Rudy Tomjanovich, 5-time NBA All-Star forward, Olympic gold medal coach, and two-time NBA champion coach, has finally — at long last, long overdue, c’mon already, it’s about time — been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
And now for an untold story. Let’s flash back to June 22, 1994, up to then, and many say still, the greatest day in Houston sports history as the Houston Rockets defeated the New York Knicks, 90-84, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to win the first major title ever for our city.
So how did head coach Rudy T celebrate that night? By making the rounds of ESPN, CNN, the NBA Channel, and big victory parties at swanky downtown hotels or River Oaks mansions? Did he call his agent to line him up with big money national endorsements? Did he call the team owner demanding a nice fat raise in his next contract?
Not Rudy T’s style. To celebrate the Rockets’ championship, Rudy T drove around town with his buddy Oreste San Juan and his business partner Jesse Brown, pouring drinks for fans all night at a local bar in Rice Village and eating tacos at sunrise with cops and cabbies at Taco Cabana.
“First the Rockets held a private party at Pappadeaux on Richmond. But around 1 am, Rudy T left the party and he, Jesse, and I piled into Jesse’s car with the NBA trophy. I drove, Rudy T rode shotgun, and Jesse was in the back seat. We went to the Gingerman bar on Morningside in Rice Village — just us and the trophy,” recalls San Juan.
Who is Oreste San Juan? At the time, he was a recreational sports reporter for the old, long-gone Houston Post. He knew Tomjanovich from when he worked at Rudy T’s basketball camp in Brenham.
Oreste also is my good friend. I've known him since the first day I arrived in Houston. He has Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at my house each year and he’s a charter member of our group that travels to far-out places around the world.
Who can forget the time we were riding a crowded bus in Warsaw, Poland when a well-dressed gentleman tapped Oreste with his umbrella, pointed out the window, and said, “You see that man walking really fast? He just picked your pocket.”
The thief walked off with Oreste’s wallet, complete with his passport, credit cards, Continental OnePass card, and money. Oreste spent the rest of that day sitting in the American embassy filling out paperwork so he could get on a plane back home. I told Oreste, think of the bright side, if that guy uses your credit card to book a flight, you’ll get his frequent flyer miles.
A couple of years later, we rented mopeds in Nice, France and Oreste wiped out on a mountain heading to Monte Carlo. He was a bloody mess from skidding on gravel and dirt. He spent the rest of that day getting stitched up in the emergency room at Princess Grace Memorial Hospital. A month later, Oreste received a bill from Princess Grace Memorial Hospital. Total: $14.
Back to the Rudy T story: “Rudy T told me to drive him to the Gingerman, so I did,” Oreste says. “He sat the trophy on a table and climbed behind the bar and started pouring drinks for people. At 2 am, the owner locked the door and there were still about a hundred people in the place. Rudy kept bartending until about 6:30 am. Somehow, the big ball — that is part of the NBA Championship trophy — fell off. When the sun was coming up, Rudy T decided to leave. I asked him where he wanted me to take him. He said Taco Cabana.
“I drove Rudy T to Taco Cabana, the one on Kirby near the Southwest Freeway. The front of the NBA championship trophy was in the front of the car, the ball was on the backseat. When we walked into Taco Cabana, there were a few policemen and cab drivers in there. Everybody started clapping when they saw it was Rudy T. He bought everybody breakfast. He was doing Taco Cabana commercials back then and had a Taco Cabana card so everybody ate for free,” Oreste remembers.
“Then I drove him home. He was living in a house off Fondren and Gessner back them. He took the trophy, both pieces of it, with him.”
And that’s how Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich celebrated the night the Houston Rockets won their first NBA title in franchise history.
Congratulations on being elected to the Hall of Fame, coach.