Houston Rockets point guard Robert Reid (33) tries to get a hand in for a steal as Boston Celtics power forward Kevin McHale (32) takes a loose ball during game three of the 1986 NBA Finals on June 1, 1986 in Houston (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bob Child).
Unsung Player on an Unsung Team
TV One has a popular series called “Unsung” in which documentarians highlight a tremendous talent in the entertainment industry who never got the appreciation they deserved or have been forgotten with time.
Former Houston Rockets legend Robert Reid is the epitome of an unsung basketball player. His ability to play four positions in the NBA should have him mentioned with some of the greats of all time.
Likewise, his 1985-86 Rockets team with Twin Towers Ralph Sampson and Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon, John Lucas and Rodney McCray took the league by storm in the same decade that produced Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and a guy named Michael Jordan.
But since they came up short on their quest for the title, the team has been relegated to the club of what could have been.
RegalMag.com recently sat down with Reid to discuss his enormously successful career on and off the court, the relationship between Olajuwon and Sampson, saving Lucas’ life and the threat the upstart Rockets posed to those Showtime boys from Hollywood, the Los Angeles Lakers.
In some ways, Reid’s rise to fame in the NBA mirrored the 1985-86 Rockets’ rise to the NBA Finals.
Back in his rookie season of 1977-78, the NBA did not have a rookie camp.
Veterans and rookies competed against each other in the Los Angeles summer league.
During the summer of 1977, Reid was second on the Rockets in scoring and rebounding behind perennial all-star Moses Malone on a team that also featured the likes of future Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy and Mike Dunleavy.
Nevertheless, the second round draft pick was told by Rockets assistant coach Del Harris to not get comfortable because it was unlikely that he would make the final roster.
Houston already had 15 players with guaranteed contracts and they were only going to keep 11 on the opening game roster.
Reid was primarily brought in because of his athletic ability, which coaches thought would help push Rudy Tomjanovich in practice.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Reid accepted the challenge but with one condition.
“Every night we scrimmage, I want Rudy,” Reid told his coaches.
In a few practices, the St. Mary’s University product went from 19th on the depth chart to making the final 11-man roster.
One day in practice he hurdled guard Mike Newlin, dunking the basketball on the way down. Future general manager Carroll Dawson (then the team’s Converse representative) leaned over to the general manager at the time Ray Patterson and said he’s on the team.
After an 8-14 start to the season, head coach Tom Nissalke inserted him into the starting lineup.
In his first NBA start, Reid racked up 24 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots and the legend of “Bobby Joe” Reid was born.
His game even led to compliments by some of the greatest of all time like Wilt Chamberlain and Sam Jones.
Unexpectedly, the Rockets reached the NBA Finals in 1981, losing to the Boston Celtics and Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell in six games.
However, success for that Rockets team was fleeting and after the team opted to trade Moses Malone to the Philadelphia 76ers, the team plummeted in the standings.
Infighting and jealousy within the Rockets led Reid to leave the team for 10 days in 1981-82 and led to his brief retirement during the 1982-83 season.
Growing up as a military brat and enjoying a family-like atmosphere at St. Mary’s made the silent treatment amongst the Rockets players unbearable and he decided to walk away and move to Florida.
However, when the Rockets drafted Sampson (first overall) and McCray (third overall) in 1983, new coach Bill Fitch persuaded Reid to come out of retirement to mentor the young Rockets.
Although the team did not make the playoffs in Sampson’s rookie year, the team’s fortunes begin to turnaround with the drafting of Olajuwon the next year in 1984, again with the number one overall pick.
Almost instantly the team became a contender and the Rockets four year rebuilding plan, crystallized early in 1986 with a team that shocked the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals with Sampson’s miracle buzzer-beater in game five, while pushing the “unbeatable” Celtics to six games in the NBA Finals.
Although very few gave the Rockets a chance to beat the mighty Celtics, the NBA was served notice that the Lakers run in the West might be over and a new dynasty was being born in that conference.
