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Rocket for a Day
Written by Rick Archer 

When I was 27, I had the privilege of playing pickup basketball for 10 minutes with professional players from the Houston Rockets. 

I have always
loved basketball.  Unfortunately, at 6' 1", I don't have the height, the jumping ability or the quickness to be special.  I just love playing the game. 

As a young man, I was a good shooter and had a knack for defense.  Unfortunately, I didn't understand much about team ball.  I would typically shoot the ball the moment it was passed to me.  Later on when I grew up a little, I grew fond of being a good passer too.  These skills allowed me to be a good pickup basketball player, but nothing more.

I should have played high school basketball.  However I had a job after school and had a huge need to save money for college.  Plus I didn't like the coach.

So during high school I played my basketball at city gyms on the days I didn't work after school.  However my decision to skip the high school B-Ball team haunted me.  I spent a lot of time wondering about the glories that could have been. 

I hated Senior Calculus.  I have never had so much trouble concentrating on a class in my life.  Daydreaming about basketball became my favorite escape from a boring math class

My favorite fantasy was
visualizing a distant spot on the floor far from the basket where I could always make a shot no matter how much pressure.  Although I had limited basketball skills, professional teams wanted me on their bench just in case they needed that one special player to make a tough shot when it counted most at the end of the game.  I won some big games in those dreams.

I also made a D in that calculus class, but I didn't care because I had already been accepted into college.  Since that "D" was my only blot on an otherwise good academic record, I was able to continue my education.  Once I hit college I became a serious gym rat in college.  I would later do the same thing in graduate school.  

Basketball helped me keep my sanity when things got tough.  It served as my best way to let off steam.

Thanks to those many years of practice, I have always been a good playground basketball player.  Not great, but definitely better than average.


After Graduate school, I moved back to Houston. Since I didn't have a girlfriend, I had to do something to work off the excess energy

y favorite place to play basketball was the Jewish Community Center over on South Braeswood.  They had a brand new gym. 
The Houston JCC will always be an important place for me since this where my dance career began one year after this story about the Rockets occurred.

In addition, I loved playing V
olleyball as well.  One Sunday morning during the summer of 1977 I went over to the JCC at 9 am to play in my volleyball league.

After the volleyball ended, my friend Michael invited me to stay after to play some one-on-one basketball.  It was now at 11 am.  This was our Sunday ritual.  After playing for a while, we went to sit on the bleachers to rest. 

I was taller and quicker than Michael, so I would typically win most of our games.  Today I had been playing particularly well.  Consequently I had not lost once.  I was proud to be undefeated for the day.  However I would never rub that in.  I had too much respect for my friend Michael to embarrass him like that.

However I won't deny that in my private thoughts, I had decided I was one heck of a good basketball player.  Yeah, let's face it, I was young and foolish. 

I was feeling very cocky that day.  Little did I know that the Universe had arranged a unique way to teach me a valuable lesson. 

That's me at age 55 still trying to get better on the 2005 Alaska cruise.


The Rockets Roll In

It was noon.  Michael and I were the only two men in the gym.  As we sat there chatting, our eyes began to bulge when several Houston Rockets began to walk onto the court.  I was astonished to see NBA All-Stars Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy begin to warm up right before my eyes.

Dumbfounded, Michael and I looked at each to confirm we were really seeing what we were seeing.  Our heroes!

Michael and I stared in further disbelief as several other Rockets began to stroll into the gym as well.  Although my memory is eroded by time, other players who were there included Mike Dunleavy, Robert Reid, Ed Ratliff and a big guy named Don Smith who had just renamed himself "Abdul Aziz" or something like that.  

Since it was the off-season, we assumed these men were here to play some basketball to stay in shape.  Michael and I were excited.  We were going to get a free show!


As the players worked on their different shots, we couldn't believe at how huge these men were.  We were stunned by their size.  With the exception of Calvin Murphy who is 5' 9", the rest of the men appeared to be 6' 4" and up. They weren't just tall, they were muscular too.  

