Clutch City: An Oral History of the Houston Rockets Miracle Playoff Run

Clutch City: An Oral History of the Houston Rockets Miracle Playoff Run
Getty Images/Houston Rockets

Resting on the coffee table in Leslie Alexander's suite at the Toyota Center, the Rockets' two championship trophies look exactly the same. Both a little tarnished from handprints and the normal wear and tear of two decades of team functions and selfies, they stand proudly, gold basketball teetering atop the gold net and rim.

However, any Rockets fan knows that the stories behind the two trophies couldn't be more different. That 1993-94 trophy, the prize from a series in which the Rockets overcame Patrick Ewing, John Starks and the O.J. Simpson Chase (NBC cut away from Game 5 to follow the chase, then did split-screen coverage of both), was won by a team that was a model of consistency, formulaic but effective. Hakeem Olajuwon and a band of souped up-role players, who played their roles perfectly. Dump it in to the big guy, let him draw double teams; if he kicks it out, just make the shot. And at the other end, DEFEND. DEFEND like they're attacking your home.

That 1993-94 trophy was reward for a team carrying not just the weight of previous Rockets teams on its shoulders but the weight of the Astros in 1986, the Oilers in 1993 and every other curse, hex and jinx that had sideswiped this city for the previous four decades.

The 1994-95 Rockets team? They were different. Not just different from the 1993-94 team, I mean different from any other team that's won a major championship in professional sports. If the 1993-94 Rockets were shouldering the burden of a city, the 1994-95 Rockets were shouldering the burden of expectations, human nature and self-inflicted wounds.

Suspensions, injuries, anemia and a franchise--altering midseason trade. These were the 1994-95 Houston Rockets' four horsemen of the apocalypse. In an era when championship validation seemingly came only with repeating as champion, the 1994-95 Rockets charted the most difficult possible route to a repeat, and succeeded.

With injuries curtailing the regular seasons of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones, injuries ending the seasons of Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley, and an ever-changing rotation of players who have who have been forced to abruptly bond and win games simultaneously, the 2014-15 Rockets are able to check off many adversity boxes similar to those of their 1994-95 forefathers. At least, though, the present-day Rockets were able to attain the second seed in the West heading into the playoffs. Those 1994-95 Rockets came all the way from the sixth seed to win a championship, something that had never been done before.

As in every Rocky movie (Rocky Balboa, of course, being the embodiment of every distressed eventual champion), we begin the story of the 1994-95 Houston Rockets with the final scene from the previous movie, with confetti raining down from the Summit rafters and the Knicks wondering who let John Starks keep shooting...

The journey to the second trophy began with winning the first, which Otis Thorpe held high above his head during the June 1994 celebration.
The journey to the second trophy began with winning the first, which Otis Thorpe held high above his head during the June 1994 celebration.
Bill Baptist_NBAE via Getty Images/Houston Rockets

JUNE 22, 1994: "The eagle has landed"

RUDY TOMJANOVICH, Rockets head coach: When we won in 1994 against the Knicks, I had the emotions of a Houstonian as much as I did a head coach, since I had been through it with all the other sports in Houston that had come so close, and to finally be part of the team that did it, there was so much pride. I'm sure Hakeem felt the same way.

HAKEEM OLAJUWON, Rockets Hall of Fame center: I had been so close so many times. I remember in the morning coming to the game thinking, "It's Game 7, it can go either way. But we are at home; this is what we wanted." So when we finally won it, I just felt blessed. Grateful.

LES ALEXANDER, Rockets owner: I was so thankful in my first year as an owner to win a championship and have the best player in the league.

GENE PETERSON, Rockets radio play-by-play: One very special memory...Jim Foley and I had just finished going berserk when the final horn had sounded and the ball game was over. We didn't want to go to commercial, we just wanted to stay. We were yelling and screaming. All of a sudden, this big fella sits right down on our desk. It was Olajuwon. He just looked at both of us. Nobody said a word. He was just taking it all in. I thought Foley and I were gonna fall off the chair. It was an incredible moment.

JIM FOLEY, Rockets radio color analyst: It was overwhelming, even though there was never doubt in my mind we would win. I remember Robert Horry sitting down on press row and doing an interview with us, and it was pure joy.

BILL WORRELL, Rockets TV play-by-play: Everybody was jumping up and down and hugging each other. Everyone except Hakeem, who was sitting on press row with a very distant look on his face, as if he were trying to collect his thoughts. Everyone respected him and gave him his space. I think he wanted to look back at his life and what that title meant to him.

OLAJUWON: I just wanted to sit and absorb the celebration, just watch it. Even the security people were celebrating! It was just joyful. It was a great moment of my life. Beautiful.

FOLEY: After we won the title and had the parade, our equipment manager, the late David Nordstrom, and Rudy and I were chatting. We all decided to take a nap and then meet at a place on Dunvale called the Hideaway about 8 p.m. So my wife and I go out there, and the place was kind of dead. About five minutes after we get there, David shows up with the trophy. Of course, the bartender thought the trophy was a fake. Five minutes later, in comes Rudy. The bartender believed us after that.