Almost overnight the Rockets were dismantled.
Lucas had been voted off of the team in 1986.
Then under suspicious circumstances, the NBA suspended two of the team’s standout players.
Sampson was eventually traded to the Golden State Warriors for Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll.
And it would be seven years before the Rockets would finally taste championship champagne with Olajuwon being the only remaining player from that 1986 club.
“In 1990, the Lakers and the Celtics still had the same team, but they broke us up,” Reid explained. “They broke us up because they did not want us to keep beating the Lakers.
“They wanted Bird and Magic. Even though we had the Twin Towers, they wanted Bird and Magic.”
When the Rockets made the Finals in 1981, the series was still on tape delay.
However, with the Bird-Magic rivalry, the NBA had a television ratings phenomenon and not even the Twin Towers could match their box office appeal.
Despite the desires of the NBA to have mass appeal with their playoff matchups, Reid said referees did not try to influence the outcome of the game as some conspiracy theorists suggest.
Nevertheless, what might have influenced the outcome of the 1986 NBA Finals was losing Lucas to drug rehabilitation for almost half of the season, including the playoffs.
Reid believes he would have a ring if Lucas remained the Rockets’ starting point guard, but his friendship with him and helping him get his life back on track was more vital.
However, when he approached Fitch with reserve point guard Allen Leavell about getting Lucas some help, his teammates thought they were only interested in taking his position on the court.
Reid, who was up for Sixth Man of the Year at the time (eventually won by Boston Celtics center Bill Walton), could have cared less about starting.
Nonetheless, Reid became the team’s starting point guard after Leavell broke his wrist in San Antonio.
He told his teammates, “This is not about this stupid…game. It’s about his family. Five years from now when Lucas calls you and needs money for a mortgage, are you gonna be there? When John needs money to help his kids are you gonna be there?”
Leavell and Reid had seen Lucas spiraling out of control years before the younger Rockets had joined the team.
“It’s scary and it’s ugly particularly when you’re out until morning and don’t know where you’re at.”
In his book “Winning a Day at a Time,” Lucas details being intoxicated and urinating on himself in someone else’s car.
More importantly, this was at a time when a management job was not promised to a retired player and Lucas’ elder teammates were looking out for his best interest post-basketball.
That type of love and respect eventually resonated throughout the locker room, despite rumors of an uneasy relationship between Sampson and Olajuwon.
Reid told RegalMag.com that the Twin Towers were always on speaking terms, respectful and got along great.
Furthermore, Sampson’s versatility on the perimeter kept the paint open for Olajuwon to operate and gave the Virginia alum a chance to showcase his outside shot and ball-handling skills.
Unfortunately, injuries curtailed Sampson’s Hall-of-Fame career and by 1987, the dynamic team from a couple of years earlier was dismantled.
The Rockets would go on to win two consecutive titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, but Reid had retired by 1991.
Despite not playing in the current era of big money contracts, Reid transitioned seamlessly into retirement.
He does not miss his playing days at all and has no regrets.
He co-hosted “The Robert Reid Show” with Hannah Storm, operated a successful nightclub in Houston with current Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and coached at Ranger College.
He is now content, raising his teenage daughter and making regular appearances at functions in Houston.
Furthermore, he now gets to reach children, especially young males, as a substitute schoolteacher.
In an era in which many children do not appreciate the struggle to get to the top, his stories of growing up hard, wearing shoes that cost only $2.99 from Woolworths and buying patches so his mother could cover the holes in his jeans inspires kids to overcome adversity in their effort to reach their dreams.
And although he is remembered for his athletic talent, like the 1985-86 Rockets he does not get the respect he deserves because the team did not reach the basketball summit, despite playing in the old Summit in Houston.
Like many talented musicians, Reid didn’t get that gold or platinum jewelry for topping the charts, but he and his talented but unsung teammates helped pave the way for the Rockets glory days a decade later.