In one of the most memorable NBA championship victory speeches of all time, Coach Rudy Tomjanovich addressed the Houston Rockets fans by giving them the following message: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” Tomjanovich, the wise man delivering this message, has most certainly exhibited the “heart of a champion” throughout his career and life.
His “heart of a champion” has been the tangible ingredient that has led him to achieve the praiseworthy success that he has achieved.
Before Tomjanovich proved to be an all-time brilliant NBA coach, he was a standout forward in the NBA. He was selected by the San Diego Rockets as the No. 2 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, following his standout NCAA career playing at the University of Michigan. The Rockets franchise moved from San Diego to Houston following his rookie season. Tomjanovich became an elite NBA player, earning four consecutive All-Star Game selections spanning from 1973-74 – 1976-77. Early on in the 1977-78 NBA season, an infamous Kermit Washington punch was thrown at Tomjanovich — causing a fractured skull, a broken jaw, a broken nose, and scariest of all, spinal fluid leakage. It was a near-fatal punch . Tomjanovich endured potentially life-threatening injuries from the punch but amazingly forgave Washington. The resilient Tomjanovich had one last All-Star season in 1978-79, before ending his playing career a few years later.
Tomjanovich served as a scout for the Rockets for a few years, before he was then hired as part of their coaching staff in 1983. He served as an assistant to the great Bill Fitch (1983-84 – 1987-88) and to Don Chaney (1988-89 – 52 games into the 1991- 92 season). Tomjanovich was shocked when he was hired to replace Chaney as head coach in the middle of the 1991-92 season. The then-struggling Rockets team featured a then unhappy Hakeem Olajuwon, the team’s No. 1 overall draft choice back in 1984 — who had proven to be a megastar in the league. Tomjanovich and Olajuwon forged a very special and unique player-coach bond starting in 1992-93. Tomjanovich helped make Olajuwon a more unselfish team leader and instilled a team-oriented mindset within the Rockets squad on and off the court. Their chemistry produced great results, enabling them to become championship contenders. In 1993-94, Tomjanovich guided the Olajuwon-led Rockets to the franchise’s first NBA championship, as they won an epic seven-game NBA Finals series in the process.
The Rockets initially faced considerable struggles in their quest to repeat in 1994-95 and there were questions about whether the “defending champions” would even make the playoffs. The Rockets seized the opportunity to trade for megastar Clyde Drexler at the midway point of the season, reuniting him with Olajuwon — his former University of Houston teammate. Tomjanovich masterfully meshed the two stars together, exhibited great poise and leadership, and instilled belief in the No. 6 seeded Rockets entering the playoffs. Through adversity along the way, the Rockets persevered and became the lowest-seeded team in NBA history to win a championship. After the Rockets clinched their second consecutive title, Tomjanovich gave his signature message: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Tomjanovich’s “heart of a champion” spirit guided the 2000 United States Olympic gold medal-winning team in 2000. He retired from coaching the Rockets following a cancer diagnosis in 2003 (which he recovered from) before making a brief return to coach the Los Angeles Lakers for the first half of the 2004-05 season. Tomjanovich racked up a career regular season record of 527-416 (55.9%) and a playoff record of 51-39 (56.7%). Tomjanovich remained involved with the Lakers for over a decade. Currently, he is a consultant for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Tomjonavich was a master leader and was a genius at promulgating unselfishness and team chemistry. His manifestation of the “heart of a champion” philosophy in both his basketball career and his life has led to his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.