Sean Pendergast

5 Observations on NBA TV's Outstanding "Clutch City" Documentary

In this age we're in, where the sports documentary genre has become its own art form, when you have a favorite historical team and the time comes for its accomplishments to be recapped, documented and celebrated on film, you hope that the final product will do your team justice. You hope it captures all of the quirky personalities, all of the potholes. You hope that you accurately feel the same Pavlovian bodily chills from every drop of blood, sweat and tears that you did, say, 20 years ago.

If that's the goal, then NBA TV did a superb job with its "Clutch City" documentary, chronicling the build-up and eventual title runs of the Houston Rockets' 1993-94 and 1994-95 NBA championship teams. The 90-minute introspective, which debuted Monday night on NBA TV, retold the story of those two title runs with the two key personalities from those teams — head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Hakeem Olajuwon — serving as the functional bookends of the documentary.

The documentary opened and closed with the two of them sitting in a booth at an eatery in Houston recalling accurately how perfect their marriage was — perfect for Houston, perfect for the NBA, perfect for the two of them. From there, the hardscrabble, blue collar roots of Tomjanovich served as a functional backbone of the show, with Rudy T's strolling the streets of Hamtramack, MI woven in throughout the various de facto "chapters" of the documentary. 

Those two title teams embodied Rudy T's grit and Hakeem Olajuwon's grace under pressure so perfectly that it was appropriate the piece functioned almost equally as a career retrospective on each guy as it did a remembrance of those two titles. You need to go see it for yourself (or read about those teams from our feature last month), but in the meantime, here are five observations about "Clutch City": 

5. Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie vignettes
The producers of the documentary were able to track down and interview virtually everyone who was a part of those two teams. (Notable Rockets absences: Otis Thorpe, Carl Herrera, Chucky Brown and all of the TV/radio announcers — that was weird having no Gene, Jim or Bill Worrell giving takes.) To me, the most insightful, entertaining vignettes came from Maxwell, Smith and Elie. Maxwell's story arc with the organization is easily the most intriguing of any player, in large part because of the unfortunate way it ended in Utah in 1995. Smith's honesty and storytelling ability were crucial to the quality of the film. And if Olajuwon was the heartbeat of those teams, Elie was the red ass, a career journeyman who found a home in Houston and gave the team its grit and grime. (NOTE: In the oral history of the 1995 team that I wrote here in April, of all the players I wasn't able to connect with for the piece, Smith was the one that I most regret not landing. That was confirmed for me watching the doc last night. He was outstanding.)

4. BONUS: A Hakeem Olajuwon career retrospective!
For anyone who wants to relive the Olajuwon Era, not just the "Clutch City" part but all the way back to Lagos, Nigeria, the documentary allows you to go WAY back in time. There are some great still shots and footage of Hakeem (back when he was "Akeem") going back to his U of H days, working out with Moses Malone, playing in multiple Final Fours, wearing his senior prom outfit to the 1984 NBA Draft, scuffling as a frustrated All-Star during the Charlie Thomas Era, before finally becoming a champion. Again, this is almost as much a Hakeem documentary as it is a title team documentary. 

3. The Robert Horry trade that wasn't
Sometimes the deals that you don't make (or in this case, the deal you have rescinded because of a failed physical) are the best deals. "Clutch City" examines the trade that the Rockets had completed with the Detroit Pistons in the midst of the 1993-94 season that would've sent Robert Horry and Matt Bullard to the Pistons for Sean Elliott. The trade would be cancelled after Elliott failed a physical with a kidney ailment. As the story goes, the Rockets moved Horry because he wasn't looking for his shot enough, making him (as Horry emphatically chuckled in the film) the first player to be traded for not shooting enough. It's interesting to go back and look at the "butterfly effect" of this non-deal. Would the Rockets have won one, much less two, titles with Elliott instead of Horry? For what it's worth, I think with a healthy Elliott in 1994, they would have still beaten the Knicks. However, 1995, who the hell knows? With Elliott, there's probably no Clyde trade and just too many moving parts to say how that team would've done in the regular season that year. I think things all worked out for the best for everyone.

2. Rudy T would've been initially crushed in the social media age
It's amazing to see now just how much trepidation Rudy Tomjanovich had about taking the head coaching job of this team when it was offered to him. When Don Chaney was fired, Steve Patterson offered Rudy the job, and the documentary shows a snippet of his meeting with the media after the job offer. For a team that was reeling and needed a jolt, Rudy conveyed the exact opposite demeanor. He seemed  overwhelmed as he said, "I didn't expect this to happen. I just need a chance to catch my breath. I've agreed to do it, and that's all I can say…" If Twitter had existed in the early '90s, in all of its snarky and perennial "everything and everyone sucks" glory, Rudy would've gotten destroyed. 

1. The reams and reams of "insider" footage
With all of these sports documentaries that chronicle occurrences before the YouTube/Internet age, I'm always amazed at the footage the producers are able to get access to. The "Clutch City" documentary has actual footage of Olajuwon working out with Moses Malone, Olajuwon sitting on a pivotal flight to and from Japan with Charlie Thomas (the meeting that supposedly secured Hakeem's future here when he was seeking a trade), even footage of Vernon Maxwell walking out of the arena in Salt Lake after quitting the team. Just amazing access, which makes me wonder where they keep all this stuff archived and if the people shooting it knew it would come in handy someday. (Keep in mind, the footage I'm talking about is not televised footage; it's all candid, borderline amateur handheld camera stuff. Just amazing that it all exists to where it totally makes a piece like this.)

The documentary next airs on NBA TV Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast