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Rudy T. Was Deep in the Heart of Texans

Tonight, Rudy Tomjanovich will step into an arena where he never coached a game to face a team stocked overwhelmingly with men who never played for him. And yet ...

“It’s going to be tough,” Tomjanovich said.

“Emotional,” chipped in Carroll Dawson, the Houston Rockets’ general manager and Tomjanovich’s longtime friend.

Tonight Tomjanovich’s new job as coach of the Lakers takes him back to Houston, where he lived for 33 years, back to the home of the only other employer of his adult life.

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In the year and a half since Tomjanovich ended his 12-season run as Rocket coach, the team has moved to a downtown arena, replaced all but three of the players and even changed the uniforms. His old office above the basketball court at the sports club that used to serve as the Rockets’ practice facility has been converted to a private suite where Roger Federer will relax during a tennis tournament next week.

That isn’t enough to extract Tomjanovich from the fabric of this franchise and the city, from a relationship more than three decades in the making.

“Everybody knows Rudy,” Rocket trainer Keith Jones said. “He’s like Houston’s son. I think he’ll get a huge, huge ovation. I don’t think he’ll expect it, but I think he’ll be very well received. I don’t think anyone in this organization, from the owner on down, sees him as a Laker. He’s still one of us.”

Even Tomjanovich wonders how it all worked out so well, how a man who grew up in Michigan could fit right into the heart of Texas.

As Tomjanovich says, “I came from a Northern situation where it was ‘Hey youse guys!’ instead of ‘How y’all doin’?’ ”

In retrospect it was a perfect match. In a city where cordiality matters as much as effort, Tomjanovich overwhelmed the locals with both.

“I think that they appreciate hard work,” said Jesse Brown, a former Rocket ball boy who became Tomjanovich’s business manager. “Rudy always wore his heart and his hard work on his sleeve. You saw him as a player represent the Rockets well. You saw him as a guy participating in a lot of community activities.

“He doesn’t mind being in a crowd. He doesn’t mind accommodating people when he’s in public.”

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Said Jones, “I think that’s why people took him in here. People love him, because he was just a regular guy. I think that’s why he gets along so well with people here and why people still like him a lot.”

And as Jerry Levy, the Rockets’ official scorer, says, “The two championships didn’t hurt, did it?”

Tomjanovich coached the Rockets to Houston’s first major pro sports championship in 1994, and followed that with another the next year.

Tomjanovich didn’t know what to expect after the Rockets moved from San Diego to Houston following his rookie season in 1971.

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“My image was sort of West Texas,” Tomjanovich said. “Sort of dirt, desert, tumbleweed and things like that. I remember coming in the airplane and seeing all the green.”

Well, at least that’s one pleasant byproduct of all the humidity.

Tomjanovich also had to do his best to adjust to the local lingo. During one of his first golf outings with Dawson, a native Texan, Tomjanovich couldn’t find his ball.

“It’s over yonder,” Dawson said.

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“Where is that?” Tomjanovich asked.

But Tomjanovich learned and adapted, to the point where “he’s picked up a pretty good y’all,” Brown reports.

“I’d say it every month, just so they’d let me stay,” Tomjanovich said. “My accent is so Midwest, I think it sounds funny when I say ‘Y’all.’ ”

Eventually his raspy voice came to be synonymous with the Rockets. His 11 seasons in the uniform -- the old red and mustard-yellow uniforms -- produced 13,883 points and 6,198 rebounds, enough to rank him among the team’s top five in both categories. His retired No. 45 hangs alongside the numbers of Calvin Murphy, Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon -- all current or future basketball Hall of Famers.

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After Tomjanovich retired as a player in 1981, he spent the next two years as a scout, then joined Dawson on the bench as an assistant coach. He became the head coach in 1992. And in 2002, in what would become his last season in Houston, he became a one-man ambassador to the city’s latest newcomer, a 7-foot-6 man from China.

“I’ve said a lot, Rudy is like a father,” Yao Ming said. “The first year I came here, I’m very nervous. My first couple of games, I played so bad. He was trying to quiet me, make me relaxed. He made me grow up and grow up and grow up. He gave me a very comfortable environment.”

No one can ever recall Tomjanovich saying a bad word about a player -- or anyone else -- publicly.

“Rudy’s the best friend you could ever have,” said Dawson, who moved to the front office in 1996. “Rudy endears himself to people very quickly. He’s sincere, he’s loyal, he’s all the things you want in a good friend. When you’re as close as we were, you help each other in everything.”

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When Dawson was hit by lightning in 1990 and lost his eyesight (he later regained vision in his right eye), Tomjanovich picked him up and drove him to work every day.

In 2003, it was Dawson’s turn to help Tomjanovich, reminding him to find the positive in even the bleakest scenarios after Tomjanovich was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

It took something that dire for Tomjanovich to part ways with the organization he served for so long.

“When he told us there was something wrong, there wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room,” Rocket forward Maurice Taylor said. “Because people feel that way about him and he makes you feel that way about him, because he’s such an open guy.

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“I’m glad that he’s healthy. I can’t wait to see him.”

Those close to him knew that Tomjanovich would get back into the game once he beat cancer. Dawson even bet him.

“He owes me a steak,” Dawson said.

In June, Dawson was at an event honoring members of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame -- of which both he and Tomjanovich are members -- when his cellphone rang. It was Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak, requesting permission to talk to Tomjanovich about the Lakers’ newly opened coaching job.

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There had been other inquiries about Tomjanovich, but Dawson told his wife, “This one will get his attention.”

He was right. Tomjanovich was interested. And after the Lakers made a much-discussed play for Mike Krzyzewski, Tomjanovich had it.

And he has too much goodwill built up in this city, among the Rocket family, among the high school graduates whose college educations were paid for by his foundation, and even the people who ran into him at Barry’s Pizza or at Hofbrau during his routine post-practice meal, to begrudge Tomjanovich’s joining the rival Lakers.

“The main thing I’m glad about is, Rudy’s back doing what he wants to do, and he’s happy,” Dawson said. “That means a lot to me.”

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And clearly, Tomjanovich means a lot to Houston. At a Super Bowl week event honoring 34 local sports heroes, they passed a football -- the one that would be used for the Super Bowl kickoff -- from legend to legend. From former Oiler running back Earl Campbell to his coach, Bum Phillips, and on down the line, with power pitchers Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, boxer George Foreman, basketball stars Drexler and Elvin Hayes and their coach at the University of Houston, Guy Lewis, all getting their hands on the ball.

And there was Tomjanovich, getting his turn to hold the ball as well, as big in Houston as any other star, as familiar in this city as a pair of boots.

“I never imagined, as I was growing up, that I would be somewhere else besides Michigan,” Tomjanovich said.

“I just really loved the whole feel of Texas. There’s a warmth about the people. They make you feel so doggone special all the time. A lot of it is that you’re one of their guys. You have a feeling. There’s a lot of places like that. That just happened to be mine.”

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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