[Editor's note: ESPN Playbook interviewed Clyde Drexler during his recent visit to ESPN headquarters to promote NBATV’s Dream Team documentary. The video above features Drexler answering one offbeat question about each of his 11 Dream Team peers. In the Q&A story below, Drexler compares Phi Slama Jama to Michigan’s Fab Five, and talks about returning to coach his alma mater in the late 1990s and competing with and against Michael Jordan.]
Clyde Drexler flies under the radar in a sense these days.
Among his 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team peers, players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley maintain a much higher profile. Other former NBA players from the same era with lesser résumés -- Dennis Rodman, Shawn Kemp and Penny Hardaway, for instance -- generate more national recognition.
So it might be easy to forget just how good the Glide was in his playing days.
He played in two Final Fours with the University of Houston’s Phi Slama Jama fraternity. He’s a 10-time NBA All-Star who played in three NBA Finals, winning in 1995 with the Rockets. He won a gold medal in the ’92 Olympics, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.
In a recent interview with ESPN Playbook, Drexler balanced his answers with the appropriate mix of swagger and tact. Here’s what transpired:
Which team was cooler -- Phi Slama Jama or the Fab Five?
That’s not even close. The Fab Five were cool, because they had all the long shorts and the black socks and black shoes. But our team had much more talent. It would’ve been man against boy [if the teams could have played each other]. Not even close. And I love those guys. They were really talented. I think our second team might’ve beaten them. I’m not sensationalizing, because I know Jalen [Rose]. I know Chris [Webber]. I know Juwan [Howard]. I love all those guys. They were really good, but our team was deep and talented. Three straight Final Four appearances. Didn’t win one, but you gotta get there.
What was the initiation for Phi Slama Jama?
There was really no initiation. The whole concept was you gotta be able to play the game, and if you do that we’re going to have a chance to win collectively. Guy Lewis was our coach. He was a phenomenal leader of men. If you’re a young man, and you’re being coached by someone like Guy Lewis, you’re going to become a better man. Guy Lewis’ whole philosophy was dominating the opponents inside of the paint. So that translated into dunks. The only way you can dominate them is go above the rim and dunk it. The more you can do that, the higher efficiency you’re going to have as a team and the more wins you’re going to be able to pile up. That was his philosophy -- very simple.
He taught the drop step about as well as any coach I’ve ever been around, and the drop step is one move that’s not used in the game today very often. But it’s highly efficient. So he was ahead of his time. When Guy Lewis played, he was a 6-3 post guy -- many years ago, obviously. But he was one of those tough, 6-3 players who could get it done in the paint. Obviously, he’d be a dinosaur in today’s game, but that was his philosophy.
Plus, you guys were extremely entertaining to watch.
It was entertaining because we played great defense. We rebounded the ball. We played outlet passes. We were a very fundamentally sound team. But because we played so fast, people said we were willy-nilly. We weren’t willy-nilly, we were all-out hustle. We were hustling because we had a group behind us, our second team, as good as the first team. So we had to go out and play hard. Otherwise, we were gonna lose our position. It was great coaching, and that’s why it was so successful.
How disappointed were you that your hometown team, the Rockets, didn’t select you in the 1983 draft?
I was pretty disappointed the Rockets did not select me. They had the first and third [overall] picks in the ’83 draft. They pretty much assured me coming out of college that they were gonna highly favor me with one of those picks -- if not the first, the third for sure. And about a week before the draft, I got a call from the Rockets, and they said, “There’s a chance we may go with someone else.” I said, “Well, thanks for the call.” Of course, they did go with someone else, and that’s the way the ball bounces. But I’ve always looked at every situation that whatever happens is going to be a blessing, because that was the way it was intended to be. I’ve got no control over it. So thank God I was drafted. I was just thankful for that.
And going to the Portland Trail Blazers, who actually took the time to invest in me, was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me in my career. I got to a small market where I could focus on basketball, basketball, basketball. No distractions. If I go to New York or L.A. first, there’s no telling what would’ve happened to the Glide. There might not have been a Glide.
Can you compare and contrast the experience of winning the Olympic gold medal to winning the NBA championship?
It’s like asking, “Which child do you love the most?” You love them all. They’re all great experiences -- great moments in time. You cherish each and every one of them.
Can you compare the disappointment of coming up short in the NCAA championship to coming up just short in the NBA Finals?
