Geezer Follies

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.

A representative quote this year from Drexler, manfully offering encouragement to teammates after Utah Jazz guard John Stockton personally tore apart the Rockets on Christmas Day: "The best way to defense (Stockton) is to get the ball out of his hands," said Clyde, setting up a deft it-ain't-my-fault maneuver of the type he long ago mastered. "If I was a point guard, I'd do anything I could to get the ball out of his hands. It's not easy, but it can be done." (Team trainers later successfully removed the knife from the back of Rockets point guard Matt Maloney.)

Hakeem Olajuwon: The only 33-year-old professional Houston athlete to enter into an arranged marriage with an 18-year-old and not earn even a raised eyebrow, Olajuwon has ushered into this city an inclusive, accepting view of the Muslim religion that will last at least one month after his retirement. Radio call-in shows just won't be the same without Rockets fans selflessly proclaiming the man's right to observe Ramadan. Until the team starts losing.

Though Hakeem is one of the best centers to play the game, time appears to be taking its toll on him. He just hasn't been himself this season. There was The Catfight, of course, not to mention the Satan-inspired punch that earned him a suspension. Even the voice-overs he does endorsing local merchants seem more incomprehensible than ever.

Luckily for Olajuwon, NBA centers age more gracefully than players at other positions. They may cover a lot less ground as the years go by, and they may not get half as many rebounds as they used to, but they stick around forever, demanding the ball as if they were in their prime. Who can forget the Celtics' Robert Parrish, winning championships as he was collecting Social Security? Unfortunately for Rockets' fans, a possible clue to the secret of Parrish's success -- his marijuana-possession arrest -- isn't likely to be a factor in Hakeem's staying power. Houston, surely, would have it no other way.

Charles Barkley: Sir Charles is colorful, gives the game's best sound bites and does such things as toss guys with Napoleon complexes through the windows of bars that have names like Phineas Fogg's. While that shows a decided lack of taste when it comes to bars -- a Miami bar named "Phineas Fogg's" all but has a "Yuppie Dorks Only" sign attached -- Barkley also spends plenty of time in what are known as gentlemen's clubs. This is all part of a carefully thought-out long-term plan to win the Alabama GOP gubernatorial primary, apparently.

Not to harp on a theme or anything, but Barkley's skills have also faded with age. And since, unlike Drexler or Olajuwon, he's not a longtime local favorite, chances are he'll be the fall guy for the Rockets' fall. And that masked man applying the behind-the-scenes coup de gráce will look suspiciously like Clyde Drexler, who will then go on to tell the press how sorry he was that it just didn't work out with Charles and they're great buddies and if he ever moves to Alabama he'd vote for the man.

Even if Charles takes the rap, he will have provided perhaps the most concise and trenchant summing-up of the Rockets' current season. Sure, it lacks the magisterial thunder of Hakeem's falling into the trap of Satan, but it makes up for it by simply hitting the nail right on the head.

Like all great poets, he finds the specific that symbolizes the general. Like all great poets, he understands that brevity and rhythm are the tools of the master. His quote seems almost a natural extension of Yeats's famous (and Rockets-worthy): "Things fall apart / the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed against the world."

Quoth Sir Charles, as reported in the March 5 Chronicle: "My back," he said, "is killing me.

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