I Love This Game
“Lakers lost! This SUCKS!!!!!!” -diary entry, June 12, 1984
I was thirteen years old. My handwriting in red marker matched my anger about the NBA Finals Game 7 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. My first record of sports writing wished that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson had kicked the butts of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. I declared my hatred for G.H. and D.J. How I was on name-abbreviation basis with Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson, I have no idea. I wasn’t even a Lakers’ fan.
It was my Houston Rockets with Calvin Murphy, Moses Malone and Rudy Tomjanovich that suffered a similar story three years earlier at the hands of Larry Bird and his four-leaf clover magical shots. In the 1981 Finals, his Celtics’ dynasty beat the Rockets in six games.
Sometimes teams just have your number.
“CALL THE FOUL” my mother would scream during my ten-year-old brother’s YMCA basketball games. To this day, she and I can watch a game together and simultaneously scream “GET IT” – one united voice in the same tone imploring our guys to rebound. We became students of the game via the metal bleachers while my father coached my brother. Dad had played basketball through high school, refereed games and passed on his love of the game to us.
Sunday afternoon live NBA games on CBS were family time. Yes, live. A lot of games were tape delayed or just not shown. Until the “Showtime” era with Bird and Johnson could energize the fans, the network wasn’t going to cut into The Dukes of Hazzard orDallas. So we listened to radio broadcasts and over breakfast read the Houston Chronicle sports section to check the box scores and standings, recaps of the games or news from the League.
June 8, 1986. NBA Finals Game 6. Celtics again, with much the same team, versus a new Rockets team led by Akeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Robert Reid and Lewis Lloyd. New team, old story. Boston closed us out again in six games. At 15 years old, I hated the Celtics even more. How long could one team reign? Had I still been diary writing, I’m sure I would have told Danny Ainge that he sucked.
I vaguely remember my mother calling the local CBS station during that series, yelling into the phone while the television screen went fuzzy grey. After useless antenna fiddling, we switched to the radio and the voice of Gene Peterson. “Seeing” the live game through a radio call was often more intense, having to concentrate, to imagine, in order to follow the pace and the ball movement. I learned the game through listening.
But it wasn’t until late ’93 that the basketball gods opened the heavens for me. After not making the cut for the new Rockets Dancers – skinny, flat-chested professional dancers were not what the judges were looking for – I ended up being asked by the director, who was a good friend and fellow dancer, to be an assistant choreographer for the ’93-’94 season. Oh yes, the season of the Rockets’ first championship.
It was a new team with a much different story. Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon – the only player from the ’86 Rockets team – was joined by Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie. On nights we rehearsed the dancers on The Summit court, sometimes players would show and shoot at the other end. I could hardly focus on the dancers when Hakeem was on the court.
The drive, the fake, the spin, the bake. The Dream Shake. His quick footwork, his balance of physicality and grace, his crushing blocks. His sweet jump hooks, short-range jumpers, fadeaways, long-range jumpers, dunks. All wrapped in a magnetic, authentic, humble personality. It would be time for the dancers to take a water break. I knew when greatness was near.
To be in that moment of Rockets history, whether with my friend and co-assistant Sonya choreographing time-out routines in The Summit tunnel or with a headset on during games giving dancer cues or just as a fan, I knew how lucky I was. After the second-round series Game 7 against Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns, a Saturday game with a noon tip-off, I left the Summit with my ears ringing, hearing gone, voice gone, squinting my eyes in the afternoon sun, emerging from a battle.
Fran Blinebury in the next day’s Houston Chronicle captured it beautifully,
The clock was running down, the game was coming to a boil and the air was being sucked out of The Summit like somebody had inserted a vacuum hose. The stands were jumping, the crowd was roaring and the entire season was being compressed into something that would fit into the palm of your hand.
In one series, Choke City had become Clutch City.
We then swept Utah like a gentleman in the Conference Finals and entered the Playoffs against Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks. My family reminisces about us being all together in the first apartment my then-husband and I lived in, huddled in our tiny living room around the TV, my mother and I screaming so loud at fouls not called that my brother couldn’t even hear his own screaming, to which he was instantly proud of the female contingent sharing the couch.
With the Knicks ahead in the series 3-2, Game 6 came back to Houston and our home court advantage. With seconds on the clock and Houston up by two, the Knicks inbounded the ball. John Starks got an open 3-point look to clinch the Finals, but Olajuwon got a hand on it and we lived to play Game 7. We screamed, we jumped around the room, lost our voices and our minds as we won our first title. How sweet it was.
1994 NBA World Champions. Olajuwon was the League MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.
We repeated with Clyde “The Glide” Drexler (joining us mid-season from Portland) after finishing the regular season in the sixth seed with no home court advantage in any round. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Sometimes the basketball gods part the heavens for just a moment.
May 9, 2019. Sammie Jo eyed the stranger, giving him a quiet and low “woof.” All people are tall to my little Shih-Tzu, and she didn’t recognize the beard.
“Slammin’ game yesterday,” I said. Even in a loss, James Harden scored 31 points.
“Thanks,” he said. “Were you outside walking your dog?”
“Oh no,” I said. The elevator doors closed. “Were you outside?”
“Yeah, I was at the gym.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy out there,” he said.
Just two neighbors talking about the summer rain deluges that curiously happen around Rockets Playoffs games.
“Glad you’re safe, we need you tomorrow. Go Rockets!,” I said as I left the elevator.
How this encounter was even possible is a new story for another time, but for that moment on a day when the whole sports world was talking about his fourth-quarter disappearance in the semifinals Game 5 against the Warriors, he hadn’t disappeared to me at all. I knew I was standing in the presence of NBA greatness, a seven-time NBA All-Star and a future Hall of Famer. What I really wanted to do was talk basketball with him, like I do with my mom, my brother, my dad. But it was just a normal, everyday exchange about weather and dogs and a workout at Toyota Center in preparation for the NBA Western Conference Semifinals Game 6.
Harden and his Rockets fell short the next night. I was sad for my guys as I stood in Toyota Center, wishing they could have done what everyone thought they would, what they thought they would – beat the Golden State Warriors.
Sometimes teams just have your number.
So I’ll just keep cheering my team on, for the moment may come when the basketball gods bring us back to Clutch City. Win or lose, no matter what, I still love this game.
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