Sean Pendergast

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

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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 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?

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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