MARIO ELIE, Rockets forward: We were down 3-2 to the Knicks, and back at our hotel, our floor had a kitchen, and Dream was cooking some really smelly fish. It stunk up the entire floor. I'm with one of my buddies from New York, all distraught. Dream sees me, pats me on the back and says, 'Don't worry, we are gonna get it done at home.' A few days later, Dream was soaking it all in after Game 7. Growing up five minutes from the Garden being from New York, it was extra special for me.

ALEXANDER: I remember being afraid of falling off the fire engines when they took those turns around the corner during the parade but thinking about what a great ride it was and a great ending to a season.

TOMJANOVICH: My family went to South Carolina for a vacation after the season was over, and while we were at the beach house, an ad came on for the championship DVDs. I looked at the screen and said, "Wow, that's us!" That's when it hit me, it was like I was in a dream land. We were the champions.

The Rockets would enter the 1994-95 season with virtually the same cast of characters, which was slightly easier to do back then under that era's salary cap. They even started the season 9-0. However, 9-0 turned into 14-9. 14-9 turned into 28-16, a fine record for most teams but not really championship material.

By the time Vernon Maxwell was finished going after a fan in Portland on February 6, 1995, and getting suspended for ten games, it was abundantly clear that something needed to change.

 

Clyde joining the team was nothing but good news for his longtime friend Hakeem.
Clyde joining the team was nothing but good news for his longtime friend Hakeem.
Getty Images/Houston Rockets

FEBRUARY 14, 1995: The Clyde Drexler Trade

The Rockets entered the All Star break in 1994-95 with a 29-17 record, good enough to be comfortably in the playoff picture but far from the pace they'd set the previous season when they won the whole thing. Everyone seemed to know it; the team as then constructed -- Hakeem Olajuwon and a supporting cast -- wasn't going to get it done. They needed a second alpha dog.

It came in the form of hometown son and 1992 Dream Teamer Clyde Drexler, whose time as a Portland Trail Blazer had run its course after 12 seasons. The Blazers had moved on from the Rick Adelman era and ushered in the ultra-salty P.J. Carlesimo as their next head coach, which in terms of bedside manner was like going from Florence Nightingale to Nurse Ratched. Drexler wanted out.

And so on Valentine's Day 1995, the deal got done -- the ultra-popular Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola and a first-round pick were sent to Portland for Clyde Drexler and Tracy Murray. The rest is Houston history.

TOMJANOVICH: We never made it a battle cry about defending the championship. You just go out and do the best you can.

PETERSON: We got off to a great start, pretty good through the holidays, but after New Year's, the boat was starting to leak a little bit. It wasn't as smooth as the previous season. Players were talking about this and that. That led to somebody deciding to make a drastic change.

WORRELL: There was something missing with that 1995 team in the first half of the season. I know Hakeem hated to give up Otis Thorpe, but it was Clyde, and you had to go get him.

TOMJANOVICH: My feeling was that these guys won a championship, and they deserve to defend it. Trading someone wouldn't normally be the way I'd do things. But then we had a couple of disappointing losses, and when Clyde's name entered the mix, it became very interesting.

CHUCKY BROWN, Rockets forward: That day in practice, Otis knew something was going down. He was really agitated. There were a couple fights that came close to starting; he was slamming the ball. Otis knew something was going down. Otis wasn't Otis that day.

PETERSON: Otis Thorpe was one of my favorite people of all time to play the game. I've had Otis at my house. He was an absolute gentleman. We heard rumors about Otis getting traded, and then all of a sudden it happened.

ELIE: We were searching at that point. We had a lot of injuries, and I guess management felt we needed a jolt. It hurt, though. We were in the bunker with Otis. I was definitely a little bitter at first. But Clyde came in and changed everybody's eyes.

TRACY MURRAY, Rockets forward and Drexler's teammate in Portland: Clyde wasn't happy in Portland; not many people were. That situation was a nosedive with P.J. Carlesimo as the new head coach. Clyde was a Rick Adelman guy, and we both needed a change.

TOMJANOVICH: Otis was probably the guy who I did stuff off the court with the most, so it was tough. But we figured we had to get scoring relief for Dream. We were putting everything on him. Clyde was probably the only person in the league we would have considered trading Otis for in-season.

MURRAY, on finding out he was traded: That day in Dallas, we were there for a road trip. I was the first one to the building so I could get some shooting in. I was all dressed and ready to shoot, and an employee from the Mavericks walks in and says, "What are you doing here?" I was like, "What do you mean?" He said, "You've been traded to Houston." So I got in touch with Clyde, who was already on his way to the airport. No one told me anything! Not the team, not my agent, nobody! They called me a cab, I walked past a bunch of my now former teammates and I had to rush to the airport. I was dripping in sweat running to the gate with my bags! Clyde was cracking up.

CLYDE DREXLER, Rockets All-Star guard and Hall of Famer: The minute I got here, the guys treated me like I'd been here forever. Rudy T was incredible. Leslie Alexander was extremely hospitable. Of course, joining Hakeem Olajuwon was like joining my brother. The rest of the guys -- Mario, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell -- they all treated me really well.

OLAJUWON: Every time we would go to Portland to play them, after the game, of course, Clyde and I are friends, so we would go to dinner. We would look at the box score and how I played and how he played, and think "Oh, man, what we could do together!" We thought this for many years!

