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Houston Rockets

The Hall of Fame Legend of Rudy Tomjanovich

The Hall of Fame Class of 2020 is undoubtedly headlined by three-generational stars in Kobe Bryant, Tim Ducan, and Kevin Garnett. Not to be lost in the buzz surrounding the Class of 2020's Big 3 is former NBA All-Star and two-time championship-winning coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

Tomjanovich's career could have been defined on December 9, 1977, when he was playing forward for the Houston Rockets and struck in the nose by Lakers forward Kermit Washington suffering a fractured skull, broken jaw, broken nose, and other facial injuries as well as leakage of spinal fluid. That could have been the end.

But it wasn't.

Resiliance personified, Tomjanovich returned and was an All-Star for the fifth time in the 1978-79 season. He even played on the Rockets team that won the Western Conference in 1981, only to lose to Larry Bird's Boston Celtics.

Interestingly, the Rockets opened the season against Bird and the Celtics that season and Tomjanovich was witness to the first three-pointer in NBA history, a shot by Chris Ford.

After retiring as a player, Rudy T. went on to become an assistant coach for the Rockets, working to lead Houston back to the NBA Finals in 1986, only to lose the Celtics again. The Rockets were a gritty team that implemented the first wave of the 'Twin Towers' model with two centers playing alongside one another, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

During the 1980s, the Rockets were the only Western Conference team to defeat Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the playoffs.

After the Rockets parted ways from then-coach Del Harris, Tomjanovich remained as an assistant coach under notable NBA coaching legend Bill Fitch and later Don Chaney. Then during the 1991-92 season, after an overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Houston had a problem. It stood a middling 26-26 and rumours began swirling that it might even consider trading Hakeem Olajuwon. This is the hand Tomjanovich was dealt when tabbed with leading the Rockets for the remainder of the season. They went 16-14 over the final 30 games, finishing one game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Then hope was born.

In the 1992-93 season, the Rockets finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference and lost Game 7 in overtime against Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and the Seattle Supersonics. Although not a championship, it was the furthest the franchise had gone into the playoffs since the 1986 Finals.

The very next year began with an NBA-record 15-0 start, officially igniting the launch into the greatest two-year run in franchise history. With Tomjanovich at the helm and with a full season under his belt, Olajuwon finally had a coach that maximized his skills. He would go on to enjoy one of the most prolific individual seasons in NBA history, winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. The Rockets started the playoffs strong with a quick 4-game dismantling of the Portland Trail Blazers but found themselves in a 2-0 hole against Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns.

Chants of "Choke City" echoed through Texas and the season seemed to be coming to an end. Tomjanovich went back to the drawing board and instilled innovative defensive strategies such as permitting Kevin Johnson to dominate the game offensively to limit offensive flow to other perimeter shooters. Johnson played the most minutes of any player in the series and averaged the most points for any player on the Suns, even more than Barkley.

However, his ball dominance disrupted the flow of other members of the team such as sharp-shooter Dan Majerle who shot 41.6% in the playoffs for his career yet was held to under 30% for the series against Houston in 1994.

The Rockets won four of the next five games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they staved off the pesky Utah Jazz in five games. One team took between the Rockets and championship orbit: Eastern Conference Champion New York Knicks.

The series was another epic 7-game battle that showcased two big-men in Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. The two previously played for the NCAA Championship in a matchup between their respective colleges, Georgetown University and the University of Houston. Ewing was victorious at that time but with Tomjanovich's guidance, Olajuwon was ready to even the score at the NBA level. Then on June 22, 1994 it happened.

The Rockets won the first major championship for the city of Houston. Right then and there, Tomjanovich's legacy could have been cemented forever.

He wasn't done yet.

The next season, the Rockets experienced somewhat of a Championship hangover. Overshadowed by the March return of Michal Jordan and the emergence to the Orlando Magic, the Rockets were forced to tread water during the regular season and finished as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Houston traded for former University of Houston standout and NBA All-Star Clyde Drexler, initially an unpopular move within the team. The team had to reinvent offensive schemes after the Drexler acquisition and adjust roles in the middle of a championship run.

The Rockets escaped the first round after winning a deciding Game 5 on the road in Salt Lake City to eliminate the Jazz for a second year in a row. Like clockwork, the Rockets found themselves in a 2-0 hole against Phoenix in the second round and it got worse. They ended up being down 3-1 and history was not on their side. Only four teams had come back from such a deficit and Barkley, Johnson, and the Suns were prepared for Houston's heroic efforts given the previous year's series of events.

Notwithstanding, the Rockets came through again and took Game 7 in Phoenix after Mario Elie nailed a corner three-pointer and gave the opposing fans the "Kiss of Death."

The Rockets were next faced with the task of taking down top-seeded San Antonio and the newly-appointed MVP, David Robinson. Olajuwon did not take kindly to losing the honor and made sure to upstage his usurper. The Rockets won the series in six games, a nice break from having a winner-take-all game to decide a series. In the Finals, the Rockets made quick work of the young and athletic Orlando Magic and brought home a second consecutive championship. Along the way, the Rockets won 7 straight road games, became the first and only 6-seed to win an NBA Title, won 5 straight elimination games, and defeated four 50-win teams.

Think about that path of bigs for a minute. In the span of two months, Olajuwon ousted Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more impressive postseason gauntlet.

Immediately following the final game, Tomjanovich had his most famous quote and one that echoes through the city of Houston to this day, "[d]on't EVER underestimate the heart of a champion."

Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion indeed. Rudy T would go on to bring the Rockets within a couple games of facing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1997 -- John Stockton ruined that. The Rockets taking on the Bulls in the NBA Finals is just one of many "what ifs" of Rudy's career and NBA history. What if Tomjanovich and Olajuwon faced off against Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan? What if Rudy never succumbed to injury as a player - would he have been better positioned to lead the Rockets over Bird's Celtics in 1981?

After leaving the Rockets in 2003 due to health concerns, Tomjanovich took the head coaching job left by Phil Jackson in the Lakers Organization after the 2004 Finals. Rudy's tenure was cut short midway through the year as his health issues remained and he was unable to substantively guide Kobe in his post-Shaq career. What if he stayed healthy enough to coach fellow-HOFer Kobe Bryant for a full season? What would Kobe say of his time with Tomjanovich?

MORE WHAT IFS: Shaq and Penny in Orlando | Vinsanity and T-Mac in Toronto

Like so many 'what-ifs,' those questions will never be answered. What can be answered is that Rudy is one of nine coaches to win consecutive NBA titles, coached the 1997 Western Conference All-Star team, and the 2000 Gold Medal Olympic team. There is even a "Rudy Tomjanovich Award" which is awarded annually to the coach who has a reputation of being professional and respectful with the media, fans, as well as excellence on the court.

Rudy was a finalist for the Hall of Fame twice before and failed to get the nod. This time around the league made sure to advocate for the former University of Michigan standout.

Thanks to the support from fellow members of the NBA fraternity there is no longer a question about coach Rudy Tomjanovich's place among the greats. He officially has the heart of a Hall of Famer.

Now let's work on getting 7-time NBA Champion Robert Horry to Springfield.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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