Imagine the scene: The Houston Rockets come bursting through the
doors, confetti still sticking to their champagne-soaked
uniforms, slapping each other on the shoulders and laughing the
satisfied laugh of back-to-back champions. But they stop short
when they see the figures seated at the table in front of them.
There are Magic and Isiah and Michael -- the men who led Showtime
and the Bad Boys and the Jordanaires. The Rockets suddenly
realize where they are, that they have stepped through the doors
of NBA history into the room where repeat champions reside. The
Los Angeles Lakers, the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls,
all winners of at least two consecutive titles within the last
decade, have been waiting for Houston to arrive.
The Rockets are here because last week, when they completed a
four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic, they became the sixth team
in NBA history to win consecutive championships. As for the
other repeat winners, the Minneapolis Lakers, who won five
titles in six seasons from 1949 through '54, are sitting at a
separate, antique table; and the Boston Celtics, winners of 11
of 13 championships in the '50s and '60s, including eight in a
row from '59 to '66 -- well, those Celtics have a room all to
But at the table of the mere double and triple dippers, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Laimbeer are seated at one end, staring at
Houston's wondrous center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Abdul-Jabbar, the
pivotman for the Showtime Lakers, is pondering how he would fare
in a matchup of his patented skyhook and Olajuwon's
ever-evolving Dream Shake, while Laimbeer, the baddest of
Detroit's Bad Boys, envisions introducing the Dream to the
sleeper hold. Chicago's Michael Jordan and Detroit's Joe Dumars
rise from their chairs to welcome fellow shooting guard Clyde
Drexler of Houston into the club of champions. They tell Drexler
that they always knew he would get here. Chicago's Scottie
Pippen looks up, sees Houston forward Robert Horry and does a
double take. He is looking at himself as a younger man.
But as the Houston players gaze around the table, they can tell
that the other teams have been talking about them, measuring
them. What do they make of these Rockets? Are they a great team
or a very good, mentally tough team in a weakened league?
Houston has established that it is the best team in today's NBA,
but where does it fall among repeat winners?
Amid the locker-room euphoria after the sweep of Orlando, the
Houston players were not particularly concerned about whether
they had carved a niche in history for themselves. "Whenever
they write the list of NBA champions, our name will be on it,"
guard Sam Cassell said. "Twice. In a row. Ain't that history
Well, the fact is that back-to-back championships aren't nearly
as rare as they once were. Houston is the fourth straight
champion to successfully defend its title at least once. The
Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, were the first
team in 19 years to win back-to-back championships when they
doubled in 1986-87 and '87-88. They were followed by the
Pistons, who won the next two titles, and the Bulls, who won the
three after that. "It's almost like you haven't done anything
until you've won it twice," says Horry.
But even having won their two titles, the Rockets still may not
gain a permanent place in the public consciousness because
Houston lacks the big-market hype of Los Angeles and Chicago and
doesn't have the clearly defined persona of Detroit's Bad Boys.
The Rockets have no hook. But there are aspects of Houston's
pair of championships that set the Rockets apart, one of which
is that they won with two different styles. Houston prevailed
last season, when smash-mouth basketball was in vogue, by
beating the New York Knicks in a Finals series that had all the
finesse of a sledgehammer. When the game was opened up by rules
changes this season, the Rockets adjusted accordingly. After
scoring 86 points a game in last year's Finals, Houston averaged
114 against Orlando, largely by taking advantage of the new,
closer three-point line and the prohibition against hand
checking. "The game changed, and the Rockets changed with it,"
says former Detroit coach Chuck Daly, who guided the Pistons to
their two titles.
Houston also became the patron saint of underdogs by taking the
most difficult playoff route to the championship in NBA history.
The Rockets were the lowest-seeded team (No. 6, in the Western
Conference) ever to win the title, the first in 26 years to win
without having the home court advantage in any playoff round and
the first to beat four teams with at least 50 regular-season
victories. Houston was like a sprinter who spotted his opponent
a lead in every race. "I understand the hurdles you have to
overcome to win a second time," says Dumars, "but the Rockets
had hurdles in front of their hurdles."
Dumars also knows that it is far easier to win a championship
than to win recognition as a legendary team. The Rockets spent
much of the past season arguing, justifiably, that they had not
been given the credit they were due, but they are hardly the
first team to feel slighted. The Pistons and Bulls were
subjected to the same skepticism. "We swept the Lakers [in the
1989 Finals], and people doubted us," says Dumars. "It wasn't
until we beat the Blazers three times in a row in Portland the
next year in the Finals that we began to get the credit that we
were due. There are a lot of egos in this league, and it takes a
lot to get people to admit you're better than they are, and even
more for them to recognize you as a great team."