ALEXANDER: We got a lot of bad press on the Clyde trade. Everyone was saying, "How can you trade a starting power forward for a 6-6 guard?", but he was one of the top 50 players of all time. I just thought it would be unbelievable for us, and it proved out that it was.

Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, together again. Phi Slama Jama, NBA style. To many, the whole scenario seemed too good to be true. However, after that brief puddle jumper flight from Dallas with Murray, Drexler arrived at the Summit shortly after halftime of a Rockets game with the Clippers, the conquering hometown hero. The only thing missing was pyro and ring entrance music.

PETERSON: We were in the middle of the broadcast, around halftime, and we had the great view of the tunnel where all the players come out, and I tap Foley on the shoulder and pointed at Clyde. The fans went ballistic when they saw him. I wasn't gonna believe it until I saw the whites of his eyes, and there he was! I saw the whites of his eyes!

FOLEY: Charlie Thomas still had his great seats, and Drexler hugged Charlie Thomas and then hugged Les. And of course, there was poor Tracy Murray having to wave to the crowd with everyone giving Clyde a standing ovation.

DREXLER: Tracy Murray is a great guy. He would be an absolute star in today's game.

MURRAY: It was really cool to be part of such a historic moment. The whole energy was unbelievable. I felt euphoria.

BROWN: When I saw Clyde walk in, I thought back to my rookie year playing Portland and just remembering how big Clyde was, that he was so much bigger in person.

OLAJUWON: You just don't think it could ever happen, and then it does happen, and I was overcome with emotion thinking, "All this stuff Clyde and I have talked about is now possible."

TOMJANOVICH: Clyde was so amazing with his approach and his professionalism, and how he handled everything. We knew we'd get better when we'd get to full strength. We talked about it all the time as coaches. Clyde made it easier for everybody.

ELIE: Dream was hurt when Clyde got here, and he kept us afloat. He had 41 in a game against the Clippers, and I thought, "This dude means business." We really felt good that we had two guys that could dominate a game.

OLAJUWON: Because of Clyde's leadership role in Portland, it was very natural for him to come in here and lead, and our teammates saw that right away. He did it so well, it was flawless. No big adjustment, just come to play.

FOLEY: We had 17 different starting lineups that season heading into the playoffs, which was the complete opposite of the year before when we had the same starters in over 60 of the 82 games.

ELIE: Clyde put a picture from our championship the previous year in his locker to inspire himself. He was a man on a mission.

Drexler's signature stretch individually during the remainder of the regular season came during an eight-game period in which Olajuwon was sidelined with anemia. Drexler averaged 30 points and ten rebounds a game, showing clearly that the team now had two star players it could lean on in tough times. That was a good thing, since the Rockets would go on to finish the regular season 47-35 and limp into the 1995 playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

No sixth seed had ever won an NBA title.

 

ROUND ONE: Rockets 3, Jazz 2

How good was the Western Conference in 1994-95? Well, the Utah Jazz were the third seed, and they won 60 games in the regular season. Salt Lake City was the first stop on the Rockets' postseason gauntlet. With revenge on their mind after bowing out to the Rockets in a five-game whimper in 1994, the Jazz set out to make the Rockets a one-hit wonder.

And one game into the series, after a 102-100 loss in Utah, the Rockets would have to overcome an odd but not entirely unforeseen self-inflicted wound. Vernon Maxwell, the mercurial and wildly popular shooting guard who was so huge the previous season but was relegated to a backup role in the wake of the Drexler trade, had had enough. And honestly, the Rockets had, too. Maxwell abruptly left the team (or was kicked off, depending on whom you talk to), and he was done in Houston. The Rockets, however, were just getting started.

FOLEY: I sensed there was relief when Vernon left. There was an underlying problem the last couple months of the season.

WORRELL: Sending Vernon home seemed to galvanize the team. They rallied around each other.

FOLEY: The loudest flights we had were when you had Maxwell, Cassell, Elie and Smith together on the plane, so I'm sure Vernon was griping to those guys on the plane about his role on the team. So when Rudy kicked him off, I think it brought the team closer together.

VERNON MAXWELL, Rockets guard: I just couldn't take it. I handled it the wrong way, now that I've thought about everything that went down. I shouldn't have left the way I left. I got upset because they had brought Clyde in. Nobody said anything to me about the trade, and I just felt like they disrespected me.

ELIE: We were mad at him at the time (in 1995). We always love Vernon, though. You talk about a clutch player. That guy was so tough to practice against, he made me a better player. He made us all better.

MAXWELL: After Game 1, I met with Rudy and the coaching staff and told them I wasn't in the right frame of mind. I overreacted, like I normally do. Bad decision. Wish it wouldn't have happened.

The Rockets would eventually find themselves in the first two of what would become five elimination games that postseason, first sending the series back to Utah with a 123-106 Game 4 win in Houston, and then staring down their own mortality in a Game 5 in Salt Lake City in which the turning point came with the Rockets down 82-75 with 5:40 to play. Clyde Drexler made the remainder of that game the next chapter in his Hall of Fame résumé.

