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Curry Kirkpatrick
January 17, 1977
The Rockets are on the rise, powered by Malone's rebounds, Lucas' rookie leadership and Nissalke's confidence
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January 17, 1977

Blasting Off In Houston

The Rockets are on the rise, powered by Malone's rebounds, Lucas' rookie leadership and Nissalke's confidence

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A funny thing happened to a whole lot of Texans right in the middle of Super Bowl week. On Wednesday night more than 22,000 members of that football-crazed society paused long enough in Houston and in San Antonio to take in another kind of game. What it was, pardner, was pro basketball.

In San Antonio 11,000 turned out to watch the Spurs defeat the Denver Nuggets 137-133—a d�j� vu shootout recalling the two clubs' run-and-gun exhibitions in the late and great ABA. Two hundred miles up the trail, the Houston Rockets were in the process of a) benching all their starters in front of 11,000-plus fans; b) rallying from 18 points behind; and c) defeating the New York Knicks 108-107 with a miracle comeback led by the NBA's last left-handed Jewish guard, Dave Wohl, who d) was traded to the Nets two days later. Ah, wilderness!

For a long time Texas was, indeed, a veritable basketball wilderness, but the emergence last year of George Gervin, James Silas and their explosive friends in San Antonio gave that city some excitement besides border gang fights. And now the Rockets have become the turnaround attendance story of the year. Or, at least, the week.

Annually, Houston has had some of the best pure shooters in the league, not to mention the best pure puncher in Calvin (Baby Muhammad) Murphy, but defensive shortcomings and coaching ambiguities have led to failure. Financial woes have beset club president Ray Patterson ever since he left the champion Milwaukee Bucks four years ago to test his rebuilding skills in Houston. The team had passed through two owners plus a holding company before the merger, and the ABA sacrificial offering of $700,000 to each NBA member helped save the franchise.

Moreover, the Rockets always have had a difficult time competing against the successful program at the University of Houston which, even now, showcases probably the finest backcourt player on campus in Otis Birdsong.

Who should arrive this season to, as they say, "turn it all around" but a man without a job, a man without a shot and a man without a college. They were, in order of appearance, Coach Tom Nissalke, John Lucas and Moses Malone.

April. The Rockets' Patterson hired Nissalke, one of pro sports' truly incredible survivors. It was Nissalke's sixth pro team in six years, but Patterson figured he knew his man; he had coached Nissalke as a prep at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., and when he became headmaster there he gave Nissalke his first coaching job.

June. Nissalke greeted Lucas, the 6'3" guard from Maryland whom the Rockets had chosen No. 1 in the entire NBA draft. A unique selection, Lucas is the only NBA No. 1 pick in the past dozen years to be chosen for leadership and playmaking qualities rather than for shooting and scoring. Also, he is believed to be the first man to enter modern pro ball without a jump shot. Lucas' scoring weapon, says teammate Ed Ratleff, is "that silly one-legged pump."

October. Lucas welcomed Malone, the 6'10" vagabond 22-year-old whom he had met during Malone's five-minute career at Maryland before Moses embarked on his journey through the pro bulrushes of big cash, big cars, two leagues and five teams. Houston was Malone's third team in one week. Nissalke, who had Malone at the Utah Stars in 1974-75, might have traded for him solely out of fear that his own wayfaring records would be shattered.

At Houston, Malone proceeded to play at times as if he had written a commandment or two on offensive rebounding. Houston began winning a whole lot of important games. Eight in a row. Three overtime games in a row. Said Patterson, somewhat obscurely, "Getting Moses only compounded the Nissalke-Lucas-Malone syndrome." Or something.

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