Don't Ever Underestimate the Heart of Rudy T

Rudy Tomjanovich was finally elected to the basketball Hall of Fame.
Rudy Tomjanovich was finally elected to the basketball Hall of Fame. Photo by Jack Gorman
Last week, Rudy Tomjanovich — Rudy T to, well, everyone — was finally elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He has been up for the honor numerous times, but finally made it in 2020 along with a cast of basketball legends that includes Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

It's about damn time.

Much the way Guy V. Lewis, who went into the Hall in 2013, Tomjanovich was forced to wait, the victim of some of the same bizarre bias that held Lewis out for so long.

In the case of Lewis, it was a stunning upset at the hands of NC State and the dynamic young coach Jim Valvano, who would inspire the basketball world with his lost battle to cancer. It underscored the power of some individuals within the media to dramatically influence who got in despite qualifications.

Tomjanovich, on the other hand, was victimized by a brief stint as the coach of the Lakers as well as the perception that the Rockets were gifted their back-to-back titles in the early '90s by Michael Jordan, who was off trying his hand at baseball for most of both seasons. Tomjanovich left the Lakers amid rumors he and Bryant were unable to co-exist, but he has admitted that burnout along with a cancer diagnosis were the true culprits.

For many years, peers like Greg Popovich and Mike D'Antoni have wondered aloud what it would take to finally get Tomjanovich into the hall. In January of 2019, Popovich told the Houston Chronicle, "He’s got the credentials for it. He’s had those credentials for quite a while. So, it’s sort of a mystery why he’s not in."

It's not just Tomjanovich's resume as a coach, however, that makes him so deserving. He was a five-time NBA All Star and has had his number retired by the Rockets and honored by Michigan, where he was an All-American. Keep in mind the Naismith Hall of Fame includes the collegiate careers of players and coaches.

In addition to his two titles in Houston as a head coach, Tomjanovich won a gold medal as head coach of the 2000 Olympic Men's team. That team wasn't the star-studded rosters of the previous Dream Teams and faced far greater international talent than others before it.

But it was the World Championships in 1998 where Tomjanovich produced perhaps his most remarkable coaching performance. With a lockout on in the NBA, USA Basketball was forced to assemble a ragtag group of collegiate and former NBA players, many of whom were playing in Europe. Despite overwhelming odds, they nabbed the bronze medal.

Of course, Houston fans will remember Tomjanovich as the coach of the Rockets during their glory days of the early '90s. After winning their first in 1994, the Rockets, re-tooled with Clyde Drexler joining Hakeem Olajuwon at midseason, won the championship despite opening the playoffs as a sixth seed. After sweeping Orlando in the Finals, Tomjanovich uttered his famous line: "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."

It is fitting then that it took this long to finally get the spot in the Hall Tomjanovich so richly deserves. Despite all the accolades and accomplishments, being the underdog seems to suit Rudy T.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke