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When Rudy Tomjanovich was an NBA player, and a good one, he did

June 13, 1995

HOUSTON (AP) _ When Rudy Tomjanovich was an NBA player, and a good one, he didn’t seem to be coaching material.

``He was not a leader on the court. He was just a hard, tough player who played to win and did his job,″ his top assistant Carroll Dawson said. ``That’s been the biggest surprise. He becomes a coach and all of a sudden I see leadership qualities I never knew he had.″

Now Tomjanovich is on the verge of leading his Houston Rockets to a second consecutive NBA championship.

Around Houston, and across the country, he’s known simply as Rudy. No last name is needed for this unassuming, regular guy who had to be coaxed into becoming an NBA coach.

If ever a team reflected the personality of its coach, the Rockets do.

``Hard-working, never-give-up, humble,″ Dawson said. ``If you watch this team, the egos are not involved, just like Rudy’s isn’t.

``I think one reason Rudy won’t coach very much longer is because his ego’s not big enough. He doesn’t really need this. He wants to be a normal guy. All of this celebrity status really bothers him.″

When the great coaches of the NBA are mentioned, Tomjanovich’s name seldom comes up. But with his team one victory from an NBA Finals sweep of Orlando, he’s becoming harder to ignore.

One more win and he’ll have two titles in just over three seasons as a head coach.

``They’re going to have to look at Rudy and give him some respect, because he’s a great coach,″ Mario Elie said. ``I get mad when I hear George Karl and Pat Riley. Where’s Rudy T in all of that? All he did was win a championship and he’s on the verge of winning another one.″

Attention is something Tomjanovich can do without.

``I don’t like this at all,″ he said, surrounded by the usual mob of reporters. ``I wish we could play basketball in a deserted gym and come out and say, `Hey, we won that one,′ and it’s over.″

The players all say the same things about him, that he’s more like another player than some stern dictator of a coach. He asks for suggestions and listens to their opinions.

Charles Jones has played for all kind of coaches in 12 NBA seasons, and he’s never been around one like Tomjanovich.

``He’s a guy with an open mind,″ Jones said. ``Everybody gets along with him and understands him. It’s so open that it’s hard to describe.″

After an all-American career at Michigan, Tomjanovich was the second pick in the 1970 draft. He played 11 seasons in the NBA, all with the Rockets, first in San Diego and then in Houston. He has been with the franchise for a quarter century.

Tomjanovich played in five All-Star games, but is best remembered as the recipient of one of the most violent punches in sports history.

Running down the court in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1977, he caught the fist of Kermit Washington, who had squared off to punch another player. The severe injury required major reconstructive facial surgery. He came back to play through the 1981 season, but was never quite the same.

Dawson has been an assistant with the Rockets since 1980, Tomjanovich’s last season as a player.

When Tomjanovich retired as a player, Rockets coach Del Harris asked him to stay with the organization as a scout.

``Del and I talked him into helping me because I was the only assistant we had,″ Dawson said. ``I almost had to beg him.″

Two years later, he was made an assistant coach.

When Don Chaney was fired in the middle of the 1991-92 season, Tomjanovich agreed to become interim head coach, but wasn’t sure he wanted the job for good. He decided in the summer to take it. What followed has been a remarkable success story.

Dawson marvels at Tomjanovich’s ability to deal with the personalities on the team.

``He does it with a soft but firm hand on this team. They don’t always like the answers he gives them, but they respect him,″ Dawson said. ``They know that he thought everything out about what’s best for the team. He never has embarrassed a player as long as I’ve been around him.″

Tomjanovich said it’s easy to sell his philosophy of unselfishness, hard work and teamwork with leaders on the court like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. It’s the other parts of coaching that are the most tiresome.

``The travel, all the conflicts and confrontations that you’re going to have over the years,″ he said, ``we haven’t had many, but you’re going to have them. All those things take a toll on you.″

He’d rather just be the guy next door, an ordinary guy who grew up in a small town, who likes to have dinner in a restaurant without attracting much attention.

He has three years left on his contract and says he will be around at least that long.

``I’m not going to be a lifer,″ he said. ``This has been enjoyable. I’ve got a contract, and I’m going to be here until at least then. Then we’ll see what happens. But I’d like to enjoy my life, too. You don’t want this thing to kill you.″

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