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Rockets earn place in history -- 5th franchise to repeat


HOUSTON -- There was former Dunbar star Sam Cassell sidestepping his way through the room of the rooftop nightclub early yesterday morning, accepting the congratulations of jubilant Houston Rockets fans.

Twenty-one floors below, there was a mile-long procession of cars jammed with screaming fans in a celebration that would last until 5 a.m.

They're getting used to such celebrations here, as the Rockets on Wednesday completed a four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic to win their second straight NBA title.

The basketball world finally has to give proper respect to the Rockets, who became just the fifth organization in NBA history to win consecutive championships. They accomplished that feat convincingly, and with the best player in basketball and a starting unit that should remain intact, there's no telling how much more the team can accomplish.

Of course, that player is Hakeem Olajuwon, whose 35-point, 15-rebound Game 4 performance helped earn him his second straight Finals MVP award. It's a feat only Michael Jordan had accomplished before.

"I'm surprised," Olajuwon said of his unanimous selection for the award. "Being voted MVP of the championship is a special honor. I'm just so happy to be a part of this."

It made it special for Olajuwon to share a championship with longtime friend Clyde Drexler, who until Wednesday night had been the second-leading active playoff scorer (2,465 points) to have never won an NBA title.

"I'm really impressed with Clyde -- after 12 years, just to hang in there and finally win it," Olajuwon said. "You have to give him a lot of credit. He was great down the stretch."

While the Drexler trade (for power forward Otis Thorpe) was not embraced when it was made, it's clear the Rockets would not have repeated as champions without him.

In Drexler, the Rockets got a second go-to scorer. Defenses keyed on Drexler and Olajuwon, forcing the Houston role players to prove themselves.

They did just that. Robert Horry, playing out of position at power forward since the start of the playoffs, more than held his own in matchups with Phoenix's Charles Barkley, San Antonio's Dennis Rodman and Orlando's Horace Grant.

When Horry moved, that opened the small forward spot for Mario Elie, the man who got the Rockets this far with the big three-point shot in Game 7 against Phoenix. Elie scored a personal-playoff high of 22 points Wednesday, a performance that was special because he hardly played in last year's Finals against New York.

"I have no fear, I am not afraid to fail," said Elie, a former standout in the CBA. "This year it feels a lot better since I got a chance to play more."

Drexler played in the backcourt alongside Kenny Smith and Cassell, who gave teams two altogether different looks. Smith provided the lift in Game 1 when his three-point shooting helped rally Houston from a 20-point deficit; Cassell's fearless journeys to the basket often broke down Orlando's defense.

"We have a two-headed backcourt," Smith said. "If the right head don't get you, the left head will."

Cassell, the former Baltimore Sun High School Player of the Year, might be the most popular reserve in the NBA. After sitting out the first part of his rookie season, Cassell got his opportunity and has displayed a cockiness and fearless style on the floor that has helped earn him rings in his first two seasons.

"The second one is always the sweetest," said Cassell, whose jersey sales in Houston are second to Olajuwon's. "The ride has been great, but it's been a lot of hard work, and this team has gotten it done. We're a veteran team and we know what to do down the stretch."

The Rockets could get even better. The off-season will see Houston looking for a power forward, which will allow Horry to spend more time at his natural position. With Drexler and Olajuwon, who will be 33 and 32, respectively, when next season begins, showing no signs of slowing down, the Rockets have to be considered a favorite in the Western Conference next season.

Should Houston advance to the Finals again, it could face a more mature and playoff-tested Magic team that will use the sweep as a learning experience.

Orlando coach Brian Hill huddled his team on the court in the midst of Houston's victory celebration, wanting his players to soak in and aspire to the joy that was taking place.

"I feel proud of what we did this year," said Grant, who won three straight titles with the Chicago Bulls. "It didn't finish like we wanted it to, but we can build upon this for next season."

But getting back to the Finals is not a given. Olajuwon played for his first championship back in 1986, on a Houston team for which greatness was predicted. It took him most of a decade to return and earn a ring.

"It's up to us to take it to the next level next year," Grant said. "If we can get back to the Finals next year, then we would have more experience and be able to do better. We can build on this



Franchise .. .. .. .. .. Years

Minneapolis .. .. ... .. 1949-1950;

Lakers/ .. .. ... ... .. 1952-1954;

L.A. Lakers .. .. ... .. 1987-1988

Boston Celtics .. ... .. 1959-1966;

.. .. .. .. .. .. ... .. 1968-1969

Detroit Pistons .. .. .. 1989-1990

Chicago Bulls ... ... .. 1991-1993

Houston Rockets .. .. .. 1994-1995

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