In that respect Houston has most in common with Chicago. Like
the Bulls, the Rockets have been dismissed in the past as not so
much a great team as a good team with a great player. "Guys like
Jordan and Olajuwon make the players around them better," says
Daly, "but they're so good that people tend to forget that the
players around them were pretty good to begin with."
Just as Pippen, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong began to be
seen as more than just Jordan's assistants when Chicago won its
second title, so have Olajuwon's teammates begun to establish
their own identities. Drexler, of course, was a star before he
came to Houston, but he reinvented himself in the Finals. After
11 seasons without a championship he had a reputation as a
player with great stats who didn't seem to want a title quite
badly enough. He refuted that notion with his passionate play
But Horry, the 6'10", third-year forward, was clearly the Rocket
who opened the most eyes during the playoffs. Grant, the Magic
power forward who had such a difficult time in the Finals
against Horry, astutely compared Horry to Pippen, Grant's former
Chicago teammate. Horry's astounding versatility was indeed
reminiscent of Pippen. He is both a dangerous three-point
shooter and an excellent slasher and finisher around the basket.
He also played defense, rebounded and handled the ball
exceedingly well, and had it not been for the relentlessly
spectacular play of Olajuwon, Horry would have received serious
consideration for Finals MVP.
The only serious flaw in Horry's game in the last two years had
been his inconsistency, his tendency to drift into the
background at times, but he may have shaken that permanently in
the Finals. "This championship is even sweeter than the first
because I feel I'm a bigger part of the offense now," he says.
He's also a bigger part of the defense. The turning point for
Horry, a natural small forward, may have come in the Western
Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns when he asked to
guard Charles Barkley, the Suns' All-Star power forward. "It was
something that needed to be done, and I felt that I could do
it," Horry says.
Horry began spending more time at power forward in February,
when Houston traded Otis Thorpe to Portland for Drexler; Mario
Elie eventually took over his spot at small forward. That left
Cassell as the Rockets' only reliable reserve, and that lack of
depth is another obstacle to the Rockets' being considered a
great team. "I don't think they have the players from top to
bottom that we had, for instance," says Dumars. However, as
Dumars notes, "in a way that lack of depth makes what Houston
did even more amazing."
The Rockets have also heard the theory that the league is weaker
than it was even a few years ago and that their titles are
somehow less impressive because they have no equally formidable
team against which to measure themselves, the way the 1980s
Lakers could gauge themselves against the Celtics, for instance.
"But you can look at that the other way," says Daly. "The
Rockets went into the playoffs the last two years with a lot
more teams thinking they had a realistic chance of winning it
all than when those Lakers or Celtics played. I don't think any
team has ever had four tougher playoff opponents than Houston
did this year."
It's not just the number of championship contenders that has
changed. The style of play has also altered drastically. "It's a
different era," says Daly. "Very few set plays are run anymore.
It's become a post-up league, where you throw the ball into the
post, basically wait for the double team and then kick it out to
the shooters, who are even more dangerous now that the
three-point line is closer than it's ever been." In that way the
Rockets are a team perfectly suited to their era. They have the
best post-up player alive in Olajuwon, plus a variety of
marksmen. Thus Houston defines its times every bit as much as
the repeat champions before the Rockets did theirs.
And Daly, for one, thinks Houston's adaptations and achievements
rank the Rockets with their fellow repeaters. "They most
definitely belong with the great teams of recent times," says
Daly. "I don't see how anyone could deny them that. Not anymore."
Imagine the scene: Magic, Isiah and Michael beckon Hakeem. They
call for more chairs to be placed around the table of greatness.
Then they motion for the Houston Rockets to take their rightful
COLOR PHOTO:MANNY MILLAN After finishing off the Magic at the Summit, a triumphant Horry basked in a blizzard of jubilation. [Robert Horry with arms raised as fans shower the court with strips of paper]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH As usual, Olajuwon (34) was the top Rocket, but he got a boost from a savvy supporting cast. [Hakeem Olajuwon laying the ball in against the Orlando Magic]COLOR PHOTO:JOHN W. MCDONOUGH With his determined play Drexler put to rest all the doubts about his willingness to go all out for a title. [Clyde Drexler in the air with the ball]