HOUSTON They still blow kisses to Mario Elie around here.
In restaurants, at the grocery store, wherever. They still remember, because they need to. Elie had made a 3-pointer to put the Rockets ahead in the final seconds of the 1995 Western Conference Finals, and he blew a kiss at the San Antonio Spurs' bench.
Seventeen years later, Rockets fans are still blowing it back.
"I try not to be rude," said Elie, now an assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets. "I'm a coach now. I'm not a player no more. But living in Houston and having the only two championships here, people remember that."
The Rockets won that series, and swept the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals, winning their second championship in a row. That title instantly became the greatest sports moment in Houston history, and seventeen years later it still is.
Beloved as they have always been, the city's NFL franchises (the Oilers and Texans) have never won the Super Bowl. Good as they have been for certain stretches of the last 50 years, the Astros have never won the World Series. The 1994 NBA championship was the first for the Rockets, and the 1995 one made the Rockets seem ever-so-slightly dynastic.
But that so long ago that if you're a rookie in the NBA this year, you probably don't remember it. The Rockets' Chandler Parsons does, but there's a good reason for that.
"I was at the game," he said. "My parents have been season ticket holders since '88. I was a huge Magic fan."
So in Houston the men on those two teams are as legendary as it gets this side of Nolan Ryan. The Rockets honored five of them Thursday night, when the organization presented its all-decade team for the 1990s. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry and Elie all came back to the city where they are princes. Kenny Smith was off analyzing the NCAA Tournament and couldn't make it.
If you care about the Rockets, you probably got a little wistful.
"Wouldn't you like to have these guys come back and play?" owner Leslie Alexander said.
Yeah, that's about how things feel around here. Wouldn't it be nice
Although the Rockets have won just one playoff series since 1997, they have generally been a solid team, which a lot of people will tell you is actually part of the problem. Since drafting Yao Ming with the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Houston has had just one top 10 draft pick, which it traded. The only Rockets draft picks of the last 10 years still on the roster are Chase Budinger (2009), Patrick Patterson (2010), Marcus Morris (2011) and Parsons (2011). Parsons is the only starter.
The Rockets probably are still in a recovery mode from the Yao-Tracy McGrady era. For one year, Yao, McGrady and Ron Artest formed the core of a team that represented Houston's first real chance at a championship since Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Olajuwon fell short in the late 90s. But whenever Yao was healthy, it seemed like McGrady was hurt, and then it would go the other way around. The Rockets are in position to make the playoffs this year, but nobody is expecting a deep run.
That's why they still blow kisses to Mario Elie around here.
They have to hold those titles close, because so many people try to take them away. Michael Jordan was playing baseball when those championships were won, people say, so they only kind of count.
This is something the Rockets and Houstonians in general still find themselves defending whenever it comes up, which it did Thursday.
For one thing, it isn't completely true. Jordan returned from retirement during the 1994-95 season, and was playing for the Bulls when they lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He averaged 31.5 points in the playoffs. For another, the Rockets of that era aren't so sure they wouldn't have beaten the Bulls in the Finals anyway. The Bulls had already lost Horace Grant by then, but hadn't yet added Dennis Rodman.
So goes the argument, anyway.
Olajuwon isn't real interested in defending his championship against Jordan's mythology.
"I don't really respond to that comment," said Olajuwon, who refers to Houston as his home base but spends most of his time in Jordan. "Reality is you have to give Orlando credit because they beat Chicago and he was there. That series against New York (the Bulls) won, he scored 50-some points. He was in good condition. Orlando beat them."
Even though he won five championship rings after he left Houston, Horry considers the second one in with the Rockets the most special.
Like Olajuwon, Horry is tired of hearing about what Jordan might or might not have done against the Rockets.
"People ask that question all the time," he said. "They say you were lucky Jordan wasn't playing. I'm like, Jordan was lucky he didn't have a loss in his column for the championship, because they had no answer for Dream. I think we matched up very well with those guys. I know Jordan is Jordan, but we had Dream back there."
Houstonians will be mounting that defense for at least as long as the city goes without another world championship from one of its franchises. If you were to handicap it today, you'd probably say the Texans are the closest and the Astros are the furthest away.
Which puts the Rockets in that no-man's land of the NBA, too good to get the best draft picks, but not good enough to win the title. Under general manager Daryl Morey, who has run the team since 2007, they have been one of the league's most aggressive teams in the trade market, but the injuries to McGrady and Yao were major setbacks. Yao retired last summer, and the Rockets negotiated their first big move in a post-Yao world, a trade that would have landed them Pau Gasol. But NBA commissioner David Stern nixed the deal and not much happened before the trade deadline.
So here the Rockets are. Some nights they look like a team, some nights they look like a pile of assets. Little running, jumping mortgages ready to be leveraged into something else.
The Rockets have no superstar, no Dream. Like most of the NBA, they're trying to find one. But how?
Are they the chicken or the egg, and which comes first?
"Once they start to win more games," Olajuwon said, "everybody will want to come here."