First of all, you’ve got to understand the psyche of an NBA player. Growing up, people will tell you that you have a better chance to become an astronaut than becoming an NBA player. So when you finally get to the NBA, you’ve beat the odds. So when you put on that jersey, everything else is downhill. If you’re lucky enough to get some playing time, you’re ahead of the game. If you become a starter, you’re really good. Now you become an All-Star. You’re on the moon, come on! There’s only 440 [NBA] jobs a year, and you’re an All-Star -- one of 25. How good does it get? That means you’ve overcome the obstacles. You’re not afraid of what people say. You have no fear. You are the man. So when you get in those games, it’s not a question of overcoming the defeat. Because you’ve lost a lot of times before you got into that position.
You won the 1995 NBA championship with the Rockets as a No. 6 seed. What were the team’s expectations entering the playoffs that year?
Obviously, the Rockets were defending NBA champions. I came to the team at the midway point in the season. They were having trouble, and we were able to get into the playoffs. There was a question if we were going to make it [to the playoffs], we were playing so bad. We had some injuries. So once we made it to the sixth seed, it was all about getting healthy. Once we got healthy, it didn’t matter whether we played at home or on the road. That team had a lot of talent. We got healthy at the right time, and things began to click. Rudy Tomjanovich was the perfect coach for that team and had a lot of success. Hakeem Olajuwon was the best player in the game at that time.
Does it get under your skin when writers and pundits suggest that Michael Jordan’s hiatus created the championship opportunities for the Rockets?
It doesn’t get under my skin, because the year I was on the team and won it in ’95, the Bulls were swept by the Orlando Magic. [Editor's note: Orlando actually won the series 4-2.] And we swept [Orlando]. Michael was on that [Bulls] team. So obviously, you gotta know your history. If you come talk to me, you better have your facts right, because I’ll get you straight.
What were the emotions of teaming with Michael Jordan less than two months after competing fiercely head to head in the NBA Finals?
The emotions of playing with a guy you just competed against, as a player, you’ve been doing that for many years. And you just do what you have to do. Obviously, we weren’t happy about losing in the ’92 Finals. But, you know, you’re gonna lose some and you’re gonna win some, and life goes on. So when the Dream Team opportunity was presented, it’s another opportunity to do something special. Back then, we didn’t really like the guys we played against. We respected the heck out of them, but we didn’t like them. You almost had to find a reason to dislike guys, so you could play your best against them. During my era, that was the culture. So if you knock him to the floor, I’m not helping him up. I might step on him, but I’m not gonna help him up. So that was our mentality. Michael knew that, and he was the same way. Those guys would cut your heart out and laugh at you. That’s what a competitor does, and everyone on [the Dream Team] was that way.
Are today’s NBA players too cozy and too friendly with one another?
I think today’s NBA players have the right temperament, because it’s a healthy respect. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to play hard against them on the court, but they actually genuinely like each other. You know, we just weren’t born that way. We weren’t bred that way. I’ll give you a story by Celtics great Cedric Maxwell. He once told me of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the ‘80s, “If I saw one of the Lakers on the freeway and his car had stopped, not only would I not stop to help him -- I’d back up and try to run over him.” How is that? I don’t think I was quite that extreme. But I think today’s players have a healthy respect for each other. I think that’s the right attitude. Always respect your opponent.
Who was your favorite player growing up and why?
My favorite player growing up was Julius Erving, because I loved the way he played above the rim, all of the tricks with the ball, big hands and just phenomenal showmanship. I wanted to emulate that in the worst way, because to me, that’s what made the game fun. That’s the reason I started to play the game.
Are people surprised to find out that only one of your four children has pursued college basketball?
That’s a wonderful thing. Your kids, you don’t determine what they’re going to actually do. I let them determine that, and the only one that really wanted to play was my youngest son. So I’m proud of him, I wish him well and we’ll see what he does. You gotta work on your game.
You were head coach at your alma mater for two seasons. How much of that job in the college game is recruiting, and how much is actual coaching?
I’ll give you an analogy: If you’ve got Anthony Davis and about three other guys like him, you could be a great coach -- tomorrow. So I’d say 90 percent of it’s recruiting, maybe 95. The hardest part is recruiting. If you’re trying to win, you’re gonna need talent. John Wooden was a great coach because he had some of the greatest talent to ever play the game.
What percentage of college programs are deliberately breaking NCAA rules in order to win?
I’d prefer to say that I don’t think any of them are doing anything illegal, because they know better. The consequences are far too large, and you’d never do anything to hurt your university or the players in the university. So I’m gonna take the high road.
• Also see: SportsNation chat transcript -- Clyde Drexler