HOUSTON — Finally, it was time for giants. There were seven seconds left in the madness of this NBA championship series game, the crowd was roaring like a rocket blast, and the players loped out to center court, sweaty and ready. Big Ralph Sampson, 7-feet-4, was staring into the eyes of big Robert Parish, 7- feet- 1/2, with big Akeem Olajuwon, 7-feet, standing nearby. Jump ball. Big on big.
No more little men now. No more feisty guards, darting like water bugs. No more small forwards popping those baseline jumpers. The score was 105-104 Houston, and all that was at stake was the Rockets’ survival. “Tower to tower,” Houston coach Bill Fitch had instructed during the time-out. Sampson to Olajuwon. The moment had finally come where height mattered most — a tap
— and after two straight losses to the Boston Celtics, the Rockets were more than happy to take advantage of it. Tower to Tower.
The Houston crowd was on its feet, stomping and whooping like some atomic square dance. Boston would have to grow a few inches to stop this.
“Here we go,” the referee motioned.
The players leaned into the circle at center court. Sampson glanced over at Olajuwon, then squared up against Parish. Seven seconds left. Tower to Tower. All eyes on the basketball. The referee tossed it up. The perfect tip
What drama had led to this? What confusion and hysteria? Fouls. Terrible shots. Momentum ricocheting like a pinball. The Rockets had dominated the first half, led, 62-59, yet had come out in the second half on another planet.
“It looked liked we’d been dipping into some Tijuana water,” Fitch would say. They threw the ball away, bounced it off their legs and knees. The Celtics roared ahead, and everyone figured that was it. This series, which Boston already led, 2-0, would be swept in four. Color it green. Everyone knew it.
Everyone, that is, except the 16,016 packed inside this gleaming arena. Remember, this is not Boston Garden, where the Celtics had annihilated the Rockets in Games 1 and 2 beneath the shadow of their dusty championship banners. Uh-uh. This is Texas, land of the steak, of the oil well, big noise, big arena, big rock-and-roll crowd. Big on big.
And the big men led Houston back. Olajuwon threw in short jumpers. Sampson pulled down rebounds. The Celtics saw an eight-point fourth-quarter lead disappear — the Celtics did that? And now, trailing by one point, they had let the 24- second shot clock tick away, too. Only “an inadvertent whistle” by referee Jake O’Donnell had given them another chance at the ball.
There was confusion. Arguing. “I was fouled,” Parish said. “They lost it,” Sampson said. Here was the verdict: a jump. How many times do you see one of those in the fourth quarter?
The referee tossed the ball high. Sampson and Parish leaped for it. “I didn’t have a chance,” Parish would say later. In that instant, when Sampson’s hand reached the ball first, there was a swirl of vindication for all the abuse he has taken in the last seven days. True, he had played god-awfully in the first game, and only marginally well in the second. But this, the third game, was his. He was the highest. Biggest of the big. Tower to Tower.
He slapped the ball to Olajuwon, who grabbed it and was fouled immediately by Larry Bird. Olajuwon made one of two free throws, it was 106-104 with five seconds left, and when the Celtics muffed an inbounds play, the Rockets had done it. The Towers had one.
“It was a perfect tap,” Olajuwon exclaimed. “I mean, right in my hands!”Will they return to Boston?
So now, on to Game 4. True, the Rockets have a long way to go. Even with all they had going for them Sunday — subpar play by the Celtics’ centers, subpar shooting by the Celtics’ guards — they won by only two points. It is possible still that they may not win again. It is possible they may not return to Boston for Game 6.
But on this day, they did this much: They found themselves. They are a big team. Big men. They used it. Sampson had 22 rebounds. He and Olajuwon combined for 47 points. Tower to Tower.
“Will we see the same intensity on Tuesday?” someone asked Olajuwon.
“No, more, more,” he said.
He was smiling. Even Sampson smiled a little. At the very least, they had won one. They had showed the TV watchers why they’d made it this far.
“If we had gone down, 3-0, it would have been almost a nightmare,” Rockets guard Mitchell Wiggins said. Well then. This was almost a dream. And it lingered into the Texas night.
The Rockets can win. The Celtics can lose. This was a day for mountaintops and cloudbursts. For basketball way up there. Tower to Tower. The Rockets are on the board. The series continues, but on a much higher level.