DETROIT — He’d been on the ballot forever, first as a player, then as a coach. And when Rudy Tomjanovich didn’t make the finalist list a year ago for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a handful of his peers spoke out.
How could the former NBA All-Star, the two-time NBA championship coach, the Olympic gold medalist, not be in the Hall of Fame?
Well, he is now. Fifteen years after first making the ballot.
It’s about damn time.
“Long overdue,” said Steve Fishman, who played with Tomjanovich at the University of Michigan in the late ’60s. “But as the saying goes, ‘better late than never.’ ”
Fishman, who grew up in Detroit, and Tomjanovich, 71, who grew up in Hamtramck, roomed together their first three seasons in Ann Arbor.
“Everybody who knows Detroit-area basketball knows he was one of the best players to ever come out of our area,” Fishman said.
In general, basketball nominations aren’t argued over with the same fervor as in baseball. For one, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is harder to get into. For another: numbers. No sport creates more than baseball. And numbers provide limitless fodder for debate.
Sometimes a debate can raise the profile of a baseball player. And when he misses out year after year, that can create its own kind of momentum. Think former Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris.
In basketball, players and coaches who don’t get enough votes usually don’t create the same kind of buzz. That was the case with Tomjanovich.
His omission from the Hall of Fame after more than a decade on the ballot didn’t generate pushback. At least not enough.
Until last fall, when prominent voices in the game began lobbying on his behalf. Such as former Knicks coach and current color analyst Jeff Van Gundy. And Rick Carlisle, who won a championship coaching the Dallas Mavericks. And Gregg Popovich, San Antonio’s iconic coach who said in December that Tomjanovich had the credentials.
“He’s had those credentials for quite a while,” he said. “So, it’s sort of a mystery why he’s not in. Hopefully, that will be taken care of.”
Tomjanovich has been revered in the coaching community for decades. Not just because he won consecutive NBA titles with the Houston Rockets in the mid ’90s. But because of how he carried himself. How he instilled belief and mental toughness in his teams. How he was the first to push for expansive video departments and serious film study.
That foresight led to a new kind of presence in the NBA, and several of those who got their start in video are now successful coaches in the league, including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer.
He was ahead of his time strategically, even as he was known as a player’s coach. Robert Horry, the seven-time NBA champ who won titles in Houston, Los Angeles and San Antonio under Tomjanovich, Phil Jackson and Popovich, said Tomjanovich was just as good, if not better, in some ways.
“He understood that even though he was the coach, we could see things that he couldn’t see from the bench,” Horry wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “We could hear things and feel things on the court that he couldn’t see. First thing T would say was, ‘What’s going on out there?’ He would ask us the plays we would want to run sometimes and get a feel for what we were comfortable with.
“If we ran a play and it worked, T would tell us to run it again. Phil not so much. Same with Pop. They are both great in their own right, but based on personal experience, T was the greatest NBA coach. I know he doesn’t have nearly as many championships, but sometimes we give one person too much credit for titles.”
Strong words, yes. But they make sense when you think about it. Coaches, like players, often get credit based on a persona, and that persona affects how we view their influence as a coach.
Tomjanovich may be best known — as a coach — for his line about never underestimating the heart of a champion, but beyond he is known for … grace? Class? Understatement?
Those traits don’t always sell. They don’t help push a memorable narrative. Which is to say it’s easy to forget how good Tomjanovich was as a coach.
As for his talent as a player?
That depends on your age. Those who played with him recall a springy, sweet-shooting forward — he is 6-foot-8 — with range from the parking lot.
“Best shooter I was ever around,” said Dan Fife, the retired Clarkston High coach who played with Tomjanovich at U-M. “When he got hot, he got hot for a month.”
Tomjanovich is the program’s seventh-leading scorer and holds records for most points in a game — 48, shared with Cazzie Russell — and rebounds (30). And if he’d played with the 3-point shot, he might top more lists.
“We called him the crowd-silencer,” Fishman said. “He loved the bank shot. And he jumped so high when he’d shoot it, it would make this sound and the crowd would gasp, then go silent.”
His vertical allowed him to shoot over everyone. With his hops and that stroke at that size, he was ahead of his time.
Finding these highlights is tricky. The internet isn’t exactly aflame with them. In fact, if you search for them, the first thing that hits is the sucker punch Kermit Washington threw, ending Tomjanovich’s season with the Rockets in December 1977.
The blow knocked Tomjanovich to the floor, knocked him out, and shattered the left side of his face. He’d been a four-time All-Star to that point but was never quite the same after — he retired in 1981.
For a while, that punch is what defined his career, and fans would come up to him during his days as a Rockets assistant coach and say: “You’re the guy who got punched.”
“It was a stumbling block in life,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “but I endured it, and maybe I’m better for it.”
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