Following a dismal 28-54 season in 2001-02, the Houston Rockets obtained the top overall draft pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, which was used on Yao Ming. Yao’s rookie season marked a drastic turnaround, as the Rockets went 43-39 in 2002-03, which was a 15-win differential.
However the Rockets still missed the playoffs that season, marking the fourth consecutive season in which Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich was unable to lead the team to the playoffs. Tomjanovich left the franchise at the conclusion of that season and decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
The move marked a changing of the guard for both franchises, as Tomjanovich had been a coach with the Rockets for 21 years, and spent his entire 11-year playing career in Houston. The Lakers, on the other hand, had been a team with championship expectations but had also gone two consecutive seasons without winning a title under legendary coach Phil Jackson, prompting Jackson to step away from the franchise.
Tomjanovich was signed to a five-year contract worth upto $30 million, and was joining a franchise that had just traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat, making it all the more important that he instantly develop a relationship with Kobe Bryant, who was left as the sole star of the franchise. Tomjanovich recently explained how much differently the situation was for Bryant, who had won three consecutive titles under Jackson from 1999-2002.
“It was an adjustment for him because I was a play caller.”
Tomjanovich ultimately stepped down from the Lakers job after leading the franchise to a 24-19 record through the first 43 games of the season, citing health concerns, although Bryant didn’t exactly want to see him leave.
Houston Rockets’ coaching legend Rudy Tomjanovich explains why Kobe Bryant couldn’t prevent him from leaving Lakers
“Kobe tried to talk me out of it,” said Tomjanovich of his resignation from the Lakers. But the physical and mental toll of coaching had become problematic for his health, and looking back, he admitted that he probably should have never taken the Lakers coaching job in the first place, but was stated that his victory over bladder cancer played a part.
“I probably shouldn’t have done that. 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?”
At the time of his resignation in 2005, Tomjanovich elaborated more on exactly how difficult the day-to-day stresses of coaching one of the NBA’s premier teams became for him.
“It got to where it was bothering me so much that I did call the doctor to get some medication because I just didn’t have the energy, and I was sick all the time.
[The doctor] asked me a very simple question: ‘Is it all worth it?'”
The Lakers finished the season 34-48 and ultimately re-hired Jackson prior to the start of the 2005-06 season, but would struggle for the next 2 seasons, going 87-77, and being bounced out of the playoffs in the first round in consecutive seasons. The Lakers would reach the NBA Finals in 2008-09, but were defeated by the new-look Boston Celtics, who had a trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.
The Jackson-led Lakers ultimately won consecutive titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10, defeating the aforementioned Celtics in the latter season for their 16th title at the time. Although Tomjanovich never returned to coaching following his resignation, he still remains one of the NBA’s coaching legends, and is still the only coach to lead a sixth-seeded team to a championship, which the Houston Rockets accomplished in 1994-95, and is part of why he’s being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.
And not only that, he remains the only Houston Rockets coach to win a championship in franchise history.