Besides their immense size, their sense of balance and economy of motion was equally impressive.  Michael and I watched in awe as these giant trees moved with a grace more typically associated with dancers and gymnasts. 

Next a basketball player named Rudy White showed up. I cracked up when I saw him.  I immediately told Michael how pathetic Rudy White was. I watched the Rockets on TV every chance I could and had decided this guy was the worst player in the NBA.   

A graduate of the University of Arizona, Rudy had been a late-season addition to the Rockets. He had played sparingly.  He typically appeared only during garbage time at the end of games, but even then he didn't do very well. His shooting had been inaccurate to say the least.  Nor was his defense any good.  It appeared whomever he guarded scored at will.  Mostly Rudy White occupied a seat on the benchI made sure Michael was very clear about my contempt for this athlete who, in my opinion, did not belong in the NBA

As I watched the Rockets shoot, I secretly wished I could get out there and shoot with those guys.  Playing professional basketball had always been my secret dreamI was quite aware I was not even remotely talented enough to harbor any realistic ambitions in this direction.  However, that never stopped me from dreaming about it!

Today I was about to learn the meaning of the adage, "Be careful what you wish for.


One of the Rocket players, Ed Ratliff, came over to get something out of his gym bag.  I asked him what the Rockets were doing here. Ratliff said they were there to play some informal basketball to stay in shape during the off-season.  I nodded.  That's what I thought.  

As I continued to watch the players warm up, I noticed Ratliff began talking in earnest with another player.  To my surprise, he suddenly pointed in my direction. The other guy shook his head in disgust, but then threw up his hands in an exasperated way as if to say, "Do what you want."

I was immediately on guard.  I could not imagine why I would be involved in the conversation.  That's when a premonition swept over me.  They had 7 playersApparently someone was late. They wanted to start and needed a fill-in.

Sure enough, Ed Ratliff approached us.  A huge "uh oh" began to surge through my body.  Sure enough, Ratliff asked if I would join them for a few minutes till the other guy got there.

I was so scared I was speechless.  

Sensing my fear, Ratliff turned his head and looked over at Michael.  No way!  Michael was just as scared as I was.  But Michael was no dummy.   Realizing he was still mathematically in the running,
Michael solved the problem by sticking a shoe in my butt and giving me a good strong push off the bleachers.  Suddenly I was falling onto the court.  That did it.  I was the chosen one.

As I hit the floor, I was feeling pretty shaky.  I was so nervous I couldn't see straight.  But then a bizarre arrogance kicked in.  Hell, why not?  Maybe I will make a shot!  I almost stumbled in my haste to get out there.  This was great!  What a hoot!!

I didn't expect to excel, but I honestly thought I would hit an open shot if they didn't guard me too closely.  I also thought maybe I could play a little defense on someone like Mike Dunleavy.  I walked close enough to Dunleavy to discover he was maybe an inch taller.  I figured Murphy was too fast for me, but Dunleavy seemed to move about my speed.  Maybe I had a chance. 


I was teamed up with Murphy, Tomjanovich, and Robert Reid.

Because they had "me", my team argued they should get the ball first. The other team quickly agreed. That should give you some idea how sorry our opponents felt for my team.  How embarrassing!!  

Like an idiot, I smugly thought I would show them!  Wrong.  Boy, did I change my attitude the instant the game started!!  I had no idea these men were so fast!

I had no idea how fast these men were until I was right there beside them.  Now I panicked.  I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say
I have never been so afraid of getting hurt in my life!

These giant men moved at the speed of race cars in the Daytona 500.  My God, they were bigger than trees and faster than a speeding bullet! 

I immediately regretted my arrogance.  How could I ever imagine I could "play" with these guys?  What was I thinking?  These guys were like Superman who defied gravity because he came from another planet.