PETERSON: Clyde literally took over in Game 5 of that series. We didn't even mention Olajuwon in the last five minutes. It was all Clyde, and all we could think was, "This is why we got Clyde Drexler, games like this."

FOLEY: In that fifth game, for some reason Utah got away from the Stockton and Malone pick-and-roll and David Benoit was acting like he was secretly on the Rockets, jacking up shots and missing them all.

DREXLER: At some point in time, you have to say, "We're either gonna go down softly or give it everything we have." It takes an extra level of focus, an extra level of hustle. We had the extra level.

ELIE: That Game 5, late in the fourth quarter, we went into the huddle. We all looked at each other and said "Hey, the season's on the line." When Dream's shot that hit the corner of the backboard went in, I knew we were destined for something special.

ALEXANDER: I was at Game 5, and all of the Utah fans were so loud, saying, "This is our year, this is our year," and then after the game was over I turned around to them and said, "This is our year," and they all cursed at me!

BROWN: I was fouled late in the game; we were down one point. I'm walking to the free-throw line, and Clyde whispers in my ear, "If you make these, we win the game." I was like, "Thanks for that, Clyde!" Kenny came up to me right after that and was like, "You got this, man! You got this!" We laugh about that to this day and wonder why Clyde put all that pressure on me.

TOMJANOVICH: There are so many situations when I go back through that title run where I say, "How in the hell did we do that?" Game 5 in Utah was the first.

OLAJUWON: Sometimes when we would be on the floor in certain situations, it would look like it was impossible for us to win the game. And we would go back to the locker room afterwards and ask each other, "How did we win that game?"

 

ROUND TWO: Rockets 4, Suns 3

The Rockets would find themselves with a familiar second-round opponent in the Phoenix Suns, whom they had beaten in seven games to advance in 1994. However, unlike 1994, when the Rockets were able to shrug off "Choke City" headlines and right the ship early in the series after falling behind 2-0, the 1995 group would fall behind 3-1, and once again head back out on the road trying to avoid the playoff guillotine. What nobody besides those close to the team knew on the night of Game 5 is that the Rockets were precariously close to having to do it without Clyde Drexler, who was in bed all day with a 102 degree fever and hooked up to an IV.

DREXLER: We are down 3-1, and one thing I hate to do is not show up. I'm gonna show up. I didn't know where I was or how I even got to the arena. I was on an IV all day, asleep with an IV in my arm all day. I was thinking that even if I get run over walking to the arena, I'm gonna be there.

FOLEY: Clyde was sick all day the day of Game 5, taking IVs all day. He didn't contribute much at all that game, à la Willis Reed.

DREXLER: I didn't know where I was, what I was doing or who I was. I looked at the box score and said, "Did I even play?" The only way I got out was the nurse who was in there watching me left the room, and when she came back I was gone. I caught a cab from the lobby.

ELIE: Clyde was sick all day, taking IVs, but just having him there on the court gave us a huge boost.

ALEXANDER: Seeing Clyde get up off of his sickbed, he is a true trooper, a guy that really wants to win so badly.

Drexler would actually go scoreless from the field in that game, so other guys needed to step up. Right on cue, the Rockets got a combined 30 points off the bench from forwards Mario Elie and Chucky Brown, who just a couple of months earlier was on the second of two ten-day contracts with the team.

PETERSON: I did an interview with Charles Barkley one night, and he said to me, "Who the hell is Chucky Brown?" Chucky actually did a pretty darn good job.

BROWN: I wasn't scared of Charles. I knew he was more frustrated than me when he was bringing my name up. Ironically, Otis Thorpe was the one who really helped me with things like guarding Charles Barkley early on when I was in Houston.

ELIE: When one of your soldiers goes down, other guys have to step up. In that Game 5, Chucky Brown and I each had 15 off the bench, and we really gave the team a lift.

MURRAY: Robert Horry was a huge key to that run, covering power forwards on defense and making huge shots. That Phoenix series was the birth of Big Shot Bob.

The Suns had two chances to close out the Rockets in that Game 5. The first came with Charles Barkley going to the line with the Suns up 92-90 and under 20 seconds to play in the game. Barkley missed both free throws.

FOLEY: Charles missed two huge free throws in Game 5 that could have ended the season even before the Wesley Person miss at the end of regulation. It shows you, it happens to the best.

ELIE: Chuck's booty hole got tight.

Then, with the game tied at 92, Wesley Person had a look at a wide-open three at the buzzer that somehow rattled in and out. The Rockets' second championship was literally a fraction of an inch away from ending in five games in the second round.

PETERSON: Wesley Person missing that jumper was the next in a long line of miracles. I remember watching it leave his hand and then saying, "In and out...how sweet it is!"

MURRAY: I couldn't believe Wesley got such a good look. That was the biggest shot of his career, and it's scary to think how things would be different for everyone, especially him, if he makes it.

After another elimination matchup in Game 6, the Rockets would return to Phoenix for a memorable Game 7 that had everything a basketball fan could ask for -- drama, intrigue, huge performances by star players and, for Houstonians, an "I remember where I was when that happened" moment.

