Tomjanovich gets in touch with Croatian roots and readies for Hollywood
Posted: Wednesday May 25, 2005 2:41PM; Updated: Wednesday May 25, 2005 2:41PM
By Dave Hollander, Special to SI.com
After a 12-year career coaching the Houston Rockets, during which he led the team to a pair of NBA titles, Rudy Tomjanovich spent the last two seasons away from the bench recovering from prostate cancer surgery. This summer Rudy T. returned to the court as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. SI.com caught up with Tinseltown's newest import to find out how he spent his offseason.
SI.com:After 30-some years, how hard was it to say goodbye to Houston?
Rudy Tomjanovich: It was extremely hard. I'm one of those guys who goes out in public ... goes to the grocery store, stuff like that. Everybody was really, really nice and said that they will miss me. It's been such a big part of my life. Houston and the people will be missed.
SI:You've probably spent some time this summer thinking about what the Southern California lifestyle will be like. What's the first beach you plan to surf?
RT: Believe it or not, that hasn't been a high priority. The crazy thing is my oldest daughter, who is a doctor, has just become a surfing nut. This was before I got the [Lakers] job. While looking for a surfboard, she actually met the guys who made [the surfing documentary] Riding Giants in a surfing store, and they became friends. They've got a date to teach her how to surf when she comes out to visit.
SI:You might be shouting "long boarding rules!" to your friends sooner than you think.
RT: You might be right.
SI:How about the famous In-N-Out burgers? How many of those have you had?
RT: My manager's beautiful daughter Lexie sent me a note that says: 'Rudy: L.A. is a great place, and you've got to try the In-N-Out burgers.' So, that's coming up soon.
SI:The City of Angels can change a man. Pat Riley came from a West Virginia coal mining town then took to wearing Armani. Phil Jackson grew up on the North Dakota plains, came here and sported a soul patch. You hail from the hardworking town of Hamtramck, Mich. What sartorial or tonsorial style changes do you have planned?
Los Angeles' casual lifestyle seems to agree with new Lakers coach Rudy Tomajanovich -- at least before the season.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
RT: I was really a gym rat most of my life -- did not like to wear suits, did not like to get dressed up. But I've been wearing Oxford suits for the last seven years. I really like them, but I don't want to get a big head. I've told my assistant coaches that whenever they see me acting uppity, they have full permission to take a running start and kick me straight in the butt.
SI:So we won't see you and [your wife] Sophie tooling around in a new convertible?
RT:She's planning on a convertible, but I'll probably be driving an SUV.
SI:Of course, there's Hollywood. Have you and Jack Nicholson had a strategy meeting yet?
RT: Eh ... (feigning nonchalance) I've been hobnobbing with some of the other stars. The other day, I walked into a restaurant and Peter Boyle shouts out, "Rudy, welcome to L.A.!" That was kind of fun because I just watched the guy on TV the night before on Everybody Loves Raymond.
SI:Did the Hollywood Reporter become required summer reading?
RT: God, I don't even know about it. I better start picking that up.
SI:It's only a matter of time before agents send you movie scripts.
RT: Well, my second daughter Alyssa is a writer and she's got a couple of scripts. She's finally started listening to me, and when she gets that script finished we've got a hit on our hands.
SI:Really? Let's start the buzz now.
RT: Get the word out! It's about a guy who is a workaholic, has some health problems and how he deals with them -- how he's got to surrender to not being the guy who's going to live forever. It's interesting.
SI:Sounds kind of personal.
RT: Yes, exactly.
SI:What did you read this summer?
RT: I like spiritual stuff. My man is Wayne Dyer, who wrote The Power of Intention. The guy strikes a nerve with me.
I also traveled this summer when I was scouting for Houston. I went to Croatia. I'm 100 percent Croatian, but I had no idea about my heritage. I came from a small family that didn't have any tradition passed down and didn't speak the language. I didn't know where I was from. I've had a couple of Croatian players and guys from that area tell me they thought I was from Brac, which is a beautiful island right across from Split. I assumed that's where I was from. I liked the way it sounded: "Where you from?" "I'm from Brac." It sounds cool. It sounds manly.
I went to Zagreb this summer to scout and meet a friend, who is a reporter from Croatia whom I had met during the world championships and the Olympics. He writes an article that "Rudy is Coming." He wrote a nice story about me coming home and finding my relatives. When I got back to my hotel, he told me he's heard from a woman with the name Tomjanovich who said I'm not from Brac. She said the Tomjanovich clan comes from a place called Kribi Poot. I said, "Kribi Poot!" He said it means "crooked road." I found the town on the map and we went up there. We went up a winding mountain road in the snow and met a lady named Maria Tomjanovich. We spent several hours talking with her. It was fun, but I'm now just a little Kribi Poot man instead of a Brac man.
SI:You've got plenty to brag about. Not only do you have two rings as coach of the Rockets, but you coached Team USA to a gold medal and an undefeated record in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. After your Sydney experience, how frustrating was it for you to watch the U.S. men's basketball team this summer in Athens?
Rudy Tomajanovich is sure to be getting plenty of advice on his handling of the Lakers from Jack Nicholson.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
RT: People don't understand how tough it is. It is a big, big challenge. It's a different game. The teams there have been together. I knew most of the Italian players because they were playing together six years ago. They know each other. Becoming a team in a short amount of time and adjusting to those rules -- and to the talent level -- is a big challenge. I felt the U.S. teams [after ours in 2000] would be challenged. If I didn't have a team that scraped and hit the floor at the end of the Lithuania game, we would have been the first team to lose. Everyone is just getting better and better.
SI:In '98 in Athens, you coached a group of non-NBA players to a bronze medal in the 1988 world championships. What does it mean when six years later a team of NBA All-Stars goes back to Athens and only comes back with another bronze?
RT: I was really, really happy about that team. If you love basketball or coaching basketball, that time was a dream. Del Harris, Lon Kruger and I spent two days in a row, 12 hours a day, talking basketball. I always love doing that. We had more than 30 guys we had to cut to 12 players. Most coaches don't have to do that because the team is picked for them.
The guys we picked had to deal with reactions at home such as 'Who are you guys? Where are the superstars?' Then when we got there, the headlines were 'Who Are These Guys?' But we hung together. We became a team. And, we were one point and half a second short of playing for the gold medal. Our guys were so disappointed at losing by one point that we played Greece on their home court for the bronze and juts took over. It was great, great feeling. When I got those guys together after that, I told them sincerely that this had been one of the best moments of my life. And a couple looked at me like 'C'mon coach you won two world championships,' but I was sincere. It's what beibng a team is all about. It was one of the most enjoyable times of my life.
SI:Just shows you what hunger, motivation and chemistry can do ...
RT: Chemistry is the key word.
SI:Were you able to spend any time this summer with your old friend and teammate Calvin Murphy?
RT: No I wasn't. I did talk to him a couple times on the phone. All my good feelings and prayers go out to him.
SI:The Lakers went to the Finals last year but will be a very different-looking team this year. What is the most important thing you did this summer to prepare yourself to try and take these Lakers back to the Finals?
RT: It's the coach's job to create a system that utilizes the players' strengths. I'm trying to put these guys in a system that's best for them. And that's fun. I go to bed with a scratch sheet with diagrams on it, plotting plays I think would work for this team. You try them out, you get a feel, and sometimes you scrap 'em. Our best play may not be created yet. That's what I love about the chemistry -- when you get different guys with different strengths. Sometimes it just happens. I love that human factor. It's like the science of chemistry.