Through most of this NBA season, the Houston Rockets have been a below-average basketball team and an above-average miniseries. There are signs that things might be changing. But the Rockets most certainly are not the NBA dynasty in ascendance that everyone expected them to be just a few months ago. Despite ending last week with consecutive home victories over Indiana and Dallas, the Rockets (15-18) were looking up at six other clubs in the Western Conference, a strange perspective for the tallest team in the league.
"Unless we go on a long streak, we can't think in terms of winning our division," said forward Ralph Sampson last week, calling in the dogs rather early on in the Midwest race. "We've just got to concentrate on making the playoffs." Concentration has been one of Sampson's problems all season: His scoring and rebounding averages (15.6 and 7.8) are both down sharply from last season.
Injuries are part of the reason for this year's Rocket Horror Show. Starters Sampson (sprained both ankles), Akeem Olajuwon (sprained knee, sprained ankle) and Robert Reid (arthroscopic surgery on right knee) have missed 25 games among them. And rookie Buck Johnson, the small forward who some say should have been bypassed in favor of a point guard in the first round of last June's draft, has been out since Dec. 21 with a hyperextended knee.
But plain bad fortune—buzzard's luck, as coach Bill Fitch calls it—cannot by itself explain what has happened to the Young Turks who extended the Boston Celtics to six games in last season's NBA Finals. With their Twin Towers intact since Dec. 13, the Rockets have been only 7-7.
And even when they win, they are playing with a chemical imbalance. They have two point guards with distinctly different, and not completely complementary, styles. Dirk Minnie-field likes to push-push-push, and Reid likes to set up. "At times it's been too much of a contrast and we're all mixed up," said Reid. Houston's three shooting guards have been mixed up, too—last year's one-two punch, Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins, were on the trading block at different times this season, and Steve Harris's future in Houston is still in doubt.
As for Sampson, he has at times been the object of all-points bulletins during games, usually when he disappears from the area around the basket (he had fewer than six rebounds in 9 of his last 12 games). Even Olajuwon, the once and future king of NBA pivotmen, has had problems. During a 2-for-11 shooting night in an embarrassing 118-100 loss to Golden State last Tuesday, for example, he blew two wide-open dunks. "I cannot believe I did that," he said later.
Problems also continued to accumulate off the court. During a November road trip to his hometown of Philadelphia, Lloyd was arrested on charges of contempt of court for failing to pay about $5,000 in child support. (Lloyd is alleged to be the father of an eight-year-old Philadelphia boy, but he denies it.) Lloyd had never faced a defense as stifling as the one the Philadelphia police threw at him when he got off the team bus in front of the Rockets' hotel—four officers were waiting for him. He spent 10 hours in jail before Fitch was able to rustle up $5,000 bail from 76er president Harold Katz.
On Dec. 30 an even bigger controversy began when a story in California's Orange County Register quoted "one veteran Rocket" as saying that Sampson and Wiggins "have gone into the tank" to assure that Fitch would be fired. Little credence might have been given the story had relations between Sampson and Fitch not been persistently poor. "No, we don't have the best relationship," said Sampson, who has publicly criticized the coach this year for slowing down the offense. "We don't sit down to dinner every night. In fact, we've had dinner maybe once in four years."
Ironically, Fitch and general manager Ray Patterson had come to terms on a contract extension for the coach just before the story broke. If the team had announced it publicly, the newspaper story would have become almost irrelevant. Bad relationship or not, Sampson and Wiggins both vehemently denied the charge that their feelings about Fitch had in any way affected their play. And, predictably, there was a strong kill-the-messenger reaction among the Rockets, including threats of legal action against the reporter, Don Greenberg.
But Sampson finally acknowledged that the story "made me open my eyes." He wondered, "Did someone really say it? Was it a ploy to set me up? You're damn right it bothered me and made me look twice at my teammates. I thought about legal action just to investigate it." (He has since decided against a lawsuit.) The story was even more damaging to Wiggins, a fourth-year player who is still trying to establish himself. "If one of my teammates really said it and was kidding around," said Wiggins, "I wish he would've picked his spot better."
Away from the spotlight (which is where he usually is, anyway), small forward Rodney McCray is doing battle with even more malicious demons. In November he learned that his five-year-old daughter, Apryl, has a malignant brain tumor. In cases such as Apryl's, the recovery rate is only 10%. "It's a good thing I have basketball," McCray said. "Otherwise I might go crazy."
In this new year of 1987, things are looking up for the Rockets, if only because they could hardly have gotten much worse. In what might qualify as the resurrection story of the season, Lloyd, who reported to camp about 25 pounds overweight, has gradually played himself back to top-gun status. Wiggins has been effective lately in last season's role, coming off the bench. Reid has finally shot his way out of a horrendous 0-for-16 slump, and perhaps he and Minniefield will begin running the offense to the beat of the same metronome. Olajuwon, who had 25 points and 20 rebounds in Houston's 106-96 win over Dallas on Saturday night, reckons that he's "at 90 percent" physically, which still puts him above most centers. McCray has been speaking optimistically about Apryl, who is receiving radiation treatments. "It's not as bad as everyone thinks," he says. "She's been coming to some games and getting around pretty good. She's a fighter and I'm hopeful."
Even Fitch has tried to ease the tension on the team and make a joke out of his frequent and angered protests that he doesn't have a "doghouse" for players who have fallen out of favor. Last week he brought to the Rocket dressing room a miniature doghouse and 12 cloth dolls bearing the number of each player. "Well, I guess I do have a doghouse now." said Fitch.
Sampson, however, did not roll over in laughter. In this acrimonious player-coach relationship may lie the key to the Rockets' season, not to mention the future of the Twin Towers. Sampson becomes a free agent at the end of the season, and on the table is a contract offer similar to the eight-year, $20 million deal Olajuwon cut recently. Sampson hasn't signed it and says he needs more time to think it over.
"I'm struggling," said Sampson last week. "I'll be the first to admit it. While I was injured, I lifted weights and rode the stationary bike hard to stay in shape, and maybe I burned myself out. It has taken me time to get back in the flow. But they can't hold me too much longer. I'm about to bust out." For the Rockets' sake, it had better happen soon.
Olajuwon is healthy and wealthy, so his sub-par play has Rocket fans muttering whys.
Fitch derided talk of a doghouse.
Sampson needed his mythical strength to cope with a story that he was "tanking it."