Sometimes it's the little things you remember about a person once he's gone. For the Houston Rockets' rookie point guard. Matt Maloney, it's the videocassette tapes that his father. Jim. a longtime assistant coach at Temple, filled up with basketball games. Jim didn't care if it was a Final Four game or a high school scrimmage airing on a cable access channel. If the game had something he could use to teach his son, Jim wanted it on tape. Soon, tapes were everywhere inside the living room of the Maloneys' house in Haddonfield, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb. The) were stacked a dozen high in some places, occupied every inch of space atop the coffee table and were strewn about.
They're all put away now. Jim died of a heart attack on May 3, 1996, at age 62, and the family placed the tapes neatly in boxes and stored them in the basement. But often during this improbable rookie season of his, Maloney has thought about the tapes and his father's many lessons. "The game was his life, and he knew it inside and out," says Maloney. "Now I'm just an extension of what he lived for. This is all a tribute to him. I'm just applying his knowledge when I play."
"Every ounce of Matt is Jimmy," says Temple coach John Chaney, who left a seat on the Owls' bench empty this season in honor of Coach Maloney. "It's almost enough to make you believe in reincarnation."
The connection was never so clear, or as profound, as it was on Sunday. With 36.8 seconds left in overtime, Maloney collected the ball behind the three-point arc, then calmly (as his dad always preached) dribbled to his left to avoid a lunging Hersey Hawkins and sank the game-breaking basket that lifted the Rockets to a 110-106 win and a 3-1 advantage over the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Western Conference semifinals, which were scheduled to resume on Tuesday in Houston.
Maloney, 25, the youngest Houston starter this season by eight years, matched his career-high of 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting from three-point range. After averaging just 9.4 points during the regular season, Maloney has made the Sonics pay dearly for their double-teaming of Hakeem Olajuwon. Maloney scored 17 points in the Rockets' 112-102 win in the series opener and 19 in a 97-93 win at Seattle's Key Arena last Friday. And after Sunday's performance he was shooting .526 (30 of 57) from beyond the are in the postseason.
So on a team packed with aging stars like Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Olajuwon, the child with the legendary father may be leading the Rockets to the NBA Finals. 'In terms of being a warrior on the court," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, "he's exactly like the rest of 'em."
Maloney's father toughened him as a teenager by including him in Temple practices and scrimmages. Matt attended Vanderbilt on a basketball scholarship in 1990-91, but he grew homesick and transferred to Camden County ( N.J.) Community College in the fall. The following year he enrolled at Penn, where he broke all the school's three-point records and earned 1994-95 Ivy League Player of the Year honors. When he wasn't selected in the NBA draft, Maloney spent a year with the Grand Rapids [ Mich.] Mackers of the CBA, working on his foot speed and on the art of breaking down defenses by—you guessed it—studying more videotape.
The last time his father watched him play, during the CBA playoffs in March '96, Jim returned home as happy as anyone had ever seen him. "He told us all, 'Matt's ready. He's ready to make it to the league.' " says Matt's brother Paul, a medical researcher in Palo Alto, Calif., who attended Sunday's game. "Dad knew before he died that Matt would make it."
Maloney might never have made it off the Rockets' bench, though, if Brent Price hadn't broken his left elbow in the preseason—and if Barkley and Drexler had not approached Tomjanovich on the team plane shortly afterward, asking that Maloney be given a chance to run the team. He responded by becoming the only rookie to start every game in the NBA this season and by leading all first-year players with a .404 shooting percentage from three-point range (minimum 82 made). "Every time I tell that story I get goose bumps," says Tomjanovich. "I love that kind of interaction and that kind of trust and leadership because it's extremely rare, yet you have to have that to be a winning team. The guys just said Matt was ready and, ever since, it's been like watching a little brother coming out and finally being able to keep up with his older brothers."
If Maloney had yet to pay back Sir Charles before the weekend, he settled his accounts on Sunday. Barkley, busy all game long bullying the Sonics' mascot and yelling at fans—"You're a good goddam reason not to have cloning," he told one heckler—nearly blew the game when he missed two free throws that could have put Houston up by five points with 11 seconds to play in regulation. Thereupon, Hawkins drained a three from deep left to tie the game 98-98. Seattle rode that momentum to a 106-105 lead in the extra period before Maloney's eighth three-pointer nearly snapped the net inside out.