Clyde the Glide
For so much of my life — since I was eight or nine or so — I had dreamed of winning an NBA championship. Since I grew up in Houston, the Rockets were my team. So part of the dream was being a member of the Rockets as we won an NBA title.
And there I was. A member of the Rockets. Living out my dream.
The calendar read June 13, 1995. We were so close. After winning Game 3 by a score of 106-103, we were ahead 3-0 in the NBA Championship Series against the Orlando Magic. Now one game separated me from the chance to experience the realization of the ultimate goal of my career.
Game 3 was a pivotal game for us. We thought if we got them down 3-0, no way would they come back to win the series. We exhausted every available source of energy in Game 3. The Magic played well, and we were very fortunate to win. After winning that game and looking at the possibility of a sweep, we were all really eager to get it over with.
It was that time of year when you aren’t thinking about what hurts; it is quicker to list the body parts that don’t hurt. I had two sprained fingers, one on each hand. I had crooks in my neck that were restricting movement and costing me sleep. I would wake up and couldn’t move my head a certain way until I turned my body. During the Finals, our trainer, Ray Melchiorre, had me on this machine to stretch out three or four hours a day. I had no problems with my right knee, thank God. But my right shoulder was hurting. It was hard even to shoot in normal rhythm. And I was dead tired. The mental exhaustion — of trying to stay on top, giving yourself an edge, trying to continue to motivate yourself and your teammates — was overwhelming. We had been playing since October. It was mid-June. Believe me, it is a great thrill, but it is also a trying time. Everyone else is on vacation. You are ready to go on vacation, but you have a little more work to do.
Game 4 was the most difficult game of my career. In everybody’s mind, the series was over and the Rockets were champions. It was like sitting over a three-foot putt to close out a match. It was close enough that everybody thought it was in, but it was not in until the ball plunked into the hole. It was not over until we had that fourth win in our hands.
On the night before a game — any game, but especially one this important — I can’t afford to have distractions. I have to isolate myself. People have always respected my privacy. I didn’t do a lot the night before Game 4. I just had a quiet dinner at home with my wife, Gaynell, and our three kids, watched a little TV, talked to a couple of friends and family on the phone and went to bed about 11:30.
But I didn’t get much sleep. Too many things were racing through my mind. I was dead tired, but I had all these thoughts about what had happened and what could happen and what we had to do to win Game 4. We wanted to close the Magic out as soon as possible.
I never eat breakfast, or at least a real breakfast. I grabbed a banana and a glass of grapefruit juice, as I often do, and headed out the door bound for our shootaround at 10 a.m. I jumped into my white four-door Mercedes S500 for the 10-minute drive to The Summit, where the Rockets played in those days.
During the shootaround, our coach, Rudy Tomjanovich, didn’t say a whole lot. He talked about not letting the Magic get a win to take over momentum in the series. We didn’t want to let them start thinking they had the chance to come back in the series. Mentally the series was over, but if they could eke out a game on our home court, then go back to their place again for Game 5 ... you just never know. And they were a good young team. Shaquille O’Neal was dominant. Penny Hardaway was All-NBA. Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott ... that was quite a starting five. We went over a few things during the shootaround and headed our separate ways.
I headed out for an early lunch at Drexler’s Barbecue, our family restaurant that is located in downtown Houston, not far from what was then known as The Summit. Since I don’t eat another meal until after a game, I wanted to put something in my stomach at lunch that was going to last. I had my specialty — the barbecued beef sandwich, potato salad and baked beans.
It was already pretty lively at the restaurant. We had a regular customer base of sports fans, and everybody was into the playoffs. A lot of my buddies were there, talking about the game. “Tonight’s the night,” everybody was saying. I could feel the excitement in the air. It was a little extra motivation. But mostly, I was thinking I better hurry up and eat, so I could go home and get my rest. My mom, Eunice, was there. She came over and said, “Clyde, you get home and get off your feet.” A mom’s job is never done.
My game-day routine includes a nap. It is part of my mental preparation. It seems like I spend half my life taking a nap in preparation for the next game. I got to sleep about 12:30 and napped until about 3:30. I actually slept pretty well. My wife, Gaynell, always made sure the kids were quiet. I was fidgety, but I got to sleep. I rarely have trouble napping. I have a quiet, dark bedroom, but I could sleep in a room flooded with light if necessary. I could nap in an airfield. I am an All-World napper. During the season, I was always so tired, I needed it.
After my nap, I got up and took a shower. Then I had a little snack — some nuts for protein along with some fruit and fruit juice. Then it was back in the car to return to The Summit.
A lot of things went through my mind on the drive that day. My brother, James, and I had always talked about being in the situation I was about to be in. When I was on the schoolyard or in the gym, shooting baskets as a kid, I would put myself into that spot — an NBA championship game on the line. I used to pretend I was Julius Erving, the hero of my youth. Dr. J was the epitome of class. I loved the way he played, how smooth he was, how he seemed to fly when he went up for a dunk or a driving layup. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a world champion.
As I drove down the tunnel toward the team parking lot at The Summit, a huge crowd gathered to greet all of the Rockets. There were fans screaming and yelling and rooting us on. Euphoria was in the air. People had their brooms out. “Let’s sweep the Magic,” they were yelling. I was hoping the Orlando players didn’t see that. That placed even more pressure on us. If we didn’t win, those fans would have to put those brooms away. We wanted to send them home happy.
