Film Review: Clutch City

Ryan Loftis By Ryan Loftis, 7th Jul 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Documentary

A review of the NBA TV documentary "Clutch City," which chronicles the Houston Rockets' run to back-to-back championships in the mid-1990s.

"Don't Ever Underestimate the Heart of a Champion"

It could've been the plot of a Disney movie. An inexperienced coach takes over an underachieving team and leads them to ultimate glory - after surviving numerous close calls, of course. That's what happened to the Houston Rockets in the mid-1990s, and their story is told in the entertaining, inspiring documentary Clutch City, which premiered on NBA TV last month.

Not every Rocket was an underachiever, of course. The team's undisputed most valuable player was Hakeem Olajuwon, whose story could be its own movie: Four years after being introduced to basketball as a high school senior in Lagos, Nigeria, the Rockets chose him with the first overall pick in the 1984 Draft. Olajuwon and fellow center Ralph Sampson formed the "Twin Towers" and led the Rockets to the 1986 Finals. Olajuwon remained a great player after that triumph, but the team itself became stuck in mediocrity.

The Rockets fired head coach Don Chaney 52 games into the 1991-92 season and chose assistant Rudy Tomjanovich to replace him. Tomjanovich had overcome a difficult childhood in Hamtramck, Mich., to become an All-American at the University of Michigan and chosen by the Rockets with the second overall pick in the 1970 Draft. He was a four-time All-Star when a game on Dec. 9, 1977, changed his life: The Los Angeles Lakers' Kermit Washington punched him in the face during a fight, causing devastating injuries, including a fractured skill, broken jaw, and spinal fluid leakage. "That became my identity," Tomjanovich says in the film. Always determined to prove himself, Tomjanovich recovered and became an All-Star again before moving into the Rockets' coaching ranks.

When Tomjanovich took over, the relationship between Olajuwon and the Rockets had seemingly hit bottom. Olajuwon claimed to have a hamstring injury, but the Rockets didn't believe him. A frustrated Olajuwon wanted out of Houston, but a personal change would lead to a professional one as well. Olajuwon rededicated himself to Islam in the summer of 1992 and found a new inner peace. During a preseason trip to Japan, Olajuwon repaired his relationship with then-owner Charlie Thomas and teammate Vernon Maxwell. Maxwell, a talented player whose erratic behavior earned him the nickname "Mad Max," had once gotten in a physical altercation with Olajuwon over his spitting habit.

Michael Jordan's first retirement in October 1993 meant the race for the NBA championship would be open for the first time in years. The Rockets won a franchise-record 58 games in the 1993-94 season, and Olajuwon was named MVP. After blowing big leads and losing each of the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals to the Phoenix Suns and earning the nickname "Choke City," the Rockets came back to win the series in seven games. Following their five-game triumph over the Utah Jazz in the conference finals, the Rockets faced the New York Knicks for the championship. New York took a 3-2 series lead, but Olajuwon's block of John Starks' three-point attempt in the closing seconds of Game Six sealed Houston's win. The Rockets won Game Seven and claimed the first championship in team history.

The most interesting portion of the film involves the trade that brought Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon's former teammate at the University of Houston, to the Rockets in February 1995. Drexler had been an eight-time All-Star with the Portland Trail Blazers, but not all of the Rockets embraced him upon arrival. Nor did the trade produce immediate results: Houston went 16-17 after Drexler joined the squad and were only the sixth seed in the playoffs. Drexler proved his worth with great performances in elimination games in the first round against the Jazz and the second round against the Suns (during which the Rockets became only the fifth team to overcome a 3-1 deficit). Olajuwon completely dominated San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, the regular season's MVP, in the conference finals, and the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Finals, becoming the only champion in NBA history to be ranked lower than a fourth seed. When the trophy was presented, Tomjanovich declared, "Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."

Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, of course, and after the Rockets' two championships he led the Chicago Bulls to another "three-peat." Would the Rockets have won it all if Jordan hadn't retired? It can never be known, but in Clutch City former Houston Chronicle reporter Tran Blinebury recalls a conversation he had with Jordan after the Rockets beat the Bulls in a December 1992 game. According to Blinebury, Jordan expressed doubts that the Bulls could beat the Rockets in a Finals. But forget speculation. The Rockets did win it all, and Clutch City makes clear that they did it in a way no other team could have.


Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, Rudy Tomjanovich

Meet the author

author avatar Ryan Loftis
I graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree and have been a freelance writer for various print and online publications since then.

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