Culture / Sporting Life

Rudy Tomjanovich Finally Gets a Hall of Fame Moment and Refuses to Make it About Him — a Humble Coach Still Loves Houston

Houston Sports Awards Produce Big Moments — and Show Another Side of Jerry Jones

BY // 01.22.20

Rudy Tomjanovich should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame — and his omission will diminish that shrine in Springfield, Massachusetts until he is rightfully inducted. But maybe the best coach in Houston Rockets history is just too humble for the super secret overlords of Naismith’s land.

When Tomjanovich got a Hall moment — the Houston Sports Hall of Fame — he refused to make it all about him. Instead Rudy T talked about others at the Houston Sports Awards — just like he always gave the credit to Hakeem Olajuwon, Mario Elie, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and the rest of the players during those championship seasons.

If Rudy Tomjanovich made a bigger deal out of himself, he might already be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But then he wouldn’t be Rudy.

The guy from Hamtramck, Michigan who carries plenty of Houston humbleness in him.

“It’s so great to be back in Houston,” Tomjanovich says from the big stage in the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, before all but bowing to his fellow Houston Hall of Fame inductees — Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton, who are both in every Hall of Fame known to humankind that are at all connected to their sports.

“There’s three of us going into the Hall of Fame this year. Two sports cars and an old Datsun,” Tomjanovich cracks.

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The 71-year-0ld Tomjanovich also talks about it being “a privilege to coach” those Rockets teams, his happiness that his grandkids who never watched him coach or play got to see his Houston Hall moment and… his gratefulness. Yes, Rudy T absolutely should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but you can forget the idea of the man himself ever using any of his spotlight to publicly campaign for it.

Terrell Owens he’s not.

“I didn’t have that authoritarian personality a lot of coaches have,” Tomjanovich says. “But I still found a way to relate to my players.”

If Rudy Tomjanovich made a bigger deal out of himself, he might already be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. But then he wouldn’t be Rudy.

In many ways, Tomjanovich is a precursor to the modern professional coaches of today — the Mike D’Antonis, Steve Kerrs and A.J. Hinches of the world who view their players more as partners than subordinates.

But his impact on Houston’s last major sport championship teams before those magical — and sign stealing scandal stained — 2017 Houston Astros is undeniable. This night brought Jerry Jones out in a tuxedo to rave about Houston and his friend Bob McNair. It somehow included Alex Bregman winning Athlete of the Year over Simone Biles, who rightly won just about every national and international athlete of the year award in 2019 that Megan Rapinoe didn’t. (You can argue that Bregman should have won the American League MVP over Mike Trout, but Bregman over Biles is a tough sell.) And it showed that 610 AM radio host Seth Payne may look more uncomfortable in a tuxedo than any man alive.

Still, even with all that, Rudy Tomjanovich getting into a Hall trumps all. The only retired basketball coach with multiple NBA titles not enshrined in Springfield gets a moment in the city’s that always loved him most.

The 2020 Houston Sports Awards honored local heroes and inducted Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and Rudy Tomjanovich into its third Hall of Fame class Tuesday night at the Hilton Americas
Mary Lou Retton and her girls embraced the moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The Houston Sports Authority’s done an incredible job of turning these Houston Sports Awards, an event still only in its third year, into something that feels like a truly big deal. Almost all the biggest stars in Houston sports present and past turn out in their finest (sans Alex Bregman, who was in Aspen on “important personal business” according to Jim Crane, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who originally planned to attend for Rudy but understandably missed to be at NBA commissioner David Stern’s memorial in New York City).

Jerry’s Favorite City?

Jerry Jones would give Houston his highest compliment while honoring McNair, who died in November 2018, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. “Houston is football,” Jones says.

Then, the Dallas Cowboys owner raved about how nice everyone was in town during the two Super Bowls that Bob McNair brought to the Bayou City.

Houston is also still a baseball town, through and through, no matter the depths of the cheating scandal or how much the Los Angeles Times and New York Times are worked up over it. Jose Altuve’s Walkoff to the World Series is rightly recognized as the Houston Sports Moment of the Year. Crane also takes home Executive of the Year, understandably considering his complete save of the Houston Open.

The 2020 Houston Sports Awards honored local heroes and inducted Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and Rudy Tomjanovich into its third Hall of Fame class Tuesday night at the Hilton Americas
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson rightfully won Coach of the Year at the Houston Sports Awards. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

University of Houston basketball resurrector Kelvin Sampson is the only right choice for Coach of the Year — and Sampson gets the trophy for that remarkable 33-4 season. I’d argue UH guard Corey Davis Jr. should have won College Athlete of the Year over Alabama-turned-Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, too. Davis had a better, more impactful season in his sport than Hurts, the former Channelview star, had in his.

But in the end, awards shows are about moments and few can beat Rudy Tomjanovich getting into a Hall.

“Rudy T! Rudy T!” the crowd chants when Tomjanovich is called to the big, glittering stage.

It’s not justice for the Basketball Hall of Fame. That can only come when T0mjanovich is rightly enshrined in Springfield. But it’s a heck of a moment nonetheless.

Nobody appreciates that more than the coach himself.

“I’m one of the fortunate people who can say my life turned out better than my dreams,” Tomjanovich says.

It’s quite a start to 2020 for a hardscrabble basketball lifer. And if there’s hoops justice, Rudy T will be humbly giving another induction speech in late August.

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