I was one of the last players to get to the locker room. Before I get dressed for a game, I read a book. Usually, I am reading until the last minute and then I get dressed. That night, I couldn’t read. I was walking around talking to everyone. I felt anxious. It was highly unusual that I didn’t have the patience to sit down and read. But I was just excited.
Sam Cassell was his usual self, talking and laughing. What a great guy to have in a locker room. I went over and said a few words to Hakeem Olajuwon, along with Mario Elie and Kenny Smith. The one guy I always talked to was Charles Jones. We just clicked, for some reason. I could talk to that man for hours. I asked Charlie, “What do you think?” He said, “We are gonna take care of business. I will be in D.C. in three or four days.” He said stuff like that just to make me laugh. Every team should have a guy like him — an easy-going, stabilizing influence. Chucky Brown was the same sort of guy. We had a great locker room.
I have a routine in the way I put on my gear. I am superstitious. I always put my uniform on in the same order. I put on my socks, the jock, the shorts, and then the jersey, followed by sweatbands on my left arm and an elbow pad on my right arm. Then I put on my Reeboks. Just before that game, Reebok had sent me some new three-quarter-top shoes. I was hesitant to wear them, even though I had worn a pair like them a couple of weeks before. I didn’t want to change the rhythm we were in. You win three in a row, you don’t want to change anything about your routine.
We knew the Magic were going to come out fighting. It was a matter of pride. They knew they could lose the series, but they really didn’t want to get swept.
It was a very tough game and not the best game for me. It was just one of those nights where I wasn’t quite in sync. But we had a great team effort. All of our guys played super defense. Actually, the defense was stellar on both ends. It was a defensive struggle until the last period, when we began to open it up offensively.
It was still a close game down to the final minutes. We made a couple of key steals and fast-break conversions to get a little separation. And then it was over. The scoreboard read “Houston 113, Orlando 101.” Rockets win! Rockets win! Rockets win!
I will never forget the moment. I just couldn’t believe it was over. We had done it — we were world champs. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was not like any other game, where I would shake a hand or two of an opponent and head quickly to the locker room. I saw Mario, with whom I had played in Portland and was now reunited as a teammate in Houston. We hugged. Then Hakeem came over, and we hugged. Those two were happier for me than they were for themselves. They had a ring from the previous season, and I didn’t.
Hakeem had told me after I was traded from Portland, “Drex, we will win one this year for you.” Now he was saying, “We got you one.” That was probably the sweetest conversation we ever had. The look on his face was suitable for framing. I could tell he was physically drained, but he was full of emotion because he saw how much happiness it gave me and the rest of the players to win a championship. He was the consummate teammate.
I had been so close so many times at so many levels. At the University of Houston, we made the Final Four two years in a row but didn’t win it. With the Portland Trail Blazers, we made the NBA Finals twice, in 1990 and ’92, losing both times. I had been a member of the first Dream Team that won the 1992 Olympic gold medal at Barcelona, but that really didn’t count in my mind. Finally I was on a team that was good enough to win it all.
The locker room scene was pretty chaotic. I had done a lot of interviews on the court and then in the interview room. I didn’t get to do all the champagne stuff in the locker room, but Kenny Smith made sure I wasn’t left out. While I was doing an interview, he came over with a bottle of bubbly and dumped it on my head. “What are teammates for?” Kenny asked.
I couldn’t stop grinning.
Finally I showered and left for a private party we had booked at a downtown restaurant. It was just for my family and close friends, so we could celebrate together in case we happened to win that night. When I was traded to Houston, I had talked with my mom about how I hoped we could win a title in my hometown, so everybody could be part of the celebration. Now it was happening.
As I walked out of the arena toward my car, I was congratulated by the security guards and all the people who worked that season at The Summit. They were as excited as I was, it seemed. There hadn’t been any championship teams in Houston over the years. Now the Rockets were champions, back to back!
I got into my car and headed toward the restaurant, which was about five minutes away. The streets were packed with celebrating fans. I made it about two blocks, and people had blocked off certain streets and weren’t letting cars get past. All of a sudden, they recognized me, and they rushed over and started rocking my car. I mean, there were hundreds of people surrounding the car. I was literally scared to death. It felt like I was in an airplane, like I was being lifted off the ground. I thought, Lord, this is a hell of a way to go. Then a policeman saw me and rushed over and saved my butt. He cleared the crowd and I was able to get through. People were so happy, and they didn’t realize the danger of the situation. It was the funniest thing, yet also the scariest moment of the night.
I was so tired, I didn’t have much of an appetite. I am not much of a drinker, but I had a little champagne, maybe half a glass. I didn’t want to get drunk. I wanted to have all my faculties, so I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming. All I could do was sit there and listen to the stories and soak in the moment.
Mom said, “It is about time we come out on the winning end. We have been to the top a lot of times and come up short. It shows if you continue to persevere, good things happen.”
As always, my mother was right.
Kerry Eggers has spent his entire career covering sports in the city of Portland. For 25 years he covered a variety of sports for The Oregon Journal and The Oregonian, including 11 years as an NBA writer and beat writer for the Trail Blazers. In 2001 he moved over to the new Portland Tribune as the senior sports writer and columnist
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