Pressed against a cool cinder block wall in a gym in Denton,
Texas, where the autograph hounds haven't yet found him, Clyde
Drexler looks and sounds like any other college coach going
through the eye-glazing rituals of the July evaluation period.
Wearing a red polo shirt with UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON emblazoned
on the chest, he placidly watches a high school tournament game
unfold, remarking occasionally on the size of some kid's feet or
the number of players who say they are 6'9" when they really are
6'6". Then Drexler sees something that causes him to perk up.
Driving for an uncontested layup, a skinny point guard in a blue
jersey abruptly passes the ball behind his head and
out-of-bounds. The kid cracks up, and so does Drexler. "Did you
see that?" asks Drexler. "I loved that he laughed after he made
that mistake. You gotta have fun. That's what this should be all
Is that what Drexler's unexpected change of careers is all
about? When he announced on March 18 that he was retiring from
the NBA after the Houston Rockets' season and would take over a
Houston program that had just lost 20 games for the first time
in school history, friends and fans alike were stunned. For one
thing, though in the 15th year of a stellar NBA career, Glide
still had game: The night before his announcement, he had scored
15 points and had nine assists against the Milwaukee Bucks, and
he was leading the Rockets in scoring with an 18.6-point
average. And since when had the supremely laid-back Drexler, who
had often been criticized for not being the leader his teams
needed, been cut out for coaching? Most baffling of all, why
would the 10-time All-Star, who had made millions and could do
whatever he wanted, choose to join one of America's most
ulcer-inducing professions, even if the job was at his
struggling alma mater?
"I do plan on retiring someday and traveling the world with my
family," says the 36-year-old Drexler, a father of four, a
dabbler in foreign languages and a collector of art and
antiques. "But I decided two years ago that this would be my
last season in the NBA, and I didn't want to leave the game
without sharing some of my knowledge and expertise. I couldn't
pass up this chance to coach at my alma mater and get it back up
to speed, because there are a lot of things wrong with it."
Since the early '80s, when Drexler, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon
and the other members of the storied Phi Slamma Jamma teams took
Houston to three consecutive Final Fours, the Cougars have
fallen on hard times. They haven't won an NCAA tournament game
since their Final Four appearance in 1984, the year after
Drexler left to join the Portland Trail Blazers following his
junior season. During the five-year reign of Drexler's
predecessor, Alvin Brooks, who was fired in March, Houston's
record was a dismal 54-84. Last season the 10,000-seat Hofheinz
Pavilion, once the host to standing-room-only crowds, drew
barely 2,200 fans a game.
Worse, as athletic director Chet Gladchuk discovered in a series
of meetings after being hired in July 1997, former Houston stars
like Drexler, Olajuwon, Otis Birdsong and Elvin Hayes had lost
interest in associating with a program that no longer resembled
the one they remembered. "The sense of unity, family,
camaraderie and fun, and of having a distinguished past, had
disappeared," says Gladchuk. "I wanted to get that back."
Enter Drexler, who during his conversations with Gladchuk had
expressed an interest in coaching. After Gladchuk announced on
March 1 that Brooks would be replaced at the end of the season,
Drexler became a serious candidate for the post. The athletic
director tried to lay out everything the job would entail; for
visual effect he even showed Drexler an eight-inch-high stack of
NCAA rules and regulations. "Nothing would dissuade him," says
Gladchuk, who signed Drexler to a five-year contract that pays a
base salary of $150,000 (a considerable cut from the $5.5
million Drexler earned last season with the Rockets), with
incentives that could double that amount. At Drexler's request,
the contract includes a clause that encourages the new coach to
work toward completing the 43 hours he needs for his B.A. in
Drexler admits that his friends and relatives thought he was
nuts to go back to the college game. "They said, 'Do you know
how much work it is?'" he says. "And it is a lot of work. I've
been surprised by what an all-day job it is, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.,
every day. And that's just in July. But I want this chance to
help shape young men. I'm having fun. I'm really happy I did this."
No one knows if Drexler can coach, but he apparently knows how
to recruit. After all, he persuaded former Cougars teammate Reid
Gettys, the point guard who fed the frat brothers of Phi Slamma
Jamma their alley-oops and who still owns every major assists
record at the school, to put his law career on hold and become
his assistant and fellow missionary. "Clyde and I didn't get
into this for any reason other than to return the program to its
tradition and glory," says Gettys, who had a brief, unhappy
tenure as a graduate assistant under former Cougars coach Pat
Foster in 1989-90 and has since followed the game as a TV
analyst. "If we succeed, I don't want the Appalachian State job.
This is all about the University of Houston. Clyde and I both
have an enormous learning curve, but we have a passion for UH
that Chet Gladchuk can't hire. And you know what? I've laughed
more in the last three months than I have in the last five years."
Drexler has also added to his staff George Walker, an assistant
to Guy Lewis during the Phi Slamma Jamma years who most recently
was the coach and assistant athletic director at South Florida
Community College. Walker is amazed by the stacks of letters,
resumes and videotapes--not to mention the moms, dads, aunts and
uncles with boys of all ages in tow--that have been arriving
almost daily at the basketball office since Drexler was hired.
