For former Michigan star Rudy Tomjanovich, long-awaited Hall call a 'godsend'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Not this year.

That’s the message Rudy Tomjanovich had received from Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame president John Doleva on more than occasion.

This time, at long last, the call was different. Tomjanovich, the Hamtramck native and former Michigan standout, found out last week he was finally getting his spot in Springfield.

Michigan great Rudy Tomjanovich had a successful playing career at the college and pro level before winning two NBA titles as head coach of the Houston Rockets.

“I got the good news and, boy, the timing of that news was perfect. The whole world is in this crazy situation,” Tomjanovich said Monday on 97.1 The Ticket’s “Jamie and Stoney” show, referring to the global coronavirus pandemic.

“To get something that positive was a godsend."

Tomjanovich, 71, had come close to earning enshrinement multiple times. He was snubbed as a finalist in 2017 and 2018 and didn’t even make the final group a year ago.

Understandably, Tomjanovich was on edge when he saw a familiar number pop up on his phone.

"It was very suspenseful because (Doleva) calls the people and I've been here before. Just to hear his voice put me in a very anxious situation, and I was hanging on every word,” Tomjanovich said. “When he said, 'You're in,' boy, what a wonderful feeling.

“It's not easy having to explain to people, 'Well, what's going on?' I didn't know what was going on. This is something that I applied for and it’s something you just sort of wait and patience pays off.”

While Tomjanovich was elected into the Hall as a coach, he arguably had the qualifications to go in as a player before his NBA career was stymied by a punch. After starring at Hamtramck High, Tomjanovich had a stellar career at Michigan, even though the Wolverines went 34-38 during his three seasons in Ann Arbor. He averaged 25.1 points and 14.4 rebounds over 72 games, marks that rank second and first, respectively, in program history.

Tomjanovich was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft and was in the midst of putting together a fifth straight All-Star season with the Rockets when he was punched in the face by Kermit Washington during the 1977-78 season. The blow left Tomjanovich with life-threatening injuries and ended his season after 23 games. While he eventually recovered, Tomjanovich went on to play only three more seasons and earn one more All-Star nod. He averaged 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in 11 seasons with the Rockets.

Years later, Tomjanovich recounted the incident in John Feinstein’s book “The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever.” Tomjanovich admitted he “wasn’t really excited” to take part in the book but decided to do it. He eventually got a call from Washington thanking him for the opportunity to say what had happened to him after that moment.

“We kept in contact. Maybe once every couple months, he’d give me a call,” Tomjanovich said. “We turned that relationship around.”

Following his playing career, Tomjanovich stayed with the Rockets organization as an assistant coach from 1983-1992 and head coach from 1992-2003. He became the franchise’s winningest coach, racking up 503 regular-season wins and 51 playoff victories, and guided the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.

While both titles came when Bulls legend Michael Jordan had retired from basketball and was pursuing a baseball career, Tomjanovich said Jordan admitted during a dinner at Charles Barkley’s house — after Barkley was acquired by Houston in 1996 from Phoenix — that things might not have been different even if he was playing.

“Jordan felt we had the best chance to beat them because they couldn't match up with Hakeem Olajuwon and we had ‘Mad Max’ Vernon Maxwell, who just loved the big games and loved to play against Jordan,” said Tomjanovich, who added Olajuwon’s passing was the biggest different to the Rockets being a championship team.

“He (Jordan) admitted that you guys really bothered us and that was our toughest matchup.”

Tomjanovich’s accomplishments don’t end there. He led the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, joining Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens as the only coaches to win an NBA title and Olympic gold medal.

He’s the only person in NBA history to score 10,000 career points as a player and win 500 career games with two championships as a coach. He had his No. 45 jersey retired by the Rockets and honored by Michigan.

He’s also the first Michigan basketball player to receive the Hall honor, a feat that “absolutely shocked” him.

"When I saw that fact, I thought Cazzie (Russell) was in,” Tomjanovich said. “There have been some really good players coming out of Michigan. I'm sure (Chris) Webber will be there soon, but that was a big surprise.”

Tomjanovich is part of a star-studded 2020 class that includes former NBA greats Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, former WNBA star Tamika Catchings, former FIBA exec Patrick Baumann and college coaches Eddie Sutton, Kim Mulkey and Barbara Stevens.

The nine members officially will be enshrined at the induction ceremony on Aug. 29 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"The funny thing about this thing is once it sunk in that it had happened, the thoughts — I didn't think of championships and things like that,” Tomjanovich said. “I thought about the tough times, the times when I wasn't playing and was on the bench or struggling through something.

“It made me be very thankful that I didn't give up, that I kept hanging in there because I'm just not one of those guys who takes off and goes right to the mountaintop. I've always been a guy who had to grind it out and the way the Hall of Fame situation turned out, it was a great mirror on how my career was."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins