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Monday, December 07, 2015

Reflections on "Clutch City" and Character

The NBA TV special "Clutch City" is an engaging oral history of the Houston Rockets teams that won back to back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. The quote "Sports do not build character; they reveal it" is often attributed to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden but most likely was first uttered--perhaps in a slightly different wording--by sports writer sports writer Heywood Hale Broun. It certainly applies to the Rockets, who overcame much individual and collective adversity to become two-time champions.

Rudy Tomjanovich was an NBA All-Star for the Rockets in the 1970s before being hired as the team's coach in 1992. Tomjanovich not only survived an infamous--and nearly fatal--in-game punch from Kermit Washington but after missing nearly a full season to recover Tomjanovich regained All-Star status. Later, he successfully battled alcoholism and cancer. Tomjanovich is sometimes described as a "players' coach"--which can be a backhanded compliment implying that he did not make many strategic decisions and just relied on his players' talents--but Tomjanovich was very detail-oriented in addition to having the right personality to build a culture of togetherness.

Tomjanovich's steady and heady leadership proved to be critically important during Houston's 1994 Western Conference semifinal matchup versus the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets blew an 18 point lead at home in game one and then set an ignominious playoff record by squandering a 20 point fourth quarter lead in game two. Headlines blared that Houston was "Choke City" but Tomjanovich saw two silver linings in what looked like pitch black clouds: not only could those negative headlines provide motivation to his players but a careful and strategic examination of the game film showed that Houston's big leads were not flukes. Tomjanovich gathered his team around and delivered a simple message: There are solid, repeatable actions that enabled us to build big leads and if we do those actions again we will win this series. The Rockets defeated Phoenix in seven games en route to capturing the first championship in franchise history.

Another Rocket who overcame adversity is Robert Horry. The Rockets traded Horry to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott during the 1993-94 season because they thought that Horry was too passive on offense but when Elliott failed his physical due to a previously undetected kidney ailment Horry ended up back in Houston as a changed man: he became more aggressive offensively, reasoning that the worst thing that could happen was that they would trade him and he had already been through that anyway. Horry's drives and three point shots helped create the necessary spacing for Hakeem Olajuwon to go to work in the paint. As Tomjanovich explained in "Clutch City," basketball is a game of inches and if one player is just a little out of place or does not cut at the right time then the whole offense can break down (try explaining that to a "stat guru" who only looks at numbers and does not know how to watch games to figure out things like proper spacing).

Tough times revealed the true character of Tomjanovich and Horry--and, in a much sadder way, tough times also revealed the true character of Vernon Maxwell. Maxwell has made a litany of poor decisions during his life but even before his impulsiveness sent his life completely off of the rails one could glimpse his true character based on how he handled some basketball adversity. Maxwell played an important role for Houston's 1994 championship team but when the Rockets struggled during the 1995 season they traded power forward Otis Thorpe for shooting guard Clyde Drexler, who would soon be chosen as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Drexler played the same position as Maxwell, whose playing time understandably declined. Maxwell was not pleased and the situation reached a crisis point after the Rockets lost game one of their first round playoff series versus the Utah Jazz. Tomjanovich kept Maxwell on the bench for most of the game but brought him in at the end to attempt a potentially game-winning three pointer. Maxwell missed the shot but his attitude in the aftermath focused on himself, not the team. Maxwell recalls, "After the game, I lost it. You don't put me in with five minutes and you gonna put me in the last minute of the game to try to make the game-winning shot? Who do that, man? I don't want the shot."

Here is Tomjanovich's measured take about Maxwell (who shot 1-7 from the field in that game): "He did not play well. I know that he wanted to play more. The fact of the matter was he was going to play less."

Maxwell could not take the pressure and could not submerge his ego for the benefit of the team. So, he did what cowards usually do when faced with a challenge: he quit. Maxwell told his teammates, "I'm done. I'm leaving tonight."

Point guard Kenny Smith, now a basketball commentator for TNT, implored Maxwell to stay: "I said, 'We need you. Don't leave.' Couldn't talk him off the ledge."

In "Clutch City," Maxwell explains his thought process: "I just told them, 'I quit.' I hated that I did it that way. I should have just sat down and (thought it through) but I never was a guy to do that, to sit back and think first and react later. I just go, 'I'm gone.' Dumb decision, man. Worst decision of my life." The validity of that last statement can be questioned considering Maxwell's subsequent criminal convictions and his deplorable track record as a neglectful father--but the cowardly way that Maxwell ran when things got tough during his sports career revealed the (lack of) character that he subsequently demonstrated in his personal life. As a father, I will always set an example for my precious daughter Rachel Sophia that you face challenges instead of running from them. What matters in life is teamwork and toughness, not doing what you want in the moment because of anger, fear or jealousy.

Vernon Maxwell's ego and selfishness did not destroy the team but rather destroyed his chance to be part of something special, because the Rockets went on to win the 1995 championship without him. Clearly, Maxwell was not an indispensable member of the first championship team because the second championship team went the distance without him, coming back from 2-1 down versus Utah and later rallying from a 3-1 deficit versus the Suns.

Two decades later, Tomjanovich looks back on those championships with fondness and pride: "We had mentally tough guys and they found ways to get it done. Being a champion doesn't just happen. You've got to go through a war. You've got to go through some adversity, some hard feelings, some tears but the team that doesn't let that stuff bother them has a special quality."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM



At Tuesday, December 08, 2015 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I agree with most of that (and love, love LOVE those Rockets teams), but I think Maxwell probably *was* essential to the first title; once they had Drexler- who could do most of what he could do, and most of it better- he wasn't as important.

At Tuesday, December 08, 2015 1:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I understand your point but my point is that when things got tough Maxwell quit and the team won a title without him. By definition that proves he was not indispensable, because he was "dispensed" without changing the outcome. Yes, the Rockets brought in a very good player--a great player in his prime--to fill Maxwell's role but the Rockets also gave up a very good player (Thorpe) to get Drexler, making their lineup very small. Drexler not only replaced Thorpe in a sense but he also replaced Maxwell (yes, Horry technically replaced Thorpe but the point is that Drexler joined the team and needed to take up the minutes/shot attempts of two rotation players from the 1994 championship team). Actually, if you look at playoff FGAs in 1994 and 1995, what happened was Olajuwon increased his FGA/game by about four in 1995, Drexler's 15 FGA/game more than filled the Thorpe/Maxwell void and the rest of the roster collectively attempted about two more shots per game.

If Maxwell had stuck it out, we would not know for sure whether or not he was indispensable for statistical and/or other reasons (leadership, court spacing, etc.). This is kind of like the old notion that it is better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. Maxwell tried to make a statement by quitting but the only statement he made was, "I am soft. I quit when I don't get my way" and the only thing he proved was that even when he left with no notice with his team trailing 0-1 in a best of five series it really was not that hard to replace him.

I think that this story contains a lot of wisdom about how life really works and what it means to be part of a team.

At Tuesday, December 08, 2015 2:53:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Oh, I agree with your larger point; he's a knucklehead who cared about the wrong things and they obviously didn't need him in '95. I just disagreed with the notion that the '94 team would have won without him, as they didn't have a player like Drexler to account for his absence. While obviously having Thorpe was an advantage, the '95 team would have been thin at the 2 without Maxwell.

Perhaps I just quibble with the term. "Replaceable," yes. "Dispensable?" I'm less sure. It would have been difficult size-wise to play Smith/Cassell alongside each other extended minutes, and with Elie as the only other plausible guard on the roster, I think that may have been enough to keep them from winning. That said, Hakeem's a cartoon superhero, so maybe not.


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