"Everybody thinks he has a son or nephew who can play for Clyde
Drexler," says Walker.
Even if Drexler never wins a game, he has brought about a
remarkable financial resurrection. Season-ticket sales have
already shot up to 4,200 from last year's 1,200. All 24 of the
new corporate luxury boxes in Hofheinz have been sold for the
next three seasons at $45,000 apiece, and sales of courtside
seats, which cost $1,000 per game, have increased from 65 to 265.
The Cougars' sudden popularity doesn't end there. "With the
combination of Clyde's draw and our 9-and-20 record last year,
everyone wants to play us," says Gettys. "They even want to play
us on TV! Hopefully we won't be so popular next year."
They might be. Though Houston can't get much worse, it might need
a while to get much better. The Cougars will enter this year's
Conference USA campaign with a quick but undersized lineup (their
tallest players are listed at 6'8"). "You always want to be the
last team playing [in the NCAA tournament]," says Drexler, who
plans to run an up-tempo, pro-set offense. "But that's pretty
unlikely this year."
Drexler was never on an NBA team that failed to make the
playoffs, and no one is sure how he will handle losing. Also
unknown: How will an unpretentious superstar who never traveled
with a personal entourage deal with 17-year-olds who do?
"The adjustment is tougher than you'd think," says USC coach
Henry Bibby, who followed a nine-year NBA playing career with 13
years as a coach in the CBA and as an assistant in the college
game before taking over the Trojans in 1996. "As a player in the
NBA, your focus is just on you. As a college coach, you have to
focus on the 13 guys on your team, a few walk-ons, four assistant
coaches, an office staff. Taking care of all these people is
"Only about 25 percent of this job is coaching," adds South
Carolina coach Eddie Fogler. "The other 75 percent is running a
staff, recruiting, scheduling, media obligations, alumni
functions, speaking engagements, putting out fires. If a high
school kid screws up, the parents are called. If an NBA player
screws up, the police are called. If a college player screws up,
it's the coach who takes the heat."
The heat is on already. With all the talent in Denton scoped,
Gettys urges Drexler out of the air-conditioned gym and into the
infernal 104[degree] Texas weather. If they leave Denton right
now, they can make it back to Houston in time to see a summer
team's practice late this afternoon. It's a good plan, but it
doesn't account for one roadblock. Drexler hasn't made it
halfway to the parking lot before the first group of players
starts following him. "Clyyyyyyyyde!" they trill. Drexler turns,
friendly and unflinching. He shakes the high schoolers' hands
and, ignoring Gettys's suggestion that he sign his name COACH
CLYDE DREXLER, signs each proffered T-shirt CLYDE DREXLER #22.
Four months ago, these kids would have been just fans. Now every
one of them is an NCAA violation waiting to happen. "During the
evaluation period, Clyde's not supposed to have contact with
potential recruits beyond what the NCAA calls 'ordinary
civility,'" says Gettys. "But what's he supposed to do? Does
signing autographs constitute 'ordinary civility'? For Clyde
Drexler it does."
Although Gettys admits he is far less patient than Drexler is
with the hordes of autograph-seekers--which at recent tournament
stops have included other college coaches--he knows that Drexler's
celebrity and NBA credentials will be a huge advantage in
recruiting. "I can go into a home and say, 'My boss will know
when you're ready to go to the NBA,'" says Gettys.
Drexler and Gettys, who both grew up in Houston, plan to recruit
nationally, but they are particularly interested in keeping at
home their city's best players. One big reason the Cougars'
fortunes slipped over the last 11 years was their failure to
sign local players such as Bobby Crawford (Rice), Lucious
Jackson (Syracuse), Ansu Sesay (Mississippi), LaBradford Smith
(Louisville) and Jake Voskuhl (Michigan). The two top recruits
Houston welcomes this fall are from Texas, and they're the rare
teenagers who aren't dazzled by Drexler's NBA
aura--understandable, considering that they are Moses Malone Jr.
and George Gervin Jr. Malone, a 6'5" guard from Friendswood whom
Brooks signed last November, decided to honor his commitment
after Drexler was hired. Gervin, a San Antonian who played a
season at Arizona State before transferring to San Jacinto
Junior College in Pasadena, was sold on the Cougars only after
Drexler came on board. "With his knowledge, he can help me a
lot," says Gervin, a 6'2" point guard. "I'm really excited about
playing for him."
So are Houston's still somewhat flabbergasted returning players.
After a day at Drexler's basketball camp a few weeks ago,
sophomore guard Chad Hendrick boldly suggested that Drexler, who
was hanging around the court in slacks and shoes, had lost his
stuff. Drexler smiled, picked up a ball and swiftly deposited a
few windmill jams and 360-degree dunks.
"Man, he's really cool," says Hendrick. "It's a great honor to
get to play for him. I get more excited every day, just thinking
about the possibilities--sellout crowds, the Phi Slamma Jamma
atmosphere. It's going to be fun. All we've got to do is win."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL [Clyde Drexler]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Star search At summer camps Drexler often does his scouting between signing autographs. [Clyde Drexler sitting in stands with others
"Everybody thinks he has a son or nephew who can play for Clyde
Drexler," says Walker.