The home team dressing room at the Summit in Houston is much smaller than the one at the America West Arena in Phoenix. Charles Barkley, late of the Suns and now a member of the Rockets, does not have to raise his voice to be heard in his new quarters at the Summit. He raises his voice anyway. "Where have all the tough white guys gone?" he asks early last Friday night. "What happened to the white guys like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale? Why can't we get any tough white guys?"
No one answers the question. The other Rockets players are in various stages of undress. Here is guard Clyde Drexler, sitting at the next locker. There is center Hakeem Olajuwon, three lockers in the other direction. Forward Kevin Willis is across from Olajuwon. The only notable player missing is point guard Brent Price.
Price, white guy, is injured. One night earlier he broke his left elbow diving for a loose ball in a 108-76 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio. Surgery was performed this morning. He will miss the first three months of the NBA season.
"We get a white guy from Oklahoma, and he breaks his elbow," Barkley continues. "We need to get tough white guys. We need white guys from New York or somewhere. Can't get those white guys from the Midwest anymore. Can't get those white guys like...." He spots teammate Matt Bullard, white guy.
"Can't get those white guys like Matt Bullard," Barkley says. "We need some tough white guys." Bullard, white guy, giggles along with everyone else.
Everyone is getting ready for the final game on the Rockets' preseason schedule. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich would like to see a neat dress rehearsal, to get a last look at the possibilities for the regular season, which opens one week later at Sacramento against the Kings. The New York Knicks are tonight's opponent. The Summit is sold out.
How are the pieces falling into place? Not many teams have done what the Rockets have done—dismantle a two-time champion only a season after its last title. In a deal that exchanged one aging superstar for four solid contributing players, Houston grabbed the 33-year-old Barkley from Phoenix for point guard Sam Cassell and forwards Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant. It was a high roller's grand roll. Two free agents—Price, who played most recently for the Washington Bullets, and Willis ( Golden State Warriors)—were other off-season additions.
So much change on the roster means so much change on the floor. A two-star attack with Olajuwon and Drexler will become a three-star attack with the addition of Barkley. The offense will move lower, closer to the basket. Pound the ball inside! Olajuwon's burden of scoring and rebounding will be lightened. Barkley will help. Tomjanovich says that "less than half" the things the Rockets will do have been installed, that all this will take a long time.
Tonight he hopes to get an indication of how long, although that determination has been made more difficult by the loss of Price. Otherwise, this will be a fine little test.
"Hakeem, I have a Kevin Willis sighting," Barkley says loudly. "He's right here. I think he might even play basketball tonight." Willis, who has missed the past five games with a lower-back strain, giggles.