TOMJANOVICH: I had a premonition that Ainge would be the guy who would hurt us in that series. My strategy in that series was to cover the outside shooters and not double Barkley or Kevin Johnson. I stuck with it the whole series, and (assistant coach) Larry Smith was ready to kill me. I told him, "Larry, I appreciate your opinion. We are sticking with this." If we lost that series, they would have all said how dumb I was.

MURRAY: It was actually Kevin Johnson who was killing us in that series. He was going for huge numbers, but he might have been killing us so badly that it took the rest of Phoenix's players out of the mix and got them a little out of synch.

Tied at 110-110, with 20.4 seconds to go, the Rockets inbounded the ball to Kenny Smith, who dribbled to half court. The Suns doubled Smith, who found Robert Horry across the court. Horry took one dribble and launched a pass in the far corner to Mario Elie. The pass looked as if it was going to sail into the third row, but somehow Elie came down with it, set his feet and became a Houston legend...

ELIE: Catching the pass was the hard part. Making the shot was the easy part. Danny Schayes is not an idiot. He's not gonna leave the best center in the game to come out on me. He reacted, but it was too late. The shot felt good as soon as it left my hand.

BROWN: Phoenix was up in the fourth quarter, and Joe Kleine was giving us the kiss of death and had been doing it to us the whole fourth quarter, and that's why Mario did that to him.

ELIE: I turned around and looked at Joe Kleine, and you know the rest. K.O.D., baby...Kiss Of Death!

OLAJUWON: I always told Mario that he only has two moves -- his outside shot or he fakes and then drives. So when I saw the ball swing to the corner, wide open, no hesitation, he doesn't miss many of those. That was a classic moment, with a signature...the Kiss Of Death was his signature!

TOMJANOVICH: It was beautiful, and he had great rotation on it. It was a high arcing shot. It was great. It was just beautiful.

ELIE: When you've been through all I'd been through, you're not afraid to fail.

TOMJANOVICH: Even after all of the stuff with Mario's shot and all that strategy, Robert Horry threw the ball away to Danny Ainge in the backcourt on the final play, and Ainge had a halfcourt shot to win it that hit the backboard. As the ball was in the air, all I remember is thinking, "Not like this!!!"

ALEXANDER: When I saw Mario's shot hit the net, I thought that it was destiny, that we were going to win the whole thing.

For the Rockets, the Phoenix series would in retrospect be the most harrowing hurdle of the second title run. From that point forward, you could see the machine Rudy Tomjanovich envisioned on Valentine's Day taking hold.

PETERSON: I was really proud of the way Barkley handled that series. He just said it very simply: "We got beat by a better team. Period." So many players would never do that.

FOLEY: Gene and I used to golf with Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was the vice president of the Suns at the time, and every time we'd travel to Phoenix in the playoffs, Cotton would joke that it was our last round of golf together, implying Phoenix would be ending the series soon. Well, it never worked. He kept jinxing himself.

WORRELL: Phoenix used three different centers on Hakeem, and they still couldn't stop him. He put the team on his shoulders.

DREXLER: Our team had an amazing knack where everyone showed up for close-out games. Everyone. Starters, bench guys, Rudy was always amazing coaching us in those situations. We were comfortable playing in those situations. That's special.

FOLEY: How the hell did we beat Phoenix with Chucky Brown and Pete Chilcutt at power forward?

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Rockets 4, Spurs 2

The Rockets would face their third postseason opponent with 59 or more wins, making the short trip down I-10 to face the San Antonio Spurs, led by 1994-95 MVP David Robinson. And that's really where the story of this series begins and ends. Somewhere, a fateful decision was made to present Robinson his MVP trophy within a one-basketball-court radius of the previous season's MVP, Hakeem Olajuwon. As if the Rockets and Olajuwon needed any extra motivation, Robinson raised the trophy over his head before Game 2 to rousing applause from the Spurs faithful. He might as well have been raising the severed head of one of Olajuwon's teammates.

PETERSON: We were right next to the Rockets bench, and I couldn't hear what Clyde was saying, but he was clearly letting Dream know that was his trophy Robinson was getting.

DREXLER: I said to Hakeem, "The nerve of them giving him your trophy right before this game." I stomped away like I was disappointed, and Dream grabbed me by the arm before I could walk away, and he said, "Do not worry. We will get the big trophy." I felt really good at that point.

WORRELL: David gave a very good acceptance speech, but he tried to remember the names of the previous winners, and that was his mistake, because he brought up Jordan, Russell, everybody but one name...the previous MVP, who was standing right there. It was the biggest mistake Robinson could make. He forgot Olajuwon.

BROWN: We all saw the look on Dream's face, and I think Dream considered the whole ceremony to be disrespectful. He just went to work.

MURRAY: I was standing right there. Kenny Smith was hyping up Dream like Don King hyping up Mike Tyson, telling him that Robinson was stealing his trophy.

TOMJANOVICH: I looked at Hakeem and was just wondering, as a person, what's Hakeem feeling now. That was his trophy, and wondering what effect that would have on him. We found out.

OLAJUWON: (Laughs) There's no way I can change people's perception of that night. You cannot question the legitimacy of David's MVP that season. He was the MVP. They won 62 games; he dominated the league. We didn't win enough games. You have to win.

