The deeper the Lakers advance in the playoffs, the closer they move to another championship, the more the fading memory of Rudy Tomjanovich’s brief, blighted tenure as their coach threatens to vanish altogether.
It was but a blip anyway, the championship-pedigreed former Houston Rockets coach hired to shepherd the Lakers into the post-Shaquille O’Neal, post-Phil Jackson era, only to be waylaid by health issues midway through the 2004-05 season and resigning only seven months after taking the job.
Nearly 3 1/2 years ago, in February 2005, Tomjanovich walked away from a five-year, $30-million contract, citing mental and physical fatigue and saying that, a year after beating bladder cancer, he had returned to coaching too soon.
“As tough as it was on us, obviously it was tougher on him,” Kobe Bryant said later. “I didn’t want to see any man go through that.”
Tomjanovich quietly drifted into the shadows, his 24-19 record all but forgotten, but he never stopped working for the Lakers. The former coach, 59, is a scout, spends long hours studying film and splits his time between Beverly Hills and Houston so evenly that, when asked which he considers home, the Michigan native says, “That’s up for debate. I love the weather out here.” Answering to General Manager Mitch Kupchak, he says he has filed reports on every NBA player.
He and wife Sofia, the former cheerleader he married 38 years ago, recently moved into a house not far from Jack Nicholson’s.
And he feels great.
“I’ve been living a pretty good life and really my body probably feels better now than it did when I was in my late 30s and 40s,” Tomjanovich says over lunch at a Santa Monica eatery. “I used to hit it pretty hard.”
In addition to surviving cancer and overcoming life-threatening head injuries suffered when he was punched by the Lakers’ Kermit Washington in an infamous 1977 incident, Tomjanovich has quit alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes. Tanned and appearing rested, he shows up at a Third Street Promenade burger joint in blue shorts, blue golf shirt, blue baseball cap and white sneakers. He orders a veggie burger, French fries and a diet cola.
Recently, he says, he was asked about coaching again. While tempted, he says he dismissed the notion with nary a second thought.
“I love the game, I absolutely love it,” he notes. “I love the preparation for games, I love the games themselves. But dealing with the stress -- just the travel alone -- would be too much after the things I’ve been through. Part of me would like to get that thing stirred up again, but I can’t. I just can’t do it.”
Besides, he adds, “I love my life. I get my fill of basketball. I know more about the league than I did when I was coaching.”
The Lakers, he says, are “phenomenal, very enjoyable to watch,” but he adds that he is only marginally linked to their current success under Jackson, who was rehired in the summer after Tomjanovich’s resignation.
Notes the former coach, who was under contract to the Lakers through last season as part of a $9-million settlement, then was rehired last summer, “I don’t feel that closely connected. I’m just happy to be a helper.”
Tomjanovich says he’s unsure what the Lakers do with his reports after he files them into a software database designed by son Trey, 25. But Kupchak, noting that “Rudy’s always been a film and data kind of a guru,” says, “Everybody can watch games and assess Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, et cetera, but Rudy assesses everyone. . . . It’s information that can be valuable.”
Tomjanovich was asked his opinion before the Lakers traded for Trevor Ariza in November, he says. When they traded for Pau Gasol, he was not.
Notes Rudy T., smiling, “That one was a no-brainer.”
He was embarrassed by the way his coaching career ended, he says, guilt-ridden about leaving assistants behind and powerless to end it any other way.
“I know it was the right thing to do,” he says, noting that his choice became apparent when a doctor suggested to the recovering alcoholic that a powerful antidepressant might pull him through. “A whole bunch of things go through your head -- the macho stuff and all that -- but I sort of learned, ‘Do you want to be a tough guy or do you want to live a rich life?’ The NBA is wonderful -- it changed my life -- but there is a time to live life.”
That time, he says, is now.
His son works with him. His older daughter, a psychiatrist, was recently married. His younger daughter is an assistant to filmmaker Woody Allen.
Lakers fans, he says, have been very understanding.
“I’m very lucky,” Tomjanovich says. “I feel pretty damn healthy, getting out of the ego part of it, comparing yourself to this coach and that coach. Losing some of that stuff has been a gift.”
So too, he says, was making peace with resigning.
“It was a disappointment,” he says, “but I made an honest mistake. I didn’t have plans to coach a year after getting a clean bill of health, but when the Lakers called, what went through my mind was, how would I ever get this chance again? So I went ahead and took it when I shouldn’t have because of my body and the lifestyle change. But when they called, I said, ‘I can’t pass this up.’
“It’s just unfortunate it turned out the way it did.”