Lakers' Secret Scouting Weapon? Rudy T
He sees the lush fairways and greens, smells the grass, feels the sun, hears the peace and quiet that wasn't on his course so many years ago.
"I was so into the job that I rarely saw the other part of life, and I had some revelations that were shocking -- like the fact that the weather in Houston was nice in the winter," said Tomjanovich, whose 13-year coaching career with Houston and the Lakers ended in 2005. "If it was during the season, it was off to practice and then go home and rest. And when I was a coach, I was inside my head. The year that I had to quit because of cancer (2003), I'm playing golf and I'm asking people, 'Was it always like this in the winter?' I wouldn't be focused on that. I didn't realize that when I'm coaching, when I was away from the floor, I was still in my mind."
He vacated that head space years ago, though, all while staying in the game he so dearly loves. And as the Lakers march toward what they hope is yet another title, Tomjanovich is reveling in his role as the team's secret scout.
He's an analyst for the Lakers, just as he has been since assuming the role in 2005. After 12 seasons and two championships at the Rockets' helm, Tomjanovich had moonlighted as the Lakers coach for the 2004-05 campaign before stepping down in February of that season when he was stricken with bladder cancer. He told friend and Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss that he wanted to stay involved, to stay close and connected to the NBA, and so the Lakers handed him a job with a somewhat unique description.
Tomjanovich -- who reports that his health and happiness are both in good condition -- has scouted both Lakers opponents and the Lakers themselves ever since. He files detailed reports on the Lakers four times a year, breaking down their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses using a statistics-heavy new-age approach that flies in the face of his reputation as an old-school coach.
Based in Houston and Los Angeles, he also analyzes various end-of-bench players around the league just in case they might wind up being available to be added to the Lakers' roster someday. The travel has been minimized in recent years, but he still spends plenty of time adding to his various frequent flyer accounts.
But the postseason is Tomjanovich's favorite time of year. Before every round -- like, say, the Western Conference finals series against Phoenix that starts today -- Tomjanovich files a report that is intended to shed light on any competitive edge overlooked by the team's coaching staff.
"Rudy drops in, sits with us for a little bit as a coaching staff and talks with us about our (strategy)," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We read his reports, we use them with our team. ... He really knows the game. Obviously being around it for 35 years, he's very familiar with all the nuances of the game and the changes that happen in the game, so I think he loves seeing it, seeing the personnel and seeing what people are doing. It's a role that has to be filled. And Rudy is a guy who enjoys the job."
To say the least.
"In a playoff series, I'm not going to say who the team was, but in early offense ... there was a team that was the number one 3-point shooting team in that time period," Tomjanovich said. "When you go to the next time period, they wound up being the worst. ... I heard from an assistant after (last season's playoffs) that he actually picked the report up and read it out to the team, which is big."
It was an edge, in other words -- the kind he nearly killed himself trying to gain for so many years.
In that sense, Tomjanovich's dream job is the best of both worlds. It feeds his competitive fire -- the same one that led him to step away from Team USA in 1999 due to "extreme physical exhaustion" -- while also maintaining the kind of balance he so badly needs at this stage in life (he's 61).
Tomjanovich and his son, Trey, have bonded in the process as well. The 27-year-old was fresh out of St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, when he went to his father with a few tips for his new challenge.
The game of basketball, Trey had sensed, was taking baseball's lead and becoming far more reliant on numbers to analyze the state of that sport's affairs. So he led dear old dad that direction, and in doing so forged the kind of partnership that Tomjanovich cherishes now more than ever.
"I asked him about it one day, I said 'Trey, could you do this or that?'" Tomjanovich said. "And he said, 'Dad, that's elementary. That's easy stuff.' ... We've (collaborated) for four years now. After a while, we'll see trends.
"We'll do communication through a color-coded shooting chart. Here's the paint, the midrange, the 3-point, and just use a traffic light -- green is good, yellow is average, red is bad -- you flash that in front of somebody and in two seconds you're going to get some information across just by using that kind of stuff."
Yet anyone who knows Tomjanovich's story knows the light was red for quite a while. He stepped down from national team coaching in 1999, with Larry Brown taking over after Tomjanovich spent two days in the hospital regaining his energy.
Tomjanovich would eventually return to the bench, but his teams never returned to form as two playoff-less seasons in Houston were followed by the half-season with the Lakers and Jackson's return. "Rudy T," as he is known, may have famously said to "never underestimate the heart of a champion" after his 1995 title with Houston, but he had underestimated the rigors of the head coaching life.
"I made a great living," Tomjanovich said. "I'm happy about that. I'm respected. I can walk down the street and people like me, but I don't have to be the best. Ever since I put on a jock, that was the deal. Be the best. That's what they're paying you for. That's the way I'm wired. I'm not saying that it's good, but it's not good for me."
As Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sees it, the arrangement is good for the Lakers.
"You have a third party who will evaluate the efficiency of our team," Kupchak said. "He's evaluating our players and their performance. That's helpful to me, helpful to ownership. ... He has a way about him. He has good relationship with me, with the owners, the coaches, the assistant coaches. It works well."
For Tomjanovich more than anyone else.
"This is kind of fun to not be on the day-to-day side, because I don't think I could do the day-to-day anymore, to get that big adrenaline thing and then it flushes out and then you get on a plane and get ready to go do it again," Tomjanovich said. "I can't even bet 50 cents on a golf game because I internalize if I don't live up to what I think I should do. I play golf now all the time, but I rarely play for money. We keep score, but it's not like, 'This putt means this against you.' That worked for me, but it almost killed me too."
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