VICE Sports Q&A: Clyde Drexler Talks Phi Slama Jama, Hakeem, and Steph Curry
Clyde Drexler was a legend in college, a legend in the NBA, and a legend in the Olympics. He reflects on hoops in Houston, Portland, and Barcelona.
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length, and is also part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Clyde Drexler knows a little something about NBA hoops and the playoffs. The Phi Slama Jama alum was a ten-time NBA All-Star and was named one of the top 50 players in NBA history. He made it to the NBA Finals twice with the Portland Trail Blazers in the early 1990s, but they lost to the Pistons and the Bulls.
In 1995, Drexler was traded to the Houston Rockets, who swept Shaq's Orlando Magic squad to win the NBA Championship later that year. On their way to the title, the sixth-seeded Rockets eliminated four teams (Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Orlando) that had won at least 55 games during the regular season.
Pretty good credentials for Mr. Drexler, and don't forget that he is also a two-time member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That's right, Clyde is in the Hall as an individual player and also as a member of the original Dream Team of 1992.
VICE Sports: Can you put into words what that experience was like in Barcelona in 1992 and can you tell me how a coach like Chuck Daly was able to pull all those personalities together (Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, etc.) and get everybody on the same page to win the Olympic gold medal?
Clyde Drexler: When you put a bunch of winners together, guys who have done it, it is real easy. Chuck Daly was a winner himself and a great coach, but when you get guys who know how to play the game, good guys who are accustomed to having success, you are not going to have any problems.
I heard a rumor that the Dream Team had a little bit of fun on that Olympic journey as well. True?
There was a lot of fun. I mean, with that crew? Are you kidding? You talk about rock stars! That was a rock star crew, and everywhere we went there was crazy attention but, for the most part, that team was just really good because of the production and efficiency and the quality of the players.
Let's go back to your days at the University of Houston and Phi Slama Jama in the 1980s. Man, that group just took off! It was like a whole new breed of college basketball, wasn't it?
It was a whole new breed! Guy Lewis, our coach, envisioned it. Then he had to get the players who could play that style of basketball. Guy Lewis was all about efficiency. He was a great motivator. He got real talent and taught his players how he wanted them to play: hard and aggressive!
"Don't give up anything defensively. Offensively, we are going to be efficient. We are not going to shoot bad shots. I'd rather see you just go up and dunk it as much as you can."
That's where it became Phi Slama Jama. We were working on efficiency. We were not trying to be flashy. We were trying to score points.
Did your eyes just light up, Clyde, when the coach said, "I want you to go up and dunk it as much as you can"?
(Laughs) That was my thought anyway! Luckily, I was one of those guys that Coach didn't have to tell twice. I wasn't one of those "going to the hole to lay it up" kind of guys, anyway. His style fit my personal style. It was just the perfect storm.
We had guys like Larry Michaud. He had the same mentality. Michael Young. Same mentality at six-foot-seven, about 240 pounds. Then we got Hakeem Olajuwon, and he developed into a really good player, as well. He was a shot blocker who played way above the rim, but it all started with a guy by the name of Rob Williams. He was the catalyst for that whole Phi Slama Jama phenomenon.
What was it like playing with Hakeem in the early days?
Hakeem has always been a really hard worker but, in the early days, he hadn't really played much basketball. If you gave him the ball in the post, he would shuffle his feet and get travels called against him. Coach Lewis would look at the rest of us and say, "Hey. Don't do that." (Laughs) So we had to find other ways to get Hakeem the ball offensively. When it came to shot blocking and rebounding, though, Hakeem was there.
Phi Slama Jama went to the Final Four three straight years. No one had done that since the John Wooden era, so that was a phenomenal achievement. Hakeem actually came off the bench the first year that we went to the Final Four. The second year, he was a starter. The third year, he was the catalyst.
Sometimes the best teams don't even get to the Final Four, let alone play for the title. We got there. We didn't win it, but Guy Lewis and those teams were some of the best teams that I have ever been around in college basketball. Our show was like being with the Beatles. We had the "Greatest Show on Earth" and even though we never won the championship, people knew who the best team was.
[Houston lost to Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team in the 1983 NCAA championship game, after the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles put in Dereck Whittenburg's air ball at the buzzer for the win.]
How long did it take you to get over that devastating loss to North Carolina State?
The memory of that game was gone the minute that the time went off. (Laughs) When we lost that game, I was thinking, "Now it is time to fry some bigger fish. It is time for the NBA. Now it is time to start getting paid."