As it turned out, Robinson should have just cut out the middleman, canceled the trophy ceremony and spit in Olajuwon's face instead, because Dream reacted like a man disrespected, turning the Western Conference Finals into his own six-game revenge fantasy, eviscerating Robinson to the tune of 35 points and 13 rebounds per game.

OLAJUWON: David and I for many years, we would neutralize each other. So at my position, for my team to win in that series, I felt responsible that I had to play like an MVP to neutralize him. So I went on the attack.

PETERSON: I invented that Dream Shake about 20 years ago, and what he did to David Robinson that night in Game 2 in San Antonio. There was the one series of moves that was so spectacular, I could barely describe it. He just turned him inside out.

WORRELL: I think on that play I used the word "bamboozled." Hakeem bamboozled Robinson. I have no idea why I used that word, but that's exactly what he did.

BROWN: I can remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was at the game, and on the move where Dream turned Robinson inside out with all the fakes, and I remember Kareem was just laughing. Dream was at the top of his game.

OLAJUWON: Giving credit to David, you cannot beat him with one or two basic moves. You have to have advanced moves. He's so active, so long, if you just give him a basic one or two moves, he will get that. He brought the best out of me.

FOLEY: Not only did they give Robinson the MVP Trophy that year, but that season Hakeem wasn't even second-team All-NBA. David was first-team, and Shaq was second-team. I know Hakeem was angry about that, too.

PETERSON: That particular performance was inspired by a great player who thought he was denied his MVP trophy.

FOLEY: I'll always remember David Robinson after Game 2, and his exact words were, "Don't laugh at me, but I think I did a pretty good job against him."

MURRAY: I never thought I'd see a good player get destroyed like that on the NBA level. I've still never seen anything like that.

ELIE: I never seen that big man so focused. Just the look in Dream's eye. On the biggest stage, against the player who had the best season, Dream dominated.

ALEXANDER: I thought after this series, we'd beaten the three best teams, so it was over by then, even before we played Orlando.

 

NBA FINALS: Rockets 4, Magic 0

If there was a team in the mid '90s that was viewed as the "next big thing," it was the Orlando Magic. They had won the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery and selected Shaquille O'Neal (who was literally the "next big thing"), and then, to the skepticism of many, won the lottery again in 1993, flipping that pick to Golden State for the pick that would net point guard Penny Hardaway. This would be Orlando's version of Hakeem and Clyde, only younger and with more endorsements.

TOMJANOVICH: That was a good team; it wasn't just Shaq and Penny. They had Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson shooting threes; Horace Grant was a veteran presence. They had their way with us in the regular season. That was a hard place to play. It was a very frantic place for us. We always had a hard time getting settled, and Game 1 kind of started out that way.

OLAJUWON: I had just played against David, whose game was quickness, height, agility. That's one thing. You go from that to Shaq, who was power, the total opposite of David. Shaq is very smart; he doesn't go for your fakes. He makes you go wide and go around him.

The Rockets fell behind by 20 points in the first half of Game 1, cut the Magic's lead to 11 by halftime and then, behind a barrage of Kenny Smith three-pointers, clawed their way back in the fourth quarter, close enough to force Nick Anderson to make a free throw to clinch the game with seconds to go. Anderson would miss. And miss. And miss. And miss. Four times Anderson missed what would have been a game-clinching free throw. It was exactly the opening the Rockets needed.

TOMJANOVICH: Those four missed free throws were a miracle that allowed us to hang on by a twig on a cliff.

PETERSON: We called him Nick the Brick after that.

FOLEY: I think if Anderson makes the free throws, the Rockets still would have won the series, but the way they won Game 1, you could tell the series could be over early.

ELIE: I was pissed off we didn't get the rebound after Nick's first set of free throws.

BROWN: After Nick missed the first two, we knew he'd miss the next two. We were on the bench, and I remember Tim Breaux said, "Oh, he gonna miss these."

ELIE: Nick was definitely still thinking about the previous two he just missed, because he missed the first one on his next trip and he started smiling. When a dude is smiling, that's when you got him. That's when you know he's tight. And then he missed the second one, and Kenny went and got the rebound.

PETERSON: All Anderson needed was one. He missed all four, and I looked at Foley and said, "We're gonna tie this game." And that's what we did.

After getting the rebound on the final Anderson miss, Smith would call time out. Tomjanovich drew up a play ("a high screen, I believe"), but Smith saw an opening, stopped, faked, let Hardaway sail by, and launched a three pointer that tied the game. The Rockets would go on to win Game 1 in overtime on a Hakeem Olajuwon tip-in of a Drexler miss at the buzzer.

TOMJANOVICH: Kenny Smith's three-pointer is not talked about enough. If the Magic win that game, then our mystique is gone. But with Kenny hitting that shot, it had a huge effect on the Magic. I don't think people talk about Kenny's shot enough.

FOLEY: I don't think Olajuwon knew in overtime that he had won the game immediately, until he saw his teammates celebrating, and then he started smiling.

OLAJUWON, on his reaction to his game-winning tip-in: It was the silence in the arena that shocked me. At that moment, I thought something went wrong. It was complete silence at that moment. But then I saw somebody on our team jumping, and I knew it counted.

WORRELL: After that first game, I remember seeing Robert Horry in the locker room, and he just said, "We are gonna win." The tone was set.

