Michael E. Mathis, a Houston native and father of six, moved to Southern California at a very young age with my late grandfather for better opportunities as his father expanded his entrepreneurial vision.
My dad, who lost his battle to lung cancer in 1997, never forgot where his family lines originated, cultivated a deep sense of love for playoff basketball and remained loyal to the Houston Rockets. If he were alive today, he’d be very proud of the new version of Clutch City, thanks to his people back home who often compare this 2017-18 Rockets squad to the mid-90s championship team.
He was born in the summer of 1942, years before the Rockets came into existence and years before the franchise, founded as the San Diego Rockets in ‘67, called Houston home. But, in the early ‘70s, when the team embarked on a new era, in a new city and state, he began to follow them and was excited for his hometown.
Houston, a metropolitan area, was awarded the Rockets when a group of Texas investors paid $5.6 million for the team in ‘71, the most ever paid for a Houston sports franchise. From then on, the Rockets belonged to my dad’s town. And until the day he died, they gave him something he could feel good about, win or lose.
To him, it was more than just a basketball team but a symbol of our Mathis family roots, as he loved his birthplace and took great pride in Texas. When the Rockets played and if they won the game especially, his facial expression showed delight instead of that serious look he constantly wore.
Following the Rockets was natural as a kid, while it was relatively easy to pull for the Lakers when you were born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles. A Lakers fan at a very young age, my dad tried his luck to sway me into cheering on his Houston team. For as long as I can remember, growing up here on the West Coast, I developed strong feelings of enthusiasm for any team in the L.A. sports market.
It was the glory days for the Rockets, whose back-to-back titles in ‘94 and ‘95 were truly an unforgettable experience, and deservedly an enjoyable one for my dad. The second championship Houston won came two years before his death and, when in his initial stages of cancer and convalescence, he still watched the games every chance he had and stayed in good spirits and kept his sanity.
The Rockets defeated Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic, 4-0, in a quick Finals series—the last time my dad was physically and even mentally able to enjoy the games before coping with a killer disease. He was then diagnosed with a chronic illness in 1996 that eventually killed him as he couldn’t fight it any longer.
If he were around to see this current roster today, judging by my father’s frame of mind, from what I recall, he’d respect these Rockets today but wouldn’t talk about James Harden and Chris Paul in the same breath as the ‘94 and ‘95 championship team.
Nearly three decades since Houston last hung a championship banner from the rafters, the Rockets today are permeated with a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. For the playoffs, particularly, we used to tune the old-school TV set to channel 4, Los Angeles’ local NBC station. Eyes glued to the television, mesmerized by the great Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston’s legendary big, we cherished those playoff games together.
A father and son forged an unbreakable bond by common interest of the vintage Rockets, who held every Houstonian and even this Cali kid spellbound at the time of their dominance. And while Chicago’s Michael Jordan had stepped away briefly and signed a minor league deal with the White Sox to play baseball, the Rockets made the most of every opportunity.
Houston doesn’t have the assembly of excellent talent like it once did. They had a stellar cast of performers when they won their two championships. That’s not a knock against Harden and Paul, even though the two stars in the Rockets’ backcourt are shouldering most of the weight because of their recent playoff histories.
After a slow and disastrous start, the ‘95 Rockets felt the most pressure as well. Much of that changed, though, when Houston traded for Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler for a midseason addition and it helped them get back on track. That season, they finished with 47 regular-season wins, earned the conference’s sixth seed and then rolled through the playoffs at ease.
An unsung hero as a rookie, Sam Cassell hit a clutch shot, a game-winning dagger in Game 3 of the Finals to extend the Rockets’ series lead to 3-0 and silence the Disney World crowd as their dreams had been crushed. When you think of dangerous shooters, or even clutch finishers at the time, Cassell comes to mind.
The Nigerian-born giant, whose 6-foot-10 frame allowed him to be a dominant presence down low, was most famous for his array of spin moves and phenomenal footwork that wore down those who put a body on him. He swatted the ball away from the rim, he burnt defenders in the post with his back-to-the-basket moves.
It’s often that fans in Houston compare the modern-day Rockets to the players from a classic team with Hall of Fame talent. For the talent and playmaking ferocity they have now, it’s not even close. The Rockets’ supporting cast, especially Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell and Mario Elie, were exceptional back in those days.
This current group of Rocket players won’t ever come close to being as clutch or physically imposing as the 90s club. This team isn’t as deep and doesn’t have enough to capitalize on opportunities or even the intensity on defense to balance its offensive greatness as it did back then.
A tough and nutty dude, Mad Max was what Lance Stephenson is to LeBron James. He was notorious for swearing on the court, for his trash talk, his verbal intimidation, his physicality, then he often got inside the head of Michael Jordan. His breakout role portrayed an NBA villain, but he was a major contributor to Houston’s 94 championship.
True to his deserved recognition, Robert Horry unlocked his genius early in his well-accomplished career. The Rockets had been the recipients of clutch shots, during which Big Shot Bob drained big-time shots under tremendous pressure. None was more miraculous or thrilling than his game-winning, buzzer-beater with the Lakers in the final seconds of Game 4 in 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Sure, it’s easy now to pick this Houston team, since this was my dad’s team. Best believe, it’s easy for me to pull for Harden, a Los Angeles native who graduated from Artesia High School, where the border runs between Lakewood and Cerritos.
To be honest, it’s easy to like Paul, nearly a Laker in the past before landing with the Clippers, where he walked away empty handed, with not one championship ring on his finger. And, hey, it’s always nice to give a big round of applause to former Laker Trevor Ariza.
The problem is, the Rockets’ efforts on defense tend to be a hindrance. Harden hasn’t played both sides of the ball effectively. Paul, yes, is perfect for Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced, spread-out improvisation as his workload has increased.
Arguably one of the best point guards in the NBA and certainly a floor leader, Paul is a playmaker and fuels his teammates with competitive fire but has yet shown that he’s a defensive specialist. He controls everything his team does on offense, but he’s passive on defense and really doesn’t bother putting his hands up or guarding someone.
There is hope for dad’s Rockets in these conference finals. A win on Sunday in a hostile environment means the Rockets have as much of a chance to beat the Warriors. Laugh all you want, but this would be a victory for dad. As his baby boy, the least I can do is go for his Rockets.
I remember my father, who has always been a diehard Rockets fan, wearing his caps with the team logo on it and even his Houston championship shirt. He even had a caricature shirt of players from the team. Before his death, he was fortunate to see his team win back to back and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The world, as it did 33 years ago, has discounted the Rockets. The legendary coach Rudy Tomjanovich grabbed the microphone and coined the most historic phrase.
“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a championship!”
Now the series is tied 1-1, with the Warriors back at home in Oakland for Games 3 and 4. It’s not officially over for the Rockets.
Win it for dad.