I was stuck in a nightmare.  Imagine being on a roller coaster falling straight down so fast that you lose all your confidence.  In panic, you scream at the top of your lungs, "Get me the hell out of here!!!" 

That's exactly how I felt.  I felt like I was in danger out there.  I was terrified of accidentally stepping across their path.  I knew they didn't intend to hurt me, but I was scared to death I could not get out of their way fast enough!!  


Even worse I feared if I did try to get out of their way, I might guess wrong and step right into someone trying to drive around me.  It was like trying to dodge a speeding car... which way do I jump?  These
men were so enormous and so fast!!  

I also worried about being trampled.  Or even worse, stuffed in the basket along with the ball.  That's about how helpless I felt. 

Plus I felt small.  Heck, I was the same height as Dunleavy and taller than Murphy, but I still felt like a midget in the Land of the Giants.  This was a pretty strange feeling indeed for a man who was 6' 1", 200 pounds and used to plenty of physical contact. 

These men were just so immense, but it was their speed that I found unbelievable.

Fortunately as the men whizzed by me at the speed of light, they seemed to be able to avoid me no matter how stupid and unpredictable my movements were.  One time I did step the wrong way right into Dunleavy's path.  To my astonishment, this lightning quick athlete was able to stop on a dime and change directions without hurting me a bit.  One moment he was ready to knock me over, but in a blur Dunleavy spun 360 and didn't even touch me. Amazing. 

After that near miss,
I decided maybe it would safer to just stand still.  It would easier to avoid me this way. Then I noticed my friend Michael was laughing at me.  That shamed me into moving again.  Now for a while I scurried around like a cockroach trying to pretend like I was doing something.  I noticed no one was even bothering to guard me. Nor did anyone bother to pass me the ball. 

Why did they even bother asking me to join them?  It was like I wasn't really out there.  I was the Invisible Player.


Oh my God, a rebound came near me!  I moved to get it, but a man moving at the speed of light came out of nowhere and snatched it out of the air.  The ball was within inches of my grasp, but I never came close to touching it!  Now I began to get a sense of complete futility.  No matter what I did, I would have no effect on the outcome of this contest.

I felt worse when I realized that my team was forced to play 3 on 4.  No one guarded me.  Two players guarded Murphy, the elusive one.  Oddly enough, despite having me on their team, my team was doing pretty good.  They had stacked the teams being putting All-Stars Murphy and Tomjanovich together as a way to compensate for being stuck with me.  Murphy and Rudy T couldn't miss.  Playing a style known as "make it - take it", the two superstars hit six shots in a row.  They were so good, the double team defense couldn't stop either of them.  If Murphy missed, Tomjanovich would just rebound the ball and shoot it himself.

Still worried about getting knocked down by one of the behemoths,
it occurred to me to go over in the corner.  This turned out to be a good move since it led to my only triumph of the day I got a rebound as a missed shot caromed deep towards the corner directly to where I was standing.  This time I took a step forward to snatch it before anyone else. 

Wow, a rebound!   Over in the bleachers I smiled as Michael cheered and applauded my feat!

My joy was short-lived.  Seeing Abdul Aziz come out to challenge me for the ball, I panicked. The guy was bigger than a mountain.  I was intimidated and wanted to get to rid of the ball as fast as I could.  I tried to pass the ball only to have it intercepted by his fast hands.  So much for my one good play.  Glory is fleeting.

My bad pass was the opening the other team had been waiting for.  Thanks to my bad pass, the other team got the ball for the first time that game.  I frowned.


Now something really bad happened.  Robert Reid called to me and pointed to the man I was supposed to guard.  I looked and felt a surge of hope... oh boy, I was guarding Rudy White, the worst player on the Rockets, maybe even the entire NBA!!  Oh yeah!  I can handle him. 

I sized him up.  Rudy White was barely taller than me.  We were almost the same size. 

