the slowing veteran who insists on receiving his due tribute, whether it's the proper number of plays called for him or not being whistled for grabbing the shirts of quicker guys blowing by him or receiving fawning coverage in the press.

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