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Tomjanovich makes tearful departure as coach

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

HOUSTON Rudy Tomjanovich decided it was time to be a regular guy.

His season cut short for treatment of bladder cancer, the 54-year-old Tomjanovich stepped down as coach of the Houston Rockets in a tearful announcement Friday.

After two NBA titles and 12 years as coach, Tomjanovich will take another job in the organization he has been with for the past 33 years.

''The best thing for me is to back off and be just a regular guy for a while,'' Tomjanovich said. ''In the Army, they rotate the guy at the point because you can only stand it up there for so long.''

''For a while, I'd like to be a soldier instead of a general.''

He negotiated a settlement of the remaining two years and $12 million on his coaching contract.

Tomjanovich guided the Rockets through some of their best seasons, including their NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. Since then, the Rockets have seen the end of Hakeem Olajuwon's career and they've missed the playoffs the past four years.

''This is a very difficult day for the entire Rockets organization,'' owner Les Alexander said in a statement. ''I know this was a hard decision for Rudy, but I respect it.

''Rudy is a great championship coach. While I am saddened to see him move from the sideline, I look forward to working with him to make this a championship team again.''

The Rockets joined Cleveland, Toronto, the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans in seeking a coach.

Jeff Van Gundy and Paul Silas are the leading candidates for the Cavaliers, who won the NBA lottery for the right to select high school star LeBron James. Houston's new coach will have a chance to coach 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming.

General manager Carroll Dawson said Tomjanovich would help the Rockets in scouting and evaluation.

''Rudy is still going to be with us, that's what makes this easier than it normally would,'' Dawson said. ''We've been blessed to have him for 33 years and he's still going to be here.''

The 54-year-old Tomjanovich took over as the Rockets' coach midway into the 1991-92 season and compiled a 503-397 record, easily becoming the winningest of the team's nine coaches. The Rockets' championships were the city's first titles in a major sports league.

Only Utah's Jerry Sloan, who just completed his 15th season, had a longer tenure among active coaches than Tomjanovich.

The Rockets made Tomjanovich the second overall selection in the 1970 draft out of Michigan. He had 13,383 points and 6,198 rebounds in his 11-year playing career, averaging 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in 768 games.

Tomjanovich survived one of the scariest moments in NBA history on Dec. 9, 1977, when Los Angeles Lakers forward Kermit Washington blindsided him with a powerful punch that sent him crashing to the floor with shattered facial bones. Doctors later said the injuries were life-threatening, but Tomjanovich returned the following season wearing a protective mask and made one of his five appearances in the NBA All-Star game.

This season, news of cancer on the surface of his bladder forced Tomjanovich to miss the final 17 games of a disappointing season in which Houston finished 43-39 despite having two All-Star starters, guard Steve Francis and Yao.

His current contract, agreed to in 2000, was set to keep him coaching until 2005.

''Whoever gets this job has a wonderful opportunity,'' Tomjanovich said. ''I'll work to help them add the pieces to what we already have and get the Houston Rockets back to where they should be.''



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