Culture / Sporting Life

Rudy Tomjanovich On Charles Barkley’s Texas Roach Comments, Defying Doubters and a Hall of Fame Moment

Often Underestimated, Rudy T is Now Entering Basketball's Most Sacred Club

BY // 05.15.21

Rudy Tomjanovich has been underestimated for large portions of his life. The Houston Rockets’ only championship coach remembers it starting as early as junior high — when he could not come close to cracking the rotation for his school team. He even ending up getting whooped by a French teacher who was no one’s idea of an All-American prospect in one painstakingly memorable instance.

“I didn’t get off the bench in junior high,” Tomjanovich says. “I played against the teachers. I had the French teacher on me one-on-one. I felt I could take him. And I took a shot and it was an airball. So. . . that was junior high.”

Tomjanovich gives a laugh. Standing in front of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s fancy podium on this Friday afternoon, on the eve of his long-deserved induction into the most important club in his sport, Rudy T is the one telling self-deprecating stories. That podium is serious — its height is raised and lowered with the click of a button that a James Bond villain would dig — but the basketball lifer in front of it is still just himself.

Tomjanovich shows up as casual his official Hall press conference as the notoriously casual Tim Duncan does. Both men wear simple long sleeve shirts, but Rudy T’s has the top three of four buttons undone. It’s a fitting first Hall of Fame weekend look at the man from Hamtramck, Michigan who never put on airs.

Yes, Tomjanovich is the only man in NBA history to score 10,000 points as a player and win 500 games and two championships as a coach. But is also one of the only Hall of Famers who will almost eagerly debunk the mythical origin story behind his own signature saying.

Rudy Tomjanovich does that in his official Hall of Fame press conference too. He reveals that the “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion” line everyone made his mantra could have been something much different. Something involving the Blattodea insect order.

“Charles Barkley said, ‘They’re just like those Texas roaches you step on them, stomp on them. You think you got ’em. You pick your feet up and they scurry away,’ ” Tomjanovich details. “So I thought heart of champion was a better choice of analogy.”

Yes, Heart of a Roach was rejected as a way to describe his never-give-up, never-give-in Rockets teams that won so many elimination games. Rudy Tomjanovich has a way with words. Even if it’s often overlooked. Which should make his induction speech on Saturday night a compelling watch. Do not be surprised if you turn on ESPN (4:30 pm start) to see the blinding icons of this beyond star-studded class — the late Kobe Bryant, San Antonio Spurs stoic icon Tim Duncan and basketball mad man Kevin Garnett — be inducted and walk away a little wowed by Rudy T.

But back to the Heart of a Champion. Tomjanovich admits that he lifted that too, over Barkley’s more crude, if no less descriptive, analysis. Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson (who is a little underrated himself in NBA history) said it after the Rockets came back to stun Johnson’s team in the playoffs.

Tomjanovich liked the phrase, but the first he famously used it, he did it in anger. He was upset that the entire NBA seemed to be writing off his defending champion Rockets in 1995 as they sputtered to a 17-18 record in the last 35 games of the season and finished third in their division.

“What it came from is we made a trade,” he remembers. “We made a big trade for Clyde (Drexler). We were getting responses from other teams about that trade. And you never see that. People usually give you some time. Other people said you’re going to be the first team to win a championship and not even make the playoffs (the next season).

“So that’s where that whole thing came from. It’s turned into something that’s gone on a long time. But when I look back at it, that probably wasn’t the best thing for me to say. But it was sort like, In your face. People think it’s just like this axiom or whatever you would call it. Never underestimated the heart of a champion.

“No. What it was, was ‘Don’t ever underestimate.’ Like a warning.”

Rudy Tomjanovich’s Amazing Journey

You’d be wise to apply the same warning to underestimating this Hall of Famer. The 72-year-old Tomjanovich overcame bladder cancer, the most famous (and arguably most vicious) punch in basketball history and numerous close-but-not-in Hall calls to get to this special Saturday night in May. And he also overcame a former University of Michigan linebacker turned gym teacher/high school coach who Tomjanovich refused to let pull a French teacher repeat.

“Go out for the freshman team and a buddy of mine, the day before the coach was going to make the cut, he said, ‘Hey man, you’re not on the list. You’re not going to make the team.’ And I was really in a panic. I said, ‘I’m as good — I’m better — than most of you guys.’ So I challenged the coach to a game.”

Tomjanovich won the game against a grown ex-college athlete — and the coach gave him a uniform after all. From that humble beginning, Rudy Tomjanovich became a five-time NBA All-Star forward as a player and one of the first truly revolutionary player-friendly coaches (and an underrated play caller) in a sports world where authority often seemed like the only important thing.

“What it was, was ‘Don’t ever underestimate.’ Like a warning.” — Rudy Tomjanovich

Make no mistake. Rudy Tomjanovich helped change the game of basketball into what it is today. From letting his players have a real voice in the team to scheming up ways for Hakeem Olajuwon to take advantage of all the double and triple teams opponents threw at him.

Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon, 1994 NBA Finals
No three men could stop Hakeem Olajuwon in the NBA Finals.

Now, his Hall of Fame moment is finally here. The induction will happen at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, a COVID-driven venue switch to allow for more social distancing. And as usual, Rudy Tomjanovich is downplaying his chances of leaving a major impression on this star-packed night.

“I just hope I don’t fall like a big doofus,” he says. “Because I have a lot of emotions about it. When I think back where I came from. And all the closets I’ve gone through right from the beginning.”

The best coach the Houston Rockets have ever had never let one of those doors slam shut on his basketball dreams. Don’t ever underestimated the heart. . . of Rudy T.