The videotaped pictures suddenly grab Rudy Tomjanovich, pictures that leap off the oversized television screen in his office. He will be in the midst of dull work, trying to dissect the tendencies and weaknesses of some Houston Rocket opponent in this long playoff spring, when his attention will be drawn to his own team. Stop, rewind. He will watch Hakeem Olajuwon in action with a new and different eye.
Stop, rewind. Hakeem has the ball in that familiar spot, low, on the left side, back to the basket. He is spinning left, going to take that little eight-foot jump shot.
Stop, rewind. He is spinning right. The Dream Shake. He is going to fall out of bounds as he takes that even more familiar eight-footer that no one can handle. Stop, rewind. He has his man up in the air, and he is driving, one step, two steps, jam.
Stop, rewind. He is being double-teamed and passes out to one of his guards—to Clyde Drexler or Kenny Smith or Sam Cassell—for a carnival-easy three-point shot to win a Kewpie doll. Stop, rewind. The pass will be to a cutter for an easy basket. Stop, rewind.
Tomjanovich simply will stare at the lethal menu. His good fortune will overwhelm him. "Sometimes—often, really—I just look at the tape of Hakeem and say, 'God, what are the other coaches thinking?' " Rudy T says. "How do you stop that? What do you do? We're around him so much that at times we take him for granted. But to see some of the things he's doing now...."
The time has arrived for everyone to stare in amazement at this seven-foot gentleman from Lagos, Nigeria, to stare even harder than last year when he was the MVP in the NBA and led the Rockets to the NBA championship. That was the for-granted stuff. This is the surreal. He is one step away from winning the title this time pretty much by himself, taking an ordinary team to an extraordinary finish. This is his moment. This is his show.
"He's had an unbelievable run," Rocket assistant coach Carroll Dawson says. "To go up against the type of competition we've had and to do the things that he's done...he's never played better. He's scoring, rebounding, blocking shots and—this is what he's doing better than he ever has—making great passes. A few years ago, he'd get the ball and you'd say, 'All right, now he'll try to score.' Now he waits that little extra bit. He sees where everybody is."
The Utah Jazz. The Phoenix Suns. The San Antonio Spurs. In each of their Western Conference series against those teams, the sixth-seeded Rockets were the underdogs. In each of the three series, they faced desperate times. They could have been eliminated in cither of two decisive games against the Jazz, in any of three against the Suns. They squandered a 2-0 advantage and faced a best-of-three situation against the Spurs, with two of those games on the road. Each time they pulled a wondrous escape. Each time the reason for the escape essentially was their 32-year-old captain.
"To my mind, he's the best player in the league, and he's been the best as long as I've been in it," says forward Mario Elie, a five-year veteran. "He's so good that sometimes you get caught up in just watching him."