Since its establishment in 1967 as the San Diego Rockets — the Houston Rockets franchise has found significant success in the league. There’s no denying that their most memorable stint in the NBA was during the Hakeem Olajuwon era in the 1990s, which culminated in back-to-back titles for the Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
Despite their storied history, however, the Rockets have been involved in their fair share of controversies — or scandals, if you may — in the past. Today we round out some of the most memorable incidents involving this organization that made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Rudy Tomjanovich Punching Incident (1977)
Rudy Tomjanovich coached the Rockets between 1991 and 2003. This was during the golden era in Houston, and the highly-respected coach was at the helm during the team’s title runs in ’94 and ’95.
While he may be most remembers during his coaching days, Tomjanovich also suited up for the Rockets during his playing days. He played 10 seasons with the team during the 1970s, making five All-Star appearances.
In December 1977, in a heated game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Tomjanovich was on the receiving end of a sucker punch from LA power forward Kermit Washington. This wasn’t just any other punch, as the blow Tomjanovich received to his face actually turned out to be life-threatening.
The punch caused severe head and spinal injuries. At one point, spinal fluid was leaking into Tomjanovich’s mouth. He also fractured his face and was forced to miss five months of the season. Thankfully, he made a full recovery.
As for Washington, he was suspended for two months — the longest league-issued suspension at that time — and fined a whopping $10,000. The Lakers eventually traded him to the Boston Celtics, and he was never really able to return to his All-Star form (and his reputation was forever tarnished) after that gruesome act of violence.
Hakeem Olajuwon Injury Fiasco (1992)
As previously mentioned, Olajuwon is easily one of, if not the greatest Rocket ever. Having played 17 seasons in Houston (oddly, he spent his final season in the league with the Toronto Raptors), the dominating 7-foot big man pretty much won it all for and with the Rockets.
However, the legacy of Olajuwon almost came to an abrupt end even before it reached its climax. In 1992, two years before the Rockets won their first (and second) championships in franchise history, their superstar big man actually demanded a trade after being at the center of a controversial injury.
At that time, Olajuwon was out injured for a number of games due to a hamstring injury. Apparently, the Rockets thought he was faking it, and the front office decided to suspend their star for refusing to play.
Understandably, Olajuwon was totally offended. Things escalated to a point that he demanded to be traded.
“I’m not coming back for them (management),” Olajuwon said in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article. “It’s for my teammates and the fans, but I would not like to play for the Rockets next season. It’s so obvious after all that’s happened.
“Would you like to work for a management like that, that say all these things? It’s better for everybody to pack at the end of the season.”
Fortunately, both parties were able to settle their difference before it got completely out of hand. Olajuwon had a change of heart and ended up staying with the Rockets. The rest, as they say, is history.
Daryl Morey Hong Kong Tweet (2019)
In October 2019, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked a huge scandal with just a single tweet. While the aforementioned tweet was taken down almost as quickly as it was posted, there’s absolutely no denying that the damage had been done — and the damage was pretty catastrophic.
Morey tweeted a rather straightforward message showing his support for the Hong Kong protests, which in hindsight, wasn’t really a great idea given his position. At that time, the political tension between China and Hong Kong was extremely high, with the latter demanding their sovereignty from Chinese rule. Morey took the side of Hong Kong in his tweet, expressing his support for the country’s efforts towards independence.
China took great offense (that’s an understatement) from Morey’s message, and the country pretty much declared war on the NBA. Things got so bad that even Chinese national and Rockets legend Yao Ming denounced Morey’s tweet. Even United States President Donald Trump got involved in the fiasco at one point.
Simply put, China severed ties with not only the Rockets but the entire NBA as well. This resulted in millions of dollars in lost potential revenue for the league, and needless to say, the relationship between China and the NBA had been damaged for good, to say the least.