Tomjanovich takes leave of absence due to cancer

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 27, 2003

HOUSTON - Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich knew what he had to do, for himself and the team: He is taking an indefinite leave to treat his bladder cancer.

The 54-year-old coach broke the news to his players Wednesday in an emotional team meeting. The Rockets are vying for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

''At this critical part of the season, this team, any team, needs a coach who has got to give 100 percent of his thoughts to helping the team,'' Tomjanovich said. "As much as I love this team, I know my thoughts would be on some other things.''

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Tomjanovich missed the team's recent five-game road trip and had been expected to rejoin the team for Wednesday night's home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Assistant Larry Smith will continue to coach the Rockets during Tomjanovich's absence.

When Tomjanovich was asked if he saw any possibility of not returning next season, he said ''not in my mind.''

Tomjanovich, in his 12th season as head coach, led the Rockets to consecutive NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He's acrobatic on the sidelines and he said that would be hard to contain.

''When I coach, I put everything I have into it,'' Tomjanovich said. ''I come out of games and need ice packs. With all the Adrenalin flowing, that can't be good for a healing situation. It just doesn't make sense.''

Guard Steve Francis said the team meeting was difficult.

''I didn't look at him in the face,'' he said. ''It was hard. Then again, it wasn't like he was on his sick bed. Coach is really an emotional guy whether he's telling you you did something wrong or explaining that he's not feeling well.''

Tomjanovich was diagnosed on March 18 with the transitional cell cancer on his bladder that doctors said would be treatable with medication.

Team physician Dr. James Muntz said there had been no change in the diagnosis.

''The only change in his condition is he's calm, he's optimistic,'' Muntz said. ''One of the issues that came up was that treatment should start next week. It became obvious that his treatments should come on time and not juggling something at 10 at night that should have been done at 3 p.m.''

Smith says the Rockets can do Tomjanovich a favor by winning.

''I love the guy,'' he said. ''I'm just happy that he's going to be OK. Now, this is our job to go and get wins and we'll do everything in our power to do so. He wouldn't want it any other way.''

The team initially said Tomjanovich would rejoin the team during the West Coast road swing, then announced he would miss the entire trip. The Rockets went 2-3 under Smith.

Until his absence on the road trip, Tomjanovich had not missed a game in 11 seasons as a head coach.

Tomjanovich said he got over a bladder infection about a month ago and went for routine follow-up testing. One came back negative but another was positive. That led to the more extensive test March 17 that confirmed the abnormal cells.

''It's hard to deal with,'' forward Glen Rice said. ''What makes it easier is to deal with it and talk about it, and that's what we've got to do. I think we'll react good. Just seeing him gave the team a lift, to see him being strong.''