Imagine the scene: The Houston Rockets come bursting through the doors, confetti still sticking to their champagne-soaked uniforms, slapping each other on the shoulders and laughing the satisfied laugh of back-to-back champions. But they stop short when they see the figures seated at the table in front of them. There are Magic and Isiah and Michael—the men who led Showtime and the Bad Boys and the Jordanaires. The Rockets suddenly realize where they are, that they have stepped through the doors of NBA history into the room where repeat champions reside. The Los Angeles Lakers, the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls, all winners of at least two consecutive titles within the last decade, have been waiting for Houston to arrive.
The Rockets are here because last week, when they completed a four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic, they became the sixth team in NBA history to win consecutive championships. As for the other repeat winners, the Minneapolis Lakers, who won five titles in six seasons from 1949 through '54, are sitting at a separate, antique table; and the Boston Celtics, winners of 11 of 13 championships in the '50s and '60s, including eight in a row from '59 to '66—well, those Celtics have a room all to themselves.
But at the table of the mere double and triple dippers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Laimbeer are seated at one end, staring at Houston's wondrous center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Abdul-Jabbar, the pivotman for the Showtime Lakers, is pondering how he would fare in a matchup of his patented skyhook and Olajuwon's ever-evolving Dream Shake, while Laimbeer, the baddest of Detroit's Bad Boys, envisions introducing the Dream to the sleeper hold. Chicago's Michael Jordan and Detroit's Joe Dumars rise from their chairs to welcome fellow shooting guard Clyde Drexler of Houston into the club of champions. They tell Drexler that they always knew he would get here. Chicago's Scottie Pippen looks up, sees Houston forward Robert Horry and does a double take. He is looking at himself as a younger man.
But as the Houston players gaze around the table, they can tell that the other teams have been talking about them, measuring them. What do they make of these Rockets? Are they a great team or a very good, mentally tough team in a weakened league? Houston has established that it is the best team in today's NBA, but where does it fall among repeat winners?
Amid the locker-room euphoria after the sweep of Orlando, the Houston players were not particularly concerned about whether they had carved a niche in history for themselves. "Whenever they write the list of NBA champions, our name will be on it," guard Sam Cassell said. "Twice. In a row. Ain't that history enough?"
Well, the fact is that back-to-back championships aren't nearly as rare as they once were. Houston is the fourth straight champion to successfully defend its title at least once. The Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, were the first team in 19 years to win back-to-back championships when they doubled in 1986-87 and '87-88. They were followed by the Pistons, who won the next two titles, and the Bulls, who won the three after that. "It's almost like you haven't done anything until you've won it twice," says Horry.
But even having won their two titles, the Rockets still may not gain a permanent place in the public consciousness because Houston lacks the big-market hype of Los Angeles and Chicago and doesn't have the clearly defined persona of Detroit's Bad Boys. The Rockets have no hook. But there are aspects of Houston's pair of championships that set the Rockets apart, one of which is that they won with two different styles. Houston prevailed last season, when smash-mouth basketball was in vogue, by beating the New York Knicks in a Finals series that had all the finesse of a sledgehammer. When the game was opened up by rules changes this season, the Rockets adjusted accordingly. After scoring 86 points a game in last year's Finals, Houston averaged 114 against Orlando, largely by taking advantage of the new, closer three-point line and the prohibition against hand checking. "The game changed, and the Rockets changed with it," says former Detroit coach Chuck Daly, who guided the Pistons to their two titles.
Houston also became the patron saint of underdogs by taking the most difficult playoff route to the championship in NBA history. The Rockets were the lowest-seeded team (No. 6, in the Western Conference) ever to win the title, the first in 26 years to win without having the home court advantage in any playoff round and the first to beat four teams with at least 50 regular-season victories. Houston was like a sprinter who spotted his opponent a lead in every race. "I understand the hurdles you have to overcome to win a second time," says Dumars, "but the Rockets had hurdles in front of their hurdles."
Dumars also knows that it is far easier to win a championship than to win recognition as a legendary team. The Rockets spent much of the past season arguing, justifiably, that they had not been given the credit they were due, but they are hardly the first team to feel slighted. The Pistons and Bulls were subjected to the same skepticism. "We swept the Lakers [in the 1989 Finals], and people doubted us," says Dumars. "It wasn't until we beat the Blazers three times in a row in Portland the next year in the Finals that we began to get the credit that we were due. There are a lot of egos in this league, and it takes a lot to get people to admit you're better than they are, and even more for them to recognize you as a great team."
In that respect Houston has most in common with Chicago. Like the Bulls, the Rockets have been dismissed in the past as not so much a great team as a good team with a great player. "Guys like Jordan and Olajuwon make the players around them better," says Daly, "but they're so good that people tend to forget that the players around them were pretty good to begin with."