Let's talk about the championship that you did win: the 1995 NBA championship. Portland traded you mid-season that year so you could come back home to Houston and the Rockets. Your team had the eleventh best record in the league. You almost got bumped out of the playoffs early yet, somehow, you managed to get past the Jazz, Suns, and Spurs and work your way to the NBA Finals to sweep the Magic. What do you remember from those days?
We almost got bumped out of every single game. That team of ours was just very resilient. That's what I remember. We were the only sixth seed to ever go on to win the NBA championship and we won fifteen games on the road en route to doing so. Every game was tough. It seemed like every single game was do or die, but that team had the ability to come through in the clutch. We had it in abundance!
What was it like playing for Rudy Tomjanovich? What kind of coach was he?
Rudy T. was a phenomenal coach and a great guy. We all loved Rudy. He was a players coach and easy to play for.
What were your thoughts when the Rockets won that NBA championship?
Whenever you win a championship, you go, "Whew. This is pretty nice." To be the last team standing, that is what you play for, and most of us had been playing for that feeling for many years, but you can never lose sight that it is a team game. It is not individual, so you can never take it personally. You may score 50 points and grab 40 rebounds and have 30 assists, but if I don't make the free throws at the end of the game and we lose, does that make you not a champion? That's the part of basketball that we have to understand. You can never look at it as an individual sport. You rely on so many other people.
But it has to feel good when it is Clyde Drexler who hits the winning shot in the championship game.
It doesn't matter about that. We have all had many winning shots because we are good players. What matters is that you were able to have the luck and the wherewithal to stay healthy as a team in order to win it all. It takes a total team effort. It's not just you.
I used to tell Magic and Bird all the time, "You guys are phenomenal players, but if I had been on your teams... Let me play with Kareem and Worthy and Byron Scott. Bird! Let me play with Parish and McHale and D.J. and Ainge. Let me tell you something, we would have been pretty good, too."
I tell guys all the time, those super teams didn't just appear. They were developed by the franchises that could put the right players together. It was like that back in the day, too. Think about it. Philly didn't win until they got Moses to play with Dr. J; Milwaukee didn't win until they got Kareem to play with Oscar. So it's been happening for many, many years. When you can get great players, in their prime, to play together, that is the recipe for success.
You have had your NBA jersey retired in Portland and in Houston. Quickly now, when you think of yourself in an NBA uniform, which one is comes to mind?
I see myself as a basketball player.
You are such a diplomat, Clyde.
I've been doing this for a while. First, I'm from Houston, so I love Houston. Phi Slama Jama. University of Houston. The city went nuts for us, so to come back and win a championship with the Rockets was very special.
Now, at the same time, when I was coming out of college, the Rockets were supposed to draft me. They had the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the draft, but they balked. They did not do it, which is OK. That is their right. They told me they were going to pick me and then they balked. So, Portland made the jump. They drafted me, even though it was No. 14. I had 11 and a half great years there and I love Portland. I would never forget my great times in Portland, Oregon.
I was in Houston in 1995 when the Rockets won the championship. While I was there, I had lunch at Drexler's Barbecue restaurant and I got to meet your mom. What kind of an impact has your mom had on your life and your career?
Everybody's mom plays a huge role in their development and support. Mom was awesome. There is no one better. I had a good family. I had six brothers and six sisters and they were all very supportive. We had a very close-knit family. We grew up in the barbecue business, so we grew up as entrepreneurs, which was a different mindset than most of the other kids in the neighborhood. It was a phenomenal upbringing, a great time, and I wouldn't change a thing.
Let's move up to modern days. You work on the broadcasts for the Houston Rockets. What the heck is going on with that franchise, Clyde?
Good question. They are a little inconsistent. There are going to be good years and bad years. When the good years are there, you have to cherish them.
There's Clyde the diplomat again. I mean, you look at Dwight Howard inside and James Harden outside and you have to figure that there is a nucleus there for something good to happen, but where is the chemistry with this Rockets team?
Well, they've got the inside and the outside with Dwight and James, which is wonderful, but you need the other players to do their part. That doesn't always happen. If the other players are doing their part, James and Dwight will have more room to operate, but opponents don't guard the Rockets' other guys and that makes it tougher for James and Dwight.
Once again, this year everybody is talking about the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry. Some people like him and some people don't. You played the game at an extremely high level. What do you think about Curry's game?
Steph is a phenomenal player. I love to watch him play. He is a shot-maker. In today's game, there is more emphasis on shooting the three-pointer. I think that efficiency will never go out of style, but if you can hit the long three-ball with good efficiency, then you can shoot it. Not everyone can shoot that, though, and I think that is killing the game a little bit, but he is phenomenal and his teammate Klay Thompson is every bit as good as he is. So, Golden State has got two of the game's best shooters playing in the same backcourt. That's what makes those guys so special.