Inside Rudy Tomjanovich’s Hall of Fame legacy: Why Houstonians have a place for him in their hearts

Rudy Tomjanovich talks to KPRC 2 about his upcoming Basketball Hall of Fame induction
Rudy Tomjanovich talks to KPRC 2 about his upcoming Basketball Hall of Fame induction

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.

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1978: Rudy Tomjanovich #45 of the Houston Rockets in action against the New York Knicks during an NBA basketball game circa 1978 at Madison Square Garden in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Tomjanovich played for the Rockets from 1970-81. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) (1978 Focus on Sport)

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.

LANDOVER, MD - CIRCA 1995: Head coach Rudy Tomjanovich and Sam Cassell #10 of the Houston Rockets reacts after a foul call against the Washington Bullets during an NBA basketball game circa 1995 at US Airways Arena in Landover, Maryland. Tomjanovich coached for the Rockets from 1992-2003. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) (1995 Focus on Sport)

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.

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 19: Fomer Houston Rockets Robert Horry and Clyde Drexler share a laugh with former coach Rudy Tomjanovich as the team honors the 20th anniversary of back-to-back championships during their their game against the Denver Nuggets at the Toyota Center on March 19, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images) (2015 Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 19: Houston Rockets mascot Clutch greets former coach Rudy Tomjanovich as the team honors the 20th anniversary of back-to-back NBA Championships during their their game against the Denver Nuggets at the Toyota Center on March 19, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images) (2015 Getty Images)

About the Author:

Born in Canada but raised in Houston, Howard joined KPRC 2 in 2021 after five years at ESPN. Before that, Howard was a reporter on Houston Rockets and Houston Astros game broadcasts. Among the events that Howard has covered on site: the NBA bubble and the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions for both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He's H-town proud!