How Rudy Tomjanovich almost didn’t become the Rockets’ coach

Head coach Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets (Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Head coach Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets (Robert Laberge/Getty Images) /

Rudy Tomjanovich has become the greatest coach in Houston Rockets history, and has both franchise titles on his resume. But Rudy almost didn’t become the Rockets’ coach.

Before Rudy Tomjanovich became the head coach of the Rockets, Don Chaney was the head coach, and a good one at that. Chaney coached the Houston Rockets for three full seasons, leading the Rockets to the postseason during each season, although each appearance resulted in a first round exit. During those three seasons, Chaney led the Rockets to a 138-108 record.

During the 1991-92 season, the Rockets got off to a 26-25 start heading into a home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, which wasn’t necessarily the mark of a contender. The Timberwolves were 9-40 heading into the game, which seemed like an easy home win for the Rockets.

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Although the Rockets jumped out to a 24-point lead, they weren’t able to hold off the Wolves, as they lost 124-122 in overtime. After the game was over, former Rockets GM Steve Patterson called the team in for a meeting, which was to inform them that Chaney had been fired. Former Rockets sharpshooter Matt Bullard discussed the meeting on SportsTalk 790’s The A-Team, describing it as a scolding of sorts.

Rightfully so, as Chaney had been the coach of the year during the previous season, so this was no easy decision. Shortly after Chaney’s dismissal, then owner Charlie Thomas explained his rationale regarding the decision to let Chaney go.

‘You can`t fire the team and something had to be done,” owner Charlie Thomas said. ”Once you see that things are deteriorating, you have to do something.

Thomas also made sure to make it known that he wasn’t blaming Chaney for the team’s regression, while also adding that even as the owner, he deserved a level of accountability for the team’s struggles.

I`m not blaming Don Chaney. Everyone is accountable and that includes me. I think Don gave the best effort he could give,” Thomas said. ”Maybe three or four years is all a coach can be effective in one place.”

With the departure of one of the top coaches in the league, questions arose regarding who the interim coach would be. The two options were assistant coaches Rudy T and Carroll Dawson, who was having health issues at the time, due to a devastating eye injury he previously suffered from being struck by lightning while golfing.

Patterson let Tomjanovich know that he was getting the nod, but Rudy felt he wasn’t ready. Rudy simply didn’t believe in himself as an NBA head coach, because he had never done the job before. Dawson explained the importance of Rudy taking the job, because if he didn’t, a new coach would’ve been hired.

That would’ve meant both assistants would’ve been out of a job, because a new coach would’ve wanted to bring in his own staff. Dawson’s pleading was successful, as Tomjanovich ultimately took the job, although not exactly being confident in himself at that time.

Rudy T stated, ”I’ll try my approach and we’ll see what happens.” The Rockets went 16-14 during Rudy T’s stint as the interim coach, while finishing with a 42-40 record that season. At the end of the season, the Rockets removed the interim tag from Rudy T and made him the full-time head coach.

As we now know, the rest is history, as Tomjanovich led the Rockets to two consecutive NBA titles, and was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, putting him in an rare-but-elite club of NBA coaches. Dawson remained on the staff as Rudy T’s assistant, and was part of both Rockets championships before moving into a General Manager role with the team in 1996.

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Dawson remained as the Rockets GM through 2007, which is when he ultimately retired, ending a 27-year career with the Houston Rockets. Perhaps one of the best moves he made happened before he was even in a GM role, when he urged Tomjanovich to take the Rockets coaching job.