HOUSTON – As Rudy Tomjanovich prepares to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame and receive the top accolade in the sport, we take a look at why the man affectionately known as “Rudy T” is so special with Houstonians.
Tomjanovich is known mainly for his coaching exploits, but he was also known to be an above-average player in his own right. The forward averaged 25.1 points and 14.4 rebounds in 72 collegiate games at the University of Michigan. In his junior year, when he was an all-American, Tomjanovich averaged 30.1 points and 15.7 rebounds. To this day, he tops the Wolverines’ all-time career rebounding list.
So it was no surprise that Tomjanovich was drafted second overall in the 1970 NBA Draft by the San Diego Rockets. With the Rockets, Rudy T’s career ramped up quickly. Tomjanovich averaged double doubles in his second and third pro seasons, then averaged a career-high 24.5 points and nine rebounds in his fourth year. That season marked the first of his five career berths in the All-Star Game.
However, as a player, Tomjanovich is perhaps best-known for the infamous moment on Dec. 9, 1977, when -- during an on-court fight with Kermit Washington -- he was punched in the face. That fight left him with a broken nose, fractured skull, broken jaw, other facial injuries, and a leakage of spinal fluid. Tomjanovich eventually recovered and played three more seasons before retiring. Tomjanovich finished his playing career with career averages of 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds.
After starting through the assistant coaching route, Tomjanovich was named the Rockets’ head coach in 1992, succeeding Don Chaney. Two years later, Tomjanovich won the first of back-to-back NBA Championships with the Rockets, the only titles in franchise history. That second championship season was a bit of a roller coaster for the Rockets, as they started the season hot with nine straight wins, but finished the regular season as the Western Conference’s sixth seed.
Even still, the roster certainly had championship makeup, and the team got hot at the right time. Not only did stars like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler come through, but Rockets fans will forever remember moments in that postseason from the likes of Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, and Mario Elie, just to name a few.
And when all was said and done, after the Olajuwon-led Rockets had swept through the Shaquille O’Neal-led Orlando Magic, Tomjanovich stood on the stage during the trophy presentation and said perhaps his most famous line.
“Don’t EVER underestimate the heart of a champion,” he said.
Tomjanovich also did plenty with the national team. He was the head coach of the 2000 USA team that won gold at the Sydney Olympics.
Over the years, it had become almost a tradition for Houston fans to see Hall of Fame voting come and go with Tomjanovich falling short in the ballot -- until last year. And come May 15, Tomjanovich will be officially welcomed into the sport’s biggest shrine and forever have a place amongst the game’s greatest. In the hearts of Houstonians, Tomjanovich already has his place in the city’s sports pantheon as the one with that heart of a champion.