To this day, I still regret that I actually smiled when I first saw who I was guarding. You would think after fearing for my life I would have been humbled enough to see things clearly, but I was so accustomed to seeing Rudy White screw up in the NBA games on TV that I thought I could match up with him. 

I cannot believe I was arrogant enough to even remotely think I had a chance… what in the hell was I thinking?!


I quickly discovered these guys do not have a heart. They immediately passed the ball to Rudy White out at the foul line.  In other words, they were picking on me, the weakest link.  I got down in a defensive crouch.  I noticed again that White wasn't that much taller than me.  I was ready for him.  Bring it on.

The moment White
received the ball, he drove past me before I could even take a step.  He was so fast I wasn't even able to slide my foot before he was past me.  I watched in despair as he made an easy lay-up.  My eyes bulged in shock.  The athletes laughed at my obvious disbelief.  They were having a little joke at my expense... Welcome to the NBA, kid.


I frowned to myself.  I was really embarrassed.  This Rudy White guy was faster than a lightning bolt.  How could he appear to be so slow on TV?

Since it was make it-take it, they still had the ball.  Rudy White brought the ball back out to the top. He handed the ball to me so I could give it back to him as a way of initiating the next play.

The moment I handed him the ball, Rudy
White passed the ball to a teammate and cut to the basket.  He received the ball back and dunked it in one gigantic burst of power.  Meanwhile I had barely moved.

I stared in shock.  No one had ever dunked on me before.  This display of raw power was stunning.  He had risen from the earth into the sky faster and higher than any human being I had ever seen this close-up.  This was unbelievable.  Rudy White was super-human!

I looked at him again.  Rudy
White wasn't that much taller than I was, but it appeared he could jump three feet higher than I could.  How was it possible that I could just barely touch the rim, but this man appeared to be able to fly over it?


I had never felt so slow in my life.  Like the previous play, this dunk happened so fast I could barely react.  Maybe I had taken one step this time before it was over, but I was so obviously out of my league I was deeply ashamed.  These people had to be extraterrestrial. 

After the dunk, Rudy White high-fived a teammate, came over, slapped me on the butt, and flashed a grin wider than the Cheshire Cat. As he handed me the ball again, Rudy displayed an expensive row of gold-capped teeth that would have had Goldfinger salivating.  I had been "Yo-ed" to the Nth degree.  I could not believe how good Rudy White was! 

Fortunately God in His Infinite Mercy decided I had learned my lesson.  I was spared further humiliation when the missing Rocket, a guy named Kevin Kunnert, showed up to take my place.  I have never been so happy to see anyone in my life!!   I quickly gave up my spot and ran to the bleachers as fast as I could.  I just wanted to get out of there.  

As I returned to the bleachers with my tail curled between my legs, one thought crossed my mind, "Okay, God, you made your point. I get it."

I wasn't bitter, just chastened.  The Universe had decided I needed to be taught a lesson in humility.  Well, guess what, I got the message.


Michael asked me how I felt.  I shook my head in disbelief.  All I could think of was how I had disrespected Rudy White and how easily Rudy White had beaten me to the basket two times in a row.  I was totally helpless to stop him.

Henceforth I would understand the concept of Basketball Relativity.  No matter how good I was, there were levels of athletes far superior to me.  So don't get such a big head.  Even
the least talented among these athletes was an Olympic God compared to pathetic little me I was mortal, they were immortal.

I told Michael as long as I lived I would never criticize another professional athlete again.

Furthermore, from that point on, I refuse to ridicule or criticize people with ability similar to mine.  Since that day, I have made a point never to show up a fellow athlete.  Don't misunderstand, I still compete hard.  But there is a difference.  Once in a while, I will make a good shot despite my opponent's best effort to stop me.  So what?  I just walk away without a smile. 

Now that I have been humbled, in the cosmic scheme of things, there will never be any reason again to make fun of anyone.   I'm just happy to be able to play.

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