Sean Pendergast

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

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...

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.

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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 the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast