Sean Pendergast

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

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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?"

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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