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When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off in June, it carried
on board a jersey featuring the Houston Rockets' new logo, a
needle-nosed rocket--with teeth--orbiting a red basketball.
Though NASA officials agreed to take the jersey, they refused to
promote the Rockets' new look from outer space. As they pointed
out to Houston marketing vice president John Thomas, the
spaceship was, after all, on a "scientific mission."

And what, exactly, does NASA think Houston is on? What could be
more scientific than a mission to beat the odds against winning
a third consecutive NBA title? It may not be rocket science, but
keeping a successful team successful is part math, part
chemistry, part psychology. "There's always a mental side of
success that you have to deal with," says Houston coach Rudy
Tomjanovich. "To be a champion, you have to overcome human
nature. After you've done well, it's just normal to feel good
about yourself and maybe take your foot off the pedal a bit."

That could be dangerous in a town that has taken to calling
itself Double Clutch City. Tomjanovich thinks his team can bring
Houston glory again. "There is something special about these
guys," he says. "They want it so bad that they just find ways
of doing it. To win a championship is great. To win two is
really rare. We set the foundation to reach an elite place in
the history of the NBA."

Only the Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54), the Boston Celtics
(1959-66) and the Chicago Bulls (1991-93) have won at least
three titles in a row. Houston has a good chance to be the
fourth franchise to breathe that rarefied air, even if--and maybe
especially if--they have a so-so regular season (last year's
record was 47-35) and if at times they appear to struggle in the
playoffs. No one stares down elimination like the Rockets; since
Tomjanovich became coach, Houston has gone 10-1 in games in
which it faced playoff extinction. "There's a sense of calm when
our team is backed against the wall," says Tomjanovich. "You can
see it in the players' eyes and in the way they conduct

So forget about rattling the Rockets. Bad chemistry isn't likely
to bring them down either, now that Vernon Maxwell has signed
with Philadelphia. And the aging of Houston's two stars, Clyde
Drexler, 33, and Hakeem Olajuwon, 32, is a negligible concern. A
rejuvenated Drexler, who was on the verge of retirement before
he was traded from Portland to Houston last February, should
give the Rockets another year or two of classy behavior and
All-Star guard play.

The sore back that kept Olajuwon out of his ballyhooed
pay-per-view showdown with Shaquille O'Neal on Sept. 30 should
be nothing but a memory by the time the season starts. While the
timing was bad for Olajuwon--he would have won $100,000 for every
game he took from Shaq--the muscle strain, suffered while lifting
weights, wasn't. As long as he remains healthy, Olajuwon doesn't
expect a letdown after two championships. "I look at the big
picture, not at the statistics," he says. "I want to play as
long as I enjoy the sport and remain healthy. Each year, I just
want to strive to be the very best I can be."

Olajuwon still doesn't have a bona fide backup, but help may
come from Mark Bryant, a former Trail Blazer who signed with the
Rockets in September as a free agent. Though Bryant was an
underachiever in Portland, in Houston he'll have the
opportunity to play a little center and a lot of power forward,
a position that was manned by Robert Horry, Pete Chilcutt,
Chucky Brown and Carl Herrera (now with San Antonio) after Otis
Thorpe was traded for Drexler. The 6'9" Horry was surprisingly
effective at the 4-position in the playoffs, averaging 13.1
points and seven rebounds per game. But Bryant's presence will
allow Horry to return to small forward, where his size will
create matchup difficulties for most teams.

Tomjanovich can be thankful that third-year guard Sam Cassell
shares his view that "starting isn't always the most important
thing." Cassell, who backs up Kenny Smith, has yet to whine
about his sixth-man role. His patience allows Tomjanovich to get
the best out of both men through what seems to be sheer
intuition. Says Tomjanovich, "What develops, develops."

If Bryant develops, Mario Elie will join Cassell and Chilcutt as
the only proven contributors on a bench that also includes
Brown, Charles Jones and Eldridge Recasner, last year's MVP of
the CBA. If the Rockets can get the most out of these thin
ranks, they might just beat the odds and win it all again.

--Kelli Anderson

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Cassell, the unselfish sixth man, is a key element in Houston's chemistry. [Sam Cassell shooting basketball against Orlando Magic]



PPG (Rank) FG% (Rank)

OFFENSE 103.5 (8) .480 (6)
DEFENSE 101.4 (14) .453 (5)


The Rockets won their second consecutive NBA title last season
by overcoming one of history's poorest regular-season records
ever by a champ-to-be. Only two champions have had a lower
regular-season winning percentage than Houston, and the Rockets'
record was just the 10th best in the league last year, the
lowest such standing of any NBA title winner.

Worst Records for NBA Champs

W-L Pct.

1977-78 Bullets 44-38 .537
1957-58 Hawks 41-31 .569
1994-95 Rockets 47-35 .573
1947-48 Bullets 28-20 .583
1946-47 Warriors 35-25 .583


On a team full of clutch players, 30-year-old power forward Mark
Bryant is the big X-factor. An All-Big East player at Seton Hall
before he was drafted in the first round by the Trail Blazers in
1988, Bryant played in the shadows of Buck Williams, Clifford
Robinson, Jerome Kersey and Otis Thorpe in Portland, averaging
just 4.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 15 minutes per game in his
seven-year career. The Rockets are hoping a change of venue and
increased minutes will give Bryant a chance to bloom at last. At
6'9", 245 pounds, he has the bulk to give Hakeem Olajuwon some
added muscle in the paint and provide the Rockets with something
they lacked since trading Thorpe in the middle of last season: a
true power forward in the starting lineup. Whether he has the
heart of a champion remains to be seen. Says Bryant, sounding as
if he's ready to do the rebounding chores Houston expects of
him, "They've given me a great opportunity here, and I'm going
to take that in my hands and take control of it."


STARTERS 1994-95 Key Statistics

SF Robert Horry 10.2 ppg 5.1 rpg 3.4 apg
PF Mark Bryant 5.0 ppg 3.3 rpg 52.6 FG%
C Hakeem Olajuwon 27.8 ppg 10.8 rpg 3.36 bpg
PG Kenny Smith 10.4 ppg 4.0 apg 85.1 FT%
SG Clyde Drexler 21.8 ppg 6.3 rpg 4.8 apg


G Sam Cassell 9.5 ppg 4.9 apg 1.15 spg
F Chucky Brown 6.1 ppg 4.6 rpg 0.7 apg
G-F Mario Elie 8.8 ppg 2.4 rpg 2.3 apg