MURRAY: Those four free throws changed Nick Anderson's whole career. He never posted up after that because he was too afraid to go to the line. He just shot jumpers after that. Mentally, that whole sequence did something to him that lasted the rest of his career.

ELIE: We had so much poise on our team. Orlando was young, and excited to be there, and got up early. The biggest part of that game, though, was Clyde Drexler's run at the end of the second quarter. He had an 8-0 run on his own and got us within 11 points, and we actually felt good being within 11.

MURRAY: That series was over after Game 1. The three games after that were just easy.

The main problem for Tomjanovich after that heart-pounding Game 1 was maintaining his team's focus, which led him to deliver a tongue-lashing to what he felt was a Rockets team a little too prematurely proud of themselves.

TOMJANOVICH: We were getting happy feet after Game 1. I had to explain to our guys that we had to be serious. We had an opportunity to really get an advantage. The Magic made you pay so much attention to detail, we needed to be focused.

PETERSON: The guys were goofing off, so proud of their lucky win in Game 1. Rudy gave them a tongue-lashing, and he was really serious. And four minutes in, you could tell, Orlando had no chance. And they beat them by 20.

BROWN: Well, if we were messing around, it wasn't me. Not where I came from. But Rudy sensed something, and he flat out told us, "You guys are gonna get your ass kicked." Hey, it worked. We beat them bad in Game 2.

TOMJANOVICH: Mario said after the San Antonio series that we need to stay hungry and stay humble. That became our battle cry.

As was usually the case, Tomjanovich knew exactly what buttons to push. His NSFW practice tirade jolted the Rockets into focus, leading to a 117-106 Game 2 victory. After a 106-103 Game 3 win in Houston, which was best remembered for the continued evolution of "Big Shot Bob" Horry, Game 4 was more of a coronation than a competition. The Rockets would clinch their second championship, the eagle once again landing, with a 113-101 win. Olajuwon would get his MVP trophy, his second NBA Finals MVP, averaging 33 points and 12 rebounds and baptizing Shaquille O'Neal.

PETERSON: Hakeem welcomed Shaq to the league in that series, plain and simple. He taught him how to play basketball in four games. He proved how good he was and how much Shaq had to learn.

TOMJANOVICH: Before the end of Game 4, I left the bench, because I knew there'd be chaos, so I could talk to (Orlando head coach) Brian Hill and let him know how much I respected them and that the series was much closer than a sweep.

WORRELL: Hakeem and Clyde ran right over to each other. I'm sure because of that title in college that had eluded them, they felt they were owed a title as teammates. A glorious moment.

ELIE: Helluva run. We were going down in history; it's a hard league to win a title in, let alone repeat.

BROWN: I was the last guy in the locker room after the celebration on the floor, and I remember Rudy coming up to me to tell me, "We need to take care of your contract for next year." I'm not a crier, but that got me. I cried. A real contract, not a ten-day contract. That was a big deal to me!

MURRAY: That was a group of guys who enjoyed being around each other. There was a night when I was still with Portland, and I was out in Cleveland by myself at a bar. In come the Rockets; I guess we were in town at the same time. And with the Rockets, everyone is together, not just players but coaches, too. They enjoyed each other. That night, I wished I could be a Rocket. And eventually I became one.

BROWN: That night we won the title, I was out at the clubs celebrating with my buddy, and I got pulled over for speeding at four in the morning and the cop let me go. That was the first time that "being Chucky Brown" got me out of a speeding ticket.

ELIE: We would love to have played Jordan; that dude was the best. People always hold it against us that Jordan left for two years. We'd have loved to have seen him. He came back in March and couldn't get it done. That's not our fault.

MAXWELL, who was watching from home: I was happy for them, happy for my teammates. I mean, that was something we'd been building since 1989.

TOMJANOVICH, on "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion": We'd heard so many people tell us we're not gonna do it. We had people saying we would be the first team to win a championship and not make the playoffs the next year. But I wasn't trying to be cocky. I wanted people to know that there's something special in people who get through that kind of adversity. In two years, we won ten do-or-die games. I don't think anyone's come close to that.

ALEXANDER: Young lion wasn't ready for old lion. Orlando was too young.

 

On March 19, 2015, Houston remembered a once-in-a-lifetime group of players.
On March 19, 2015, Houston remembered a once-in-a-lifetime group of players.
Jeff Balke

MARCH 19. 2015: The 20-Year Reunion

On March 19, 2015, a vast majority of the Rockets players, coaches and staff members from those two title teams returned to Houston to relive the memories, exchange laughs, retell old stories and hug.

TOMJANOVICH: So much gratitude to Les Alexander -- it was so well done. I got a chance to get all those guys together and tell them how grateful I was that they had such great heart. They were so special.

ELIE: I had two good friends pass away recently, Jerome Kersey and Anthony Mason. I was happy to see everyone at the reunion so healthy. Everyone looked great. That made me happier than anything.

For guys like Vernon Maxwell and to some degree Maxwell's ex-teammates, it gave them all a chance for closure on that bizarre, controversial and -- ultimately for Maxwell -- unfortunate chapter in the two title runs.

