ORLANDO, Fla. -- To understand just how far Clyde Drexler has come this season in terms of respect, consider that in late September the Heat was debating whether it was worth acquiring the veteran guard for Harold Miner.
To comprehend just how much Drexler has had to overcome this season, consider the way the Houston Rockets were vilified at midseason when they traded workhorse power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for Drexler.
But perhaps the best way to appreciate Drexler's value is to consider that he still is playing well into June, while Miner hasn't -- been heard from since the Slam Dunk Championship on All-Star Saturday and Thorpe hasn't been seen since the first round of the playoffs.
"Sometimes things work out the right way," Drexler said as the Houston Rockets prepared for Wednesday night's Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Magic at Orlando Arena.
The move could not have worked out much better for the Rockets. While Thorpe's considerable rebounding talents have been missed, Houston now has two bona fide scoring options in its starting lineup. Before, the only time that was the case was when erratic guard Vernon Maxwell was riding one of his hot streaks to back up the scoring of center Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Hakeem Olajuwon has been so big for us," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said Tuesday at Orlando Arena, "but we said, 'How long can we keep going through him 90 percent of the time with him as the focal point?' And with Clyde, we have a guy who should have been an All-Star this year."
Against a team that oozes offense from a starting lineup that includes Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway, the Rockets will need every bit of the vigor that the rejuvenated Drexler, 32, has brought to the lineup.
"I feel Hakeem and I have a certain chemistry that always has been there," said Drexler, whose friendship with Olajuwon dates to their time on the University of Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma era teams in 1981-82 and '82-83. "I'm just doing the same things I've always done, even being a little more conservative as I got used to the system. Before I came here I thought Houston was a team capable of going back to the Finals. Once I got here, I was certain of it."
While Drexler was confident, his new teammates were not.
"Nobody liked the trade," forward Mario Elie admitted earlier in he playoffs. "We needed a power forward, and we struggled a little right after that. [Power forwards] are tough in the West, and I just didn't know where we would get rebounds."
Before the trade, Tomjanovich was more concerned about where the Rockets would get victories. With Maxwell's instability leading to a leave of absence that continues through the Finals, and with a bunch of jump shooters filling out the roster, the Rockets decided there was no option but to pull the trigger.
"I'm a guy who really believes in chemistry and loyalty, so even I was wondering, 'Why do it?' " Tomjanovich said of breaking up last season's championship team. "Otis Thorpe was someone I respect and like as a player."
The criticism that followed was piercing, as Houston closed out the season 17-18 after the trade. It was 29-17 before the deal.
"I'm thrilled that Thorpe is not there," Spurs coach Bob Hill said.
For those keeping score, Drexler and the Rockets eliminated Phoenix and San Antonio from the playoffs.
Yet well before the Feb. 14 Portland-Houston deal, the lowly Heat was having its own misgivings about Drexler. Offered the opportunity to discuss a Drexler-Miner deal, the Heat balked. The concern in South Florida was about how Drexler would deal with a benching if his skills continued to erode.
By the time he arrived in Houston, though, Drexler felt he had won back the league's respect.
"There were a couple of guys who were undecided about that move and had questions about it," he said. "For the most part, 90 percent of the players were very supportive."
None more so than Olajuwon. During a televised interview, Olajuwon and Drexler were practically giddy while discussing the deal.
"You can't help but to like him and love him when you know him," Olajuwon said. "So I think now everybody's so happy he's part of the group.
"I still can't believe it. When I see his jersey in practice or sometimes in the locker room, it's still, 'What is he doing here?' "
For Drexler, the answer is simple: fulfilling a dream.
"Every year, we've always talked at the All-Star Game and other places of having the chance to play together once again," Drexler said. "Last year, we kind of gave up on it, thinking it would never happen."
But when the Heat declined to pull the trigger and when the Rockets decided the loss of Thorpe was not too heavy a toll, Drexler got his shot at participating in the Rockets' bid to repeat as NBA champions.
"I didn't know how well it would work out at first," Drexler said. "I thought if not this year, then certainly next year. But it happened to pay dividends right away."
LATE NBA GAME
Last night's Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic did not end in time to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions of The Sun and all editions of The Evening Sun.
ORLANDO MAGIC vs. HOUSTON ROCKETS
(Rockets lead series, 1-0)
Last night: Rockets 120, Magic 118
Tomorrow: At Orlando, 9 p.m.
Sunday: At Houston, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday: At Houston, 9 p.m.
June 16: At Houston, 9 p.m.*
June 18: At Orlando, 7:30 p.m.*
June 21: At Orlando, 9 p.m.*
* -- if necessary; TV: Chs. 11, 4