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This feature has been on hiatus since the lockout but we’re back to continue the Hoop Diary NBA Jersey Countdown. You can find all of the previous entries here. Today we focus on the number 45 and bring you our all-time best NBA player to wear that number.
Ok, first thing’s first we’re not including Michael Jordan. While it’s obvious to nearly all basketball fans that “MJ” wore the number 45 when returning from his first retirement, we don’t feel he played enough games in it to claim this prize.
Our selection for all-time greatest NBA #45 is none other than Rudy Tomjanovich.
Drafted second overall by the San Diego Rockets in the 1970 NBA Draft, Tomjanovich joined a Rockets team fresh off a lowly 27-55 season. Re-building from the ground up, San Diego drafted Rudy and three other rookies including eventual Rocket legend Calvin Murphy. Tomjanovich finished his maiden NBA season with a modest stat line of 5.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in just under 14 minutes per game. The Rockets improved their win/loss record to 40-42 to get out of the Western Conference’s cellar.
Interestingly, in clearing room for these newcomers the Rockets lost two future NBA coaches in Pat Riley and Rick Adelman to the Portland Trailblazers in the 1971 NBA Expansion Draft. Both Riley and Adelman were selected by Portland but Riley was “sold” to the Los Angeles Lakers five months later and only nine days before the beginning of the 1970-71 season.
The Rockets moved to Houston before the 1971-72 season and for Tomjanovich, the move served him very well. In his sophomore season, Rudy’s minutes exploded to just under 35 per game and his stat line grew in parallel averaging 15 points and 11.8 rebounds per contest. Even more impressively his field goal and free throw shooting percentages also lifted dramatically while only committing one more foul per game.
Lifting his productivity again in his third year, Tomjanovich continued to improve however the Rockets still failed to make the playoffs even after a move to the NBA’s Eastern Conference. In 1974 Rudy was somewhat compensated for his lack of team success by being selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star Team. He would play in the next three straight All-Star Games before making his final All-Star appearance in 1979 as a starter. The 1979 showcase was held at the Pontiac Superdome in Tomjanovich’s native state of Michigan. Rudy started the game alongside then-Rocket teammate Moses Malone while his career-long buddy Calvin Murphy was also on the team, as a reserve. Rudy collected 12 points, six rebounds and an assist in a 129-134 loss to the West, completing his All-Star experience.
It took until the 1974-75 season for Tomjanovich to make the playoffs. His first visit was not a fun experience however, being defeated 4-1 by the John Havlicek and Dave Cowens-led Boston Celtics in the opening round. 1975-76 saw the Rockets relapse, missing the playoffs all together before finally making the leap in 1977, capturing the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 49-33 record.
Houston pushed past the Washington Bullets four games to two in the Conference Semis, a team that featured names such as Dave Bing, Wes Unseld, current Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and Elvin Hayes. Although getting his first taste of playoff success, Rudy’s Rockets fell in the following round to Julius “Doctor J” Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers team also featuring Doug Collins, Daryl Dawkins, Mike Dunleavy, World B Free and Kobe Bryant’s father Joe.
The 1977-78 season was quite a forgettable one, not only for Rudy Tomjanovich but also the Rockets in general. Although Rudy and his long-time running mate Calvin Murphy were leading the team alongside Moses Malone, Houston were sporting a pedestrian 9-13 record when they faced the Los Angeles Lakers on December 9th 1977. Everyone thought this would be “just another game” but it turned into so much more. This game not only turned Houston’s season upside down but it nearly ended Tomjanovich’s life.
During an on-court incident that did not involve him, Rudy Tomjanovich ran towards the scuffle with the intent of breaking it up. Los Angeles Lakers forward Kermit Washington, who was right in the middle of the dust-up saw Rudy running towards him. Not knowing whether Tomjanovich was there to fight or make peace, Washington didn’t take time to think and landed one of the most sickening punches to the face in sports history, flooring Tomjanovich instantly.
An excerpt from Wikipedia:
Despite Tomjanovich’s noteworthy career as a player, he is perhaps best remembered for an infamous occurrence at the height of his playing career. In a December 9, 1977, game, the Los Angeles Lakers‘ Kermit Washington threw a punch during an on-court melee that struck Tomjanovich. The blow shattered Tomjanovich’s jaw and face and inflicted life-threatening head injuries, leaving him sidelined for five months. He eventually made a full recovery, but his playing career slowly came to a halt and he was forced to retire in his mid 30s. The story and aftermath are recounted in the John Feinstein book The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever.
And another entry:
Tomjanovich was able to get up and walk around however, and on the way into the locker room he saw Washington. Tomjanovich says that he became aggressive and asked Washington why he punched him. Washington yelled something inaudible about Kunnert, and they were broken up by two security personnel. Tomjanovich was in no condition to fight despite his aggressiveness; besides having the bone structure of his face detached from his skull and suffering a cerebral concussion and broken jaw and nose, he was leaking blood and spinal fluid into his skull capsule. His skull was fractured in such a way that Tomjanovich could taste the spinal fluid leaking into his mouth. He later recalled that at the time of the incident, he believed the scoreboard had fallen on him. The doctor who worked on Tomjanovich said “I have seen many people with far less serious injuries not make it” and likened the surgery to Scotch taping together a badly shattered eggshell.
Rudy missed the remainder of the season and his Houston Rockets returned to the bottom of the East’s Central Division with a 28-54 record. The Lakers traded Kermit Washington just 18 days after the incident, where he bounced from team to team for the rest of his career. All in all a terrible experience for Tomjanovich, who despite suffering life threatening injuries managed to return for the opening game of the following season in October 1978. Just four months later, Rudy made that memorable appearance at the 1979 All-Star Game in Michigan.
While it was a triumphant return for Tomjanovich, his Rockets were outclassed in the first round of the playoffs again, this time by the lower seeded Atlanta Hawks.
Rudy’s last two seasons in the NBA saw Houston get struck by the green fever of Boston Garden, twice. In the 1980 playoffs, Houston was swept by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
In 1981, after a move back to the Western Conference, Houston amassed a barely playoff-worthy 40-42 record however qualified for the post-season in Tomjanovich’s last hurrah.
The Rockets took all three games (best of three) to defeat the 54-28 Lakers in the first round. They then took all seven games to defeat the 52-30 San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Semis. Things got a little easier in the Western Conference Finals, defeating the equally unassuming Kansas City Kings (40-42) in five games. Then, the Celtics happened…
Although the Rockets fought hard, they fell to the Boston Celtics in six games. Tomjanovich only played in three of the six games and played a total of only 17 minutes. Moses Malone carried this team now but couldn’t carry them to the ultimate prize.
Tomjanovich is often spoken about as a Hall-of Fame candidate, having returned to Houston as Head Coach in 1991. Rudy served as Head Coach for 13 years compiling a 527-416 record (.559) and leading the Rockets to back-to-back NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995.
Others considered for the Countdown were A.C. Green, Chuck Person, Adrian Dantley and Purvis Short.
Tomjanovich’s Career numbers: 17.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .501 from the field and .784 from the line.
So there you have it, the Hoop Diary NBA Jersey Countdown greatest ever number 45…