FOLEY: Vernon Maxwell was like a Pied Piper at the reunion. The fans just ate him up.

TOMJANOVICH: I played golf with Max when he came back. He knows he made a mistake, but I've learned that you got to put things behind you. He did a lot of good for our team.

ELIE: Everybody makes mistakes, and it was so great to see everyone embrace Vernon and see him taking pictures with everybody, hugging everybody. He signed every single autograph. He was a great ambassador that night.

TOMJANOVICH: One day in 1994, I remember poking my head in and Max leading a players-only meeting, and the things Max was saying were so pure and so in line with what we were trying to accomplish. It just touched me. Vernon has a good heart.

MAXWELL: It was good to see all my teammates and people from the organization. It helps me because of the way I left. I haven't been back here since. I said I would never, ever go back to Houston ever again, but here I am. I showed up. So I'm good.

It was a time for reflection on both title runs, but particularly that circuitous, jagged 1994-95 season that will never be replicated again, by any team...

FOLEY: It was a cattywampus season. It was crazy.

TOMJANOVICH: In an airport after those two titles, a minister came up to me. He told me that he loved the way we did stuff, how we were no-nonsense and "We used your guys as a lesson to show young people how to act." I asked him where his church was located, figuring it was Houston. He said "Phoenix." I thought that was a huge compliment.

PETERSON: We won nine games on the road. We won seven games in a row on the road. The whole run was a miracle. It really was. That was my most exciting season, the 1995 season. Without question. That will never be duplicated again.

DREXLER: Our team had a ton of poise. There wasn't much to say before games; we knew what we had to go out and do. They'd won the year before, I'd been to the finals a couple times and Leslie Alexander was the perfect owner.

WORRELL: I didn't realize how much the titles still meant to me. It dawned on me as I was emceeing the luncheon (on March 19) how much this still meant to everybody and how much it meant to me.

DREXLER: That championship was for Houston, not only the Rockets fans but all the University of Houston fans, too. This was their championship, too.

OLAJUWON: The first one was special because it was the first one, but the second one, the way we did it. So unique, to come from the sixth seed. You know, for a champion, the first round is supposed to be a warm-up, the best team against the worst team. For us, in those playoffs, every round was the championship series.

It was a time to reflect on a head coach, a head coach who wasn't even sure he wanted the job when it was offered to him in 1992. Initially reluctant, eventually brilliant, Tomjanovich was the guiding light...

PETERSON: Rudy was an All American at Michigan, a multiple time All Star and a two-time champion as a head coach. Rudy should be in the Hall of Fame. Why is he not in the Hall of Fame? There's no good answer.

WORRELL: Rudy not being in the Hall of Fame is one of the great travesties. No one has done what he's done.

PETERSON: Rudy was the man for the time for those teams. What a courageous move to throw a guy off (Maxwell) who had won a bunch of games for you. Rudy was Olajuwon's equivalent in coaching when it came to playing the games one at a time.

OLAJUWON: You hear about "player's coach," but what does that mean? Rudy was a player; he can relate to players. He gave you the room to be yourself within a team structure, so when you have that kind of coach, he gives you so much confidence, you don't want to disappoint him.

BROWN: Rudy never told me a lie. I love the guy. If anybody has something bad to say about Rudy, don't come to me with it, because you might lose a tooth or something.

Ultimately, this was Hakeem Olajuwon's team, and that 1995 postseason was his magnum opus on his Hall of Fame résumé, steamrolling the two centers the league said were better than he was that season. Clearly, it would appear, Olajuwon disagreed.

PETERSON: A good friend of mine is Bill Russell, one of the greatest centers ever. He was retired when I came into the league, but I've been around Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Shaquille O'Neal. Well, Russell and I are coming off the golf course one day in Kingwood, we are sitting in the locker room, and guys are asking Russell his opinion on centers. He says, "Let me tell you this -- Hakeem Olajuwon is the greatest center to ever play the game." That's from BILL RUSSELL.

WORRELL: I've never seen anyone play center over a two-year period the way Hakeem did those two seasons.

DREXLER: To win with Hakeem was like a movie script. We played together at U of H, worked out with him in the offseason. We grew up together, talking about basketball. We had been trying to get together since his rookie year, whether in Houston or in Portland. It almost happened many times. After 12 years, it finally happened.

"Well, time for me to go," says Les Alexander, and with that the Rockets' owner slowly stands up from his barstool in his pristine, palatial Toyota Center suite. His present-day Rockets were a half hour removed from polishing off the New Orleans Pelicans 121-114.

Ironically, as Alexander leaves the building that night, the 2014-15 Rockets are the sixth seed in the Western Conference, the same spot from which a much more seasoned, accomplished bunch of Rockets made magic (and destroyed the Magic) 20 years earlier.

On the coffee table, the O'Brien Trophy on the left belongs to the 1994-95 team. "We are still trying to find out where this dent came from," says Rockets CEO Tad Brown, pointing to a ding the size of an Oreo on the top of the basketball portion of the trophy. Seen up close, the trophy has a number of dents and scratches, each marking a different party or celebration.

It's then that you realize how perfect a symbol that now imperfect trophy is for those 1995 champions. So flawed yet so beautiful.

How sweet it still is.


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