Rudy T and Kobe

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York, February 10, 2012. (Photo: NYTimes)
Even as a noted players’ coach, Rudy Tomjanovich had a hunch Kobe Bryant would need some time to embrace their new partnership.اضافة اعلان

After five years and three National Basketball Association (NBA) championships under Phil Jackson, and having thrived in a read-and-react triangle offense, Bryant was suddenly playing for a lifelong Houston Rocket with different sideline sensibilities.

“It was an adjustment for him because I was a play caller,” Tomjanovich said.

What Tomjanovich shared with Jackson, if not an offensive philosophy, was a gift for reading superstars and ultimately connecting with them. His time with Bryant was short during the 2004-05 season, when Tomjanovich quickly deduced that the stress of coaching had become damaging to his health, but at least one Laker urged him not to walk away.

“Kobe tried to talk me out of it,” Tomjanovich said in a telephone interview, reflecting on his resignation, as well as his connection with Bryant, after just 43 games.

In the buildup to this weekend’s pandemic-delayed inductions for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2020, Tomjanovich, 72, has been telling old stories often — most of them, naturally, from his 32-year run as a player, scout and coach in Houston. The class is headlined by Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Bryant, who will be presented by Michael Jordan and inducted posthumously. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020, that grief-stricken fans and peers are still struggling to process.

Tomjanovich, after twice being named a finalist but not in 2019, earned his place among the 2020 inductees for his coaching achievements in Houston — particularly his championship partnership with Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets won back-to-back titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, first with Olajuwon as the lone All-Star, then as a lowly Number 6 seed after a midseason trade reunited Olajuwon with Clyde Drexler, his college teammate from the University of Houston’s men’s basketball teams known as Phi Slama Jama.

Those Rockets teams were routinely dismissed as champions of circumstance, branded as beneficiaries of Jordan’s 18-month hiatus from the NBA to try to transform himself into a Chicago White Sox outfielder. We’ve since learned, through “The Last Dance” documentary series, that Jordan’s iconic Chicago Bulls were not a lock to handle Houston without a big man anywhere near Olajuwon’s level.

“I heard it from the horse’s mouth — and that’s Michael,” Tomjanovich said.

He said that Charles Barkley, in his first season as a Rocket in 1996-97, arranged a dinner at his home in Phoenix for the Rockets’ coaching staff. There were two very special invited guests: Tiger Woods and Jordan.

“It was the first time I really got a chance to talk to Michael,” Tomjanovich said. “Nobody can ever know who would have won, but he said they were concerned that they couldn’t stop Hakeem. It was great to hear it from him.”

Bladder cancer brought a cruel halt to Tomjanovich’s three decades in Houston after the 2002-03 season. Yet the way he managed an array of big personalities across 12 seasons as the Rockets’ coach helped Tomjanovich emerge as the Lakers’ choice to replace Jackson — after some flirtations with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and an attempt to lure Miami’s Pat Riley back to Hollywood. Tomjanovich, then 56, signed a five-year, $30 million contract to coach the Lakers, who traded Shaquille O’Neal to Riley’s Heat four days later.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Tomjanovich said. “First of all, I was excited that the cancer was gone. I thought, ‘I can’t pass this thing up,’ but then I just felt like I was hurting myself and I had to let it go. I love to coach good players, and Kobe was great. I thought I could do it, health-wise and body-wise, but I couldn’t. People said it was a lot of money to give up, but what good is money if you’re going to make yourself sick?”

It was the rare Tomjanovich comeback story without a happy ending. As a player, he survived a vicious on-court punch from Kermit Washington in December 1977 and recovered to reach his fifth All-Star Game in 1978-79. As a coach, Tomjanovich steered the Rockets to playoff upsets of the teams with the league’s top four records (Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and Orlando) in the 1995 playoffs to win title Number 2, including a second-round rally against the Suns after Houston fell into a 3-1 series deficit.

“That’s how we got one of the greatest quotes ever in basketball,” Robert Horry, one of Tomjanovich’s Houston stalwarts, said Monday. “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

That defiant rebuttal to Rockets skeptics, from a beaming Tomjanovich after Houston completed a 4-0 NBA Finals sweep of O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, became his signature line.

He is still working in the league, hired in December by the Minnesota Timberwolves as a front-office consultant. He referred to his induction as “the cherry on top of it all” and said that coaching gave him what he craved most other than championships in his final years as a player.

A new identity.

“I heard that for a while and it was getting old — ‘Oh, you’re the guy who got punched,’ “ Tomjanovich said. “It was really good to push that in the background.”

Tomjanovich didn’t coach Duncan, but said he would never forget the dread he felt upon seeing him as a rookie in San Antonio, teaming with David Robinson. “The first time they threw him the ball, I watched how he caught it and where he positioned it under his chin and how he looked to the middle,” Tomjanovich said. “I got sick to my stomach.”

He did briefly coach Garnett and, not surprisingly, clicked with another star. Tomjanovich coached the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Garnett was one of his loudest leaders. Two scares against Lithuania, including a semifinal that the Americans easily could have lost, will surely stay with members of that team, since USA Basketball, to that point, had not lost with NBA players.

“I’m telling you, that was a big, big boulder that you’re carrying around,” Tomjanovich said. “You don’t want to be the first.”

Perhaps he and Garnett will have a chance to share a relieved laugh about it at some point during Saturday’s festivities. Every moment of levity is bound to be relished on what figures to be, at various points, an unavoidably somber evening.

Horry, the role player supreme, has as much reason to watch as anyone. He won two of his seven championships alongside Duncan in San Antonio and regards Tomjanovich as “the best coach to play for.” He also played for Jackson and Gregg Popovich, but rates Tomjanovich at the top “because he had a feel for the players and a feel for the game.”

“I only still talk to one of them,” Horry said, referring to Tomjanovich.

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