H ere are a few things I think: Brent Barry was one of the smartest players I ever played with in the NBA. Rudy Tomjanovich was the best coach I ever had, not Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. Kobe Bryant was the hardest working player I ever played with. The Triangle is just a fancy name for the same plays that 50 percent of the NBA runs. Dennis Rodman was a genius. Basketball is a ruthless business. Winners don’t take no shit.
You might disagree with me on all those points. But the fact of the matter is, I see the game differently than the average NBA fan. Truthfully, I see the game differently than most NBA coaches. But I have won seven NBA titles, so just hear me out for a second and you might actually learn something different than the cliches you hear on TV.
People come up to me all the time and ask, “Man, how did you make all those big shots? You were ice cold.”
I wasn’t born ice cold. In fact, I was probably one of the only players in NBA history who got traded for not shooting the ball enough. When I got drafted by the Houston Rockets in ’92, I was over the moon. You’re telling me I get to go play with my idol Hakeem Olajuwon? The Dream? I couldn’t have been more excited. First practice, every time I got the ball on the wing, Dream was calling for it. What would you do? This is a living legend. He was unstoppable in the post. So I threw it into Dream. And I kept throwing it into Dream the entire season. That first year, I was just happy to be there. I was deferring to everybody.
The next season, we start 15-0. We tie the NBA record for consecutive wins against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball. The whole city was so pissed that they did something I’ve never seen before in my career. The crew at the airport made us wait like two hours at the gate — no announcement, no updates, nothing. I swear to God, they had us sitting there for no good reason other than we just whooped the Knicks. We didn’t get into Atlanta until 5 a.m. and the Hawks beat us by 25 that night.
After that, we just kept on cruising. We didn’t lose our second game until two days before Christmas against the Nuggets. We were 22-2. I show up at the Christmas party that night and Hakeem is pacing around. He comes up to me — no expression — and waves for me to follow him out to the porch. “Ro-bert, come with me for a second.”
Inside my head, I’m like, shit Dream, it’s cold outside. What the hell could we possibly have to talk about so bad? We’re 22-2. But I say, “Sure, Dream.”
We go outside and he looks me dead in the eye and says, “Do you care if we win or lose?”
I look back at him dead in the eye and say, “Dude, you probably don’t understand this, but I care more than anyone on this team. I hate losing.”
“You do not show it in your emotions, Ro-bert.”
This was one of the defining moments of my career. I’m getting called out by my idol. I could have tucked my tail between my legs. I decided against it.
“Well,” I said. “You don’t show your emotions either!”
Two grown men standing on a porch talking about their emotions. I’ll never forget him cracking a smile and laughing.
“Good point,” he said. “Let’s go inside.”
From that day on, we became great friends. I would yell at him when I thought he was messing up. Nobody else would do that. But I understood him. He was the kind of guy who would challenge you even when you were sitting pretty in first place. That’s the thing that a lot of basketball fans don’t understand. When a team wins a Championship, this picture gets painted that everything was perfect — that all the guys are best friends and the coach is a genius. The reality is always way more complicated.
A month after that Christmas party, I got a call from my agent telling me I was being traded to Detroit for Sean Elliott. The only explanation was “Houston wants more scoring.” It’s the middle of February. It’s snowing, cold as hell. I got off the plane and I’ve never been so depressed in my life. Matt Bullard was involved in the deal too, and I remember we were all dressed and getting ready to go out for warmups when somebody from the Pistons organization grabbed my shoulder and said, “Hold up. Sean hasn’t passed his physical yet. We have to hold you out as a precaution.” They wanted us to sit on the bench, but I thought that would be weird, so I asked them to let us sit in the owner’s box.
I don’t remember much after that. I got a call from my mom after the game. She was all concerned, like “Boy, were you drunk?” The TV camera had cut to me in the box and I guess I was practically slumped over. I’ve never been much of a drinker, but I was so hurt and disappointed that Houston traded me that I had a few beers. The next day, I got a call from my agent saying, “They found a problem with Sean’s kidney. The trade is off. Ya’ll are going back to Houston.”
Me and Matt jumped in that car and drove to the airport so fast that I don’t even think we hit the brakes when we pulled into the parking lot. We did a ninja-roll out of the car and onto that plane. That car might still be rolling somewhere in the midwest. After that day, my mentality was, Fuck it. I’m shooting. I’m playing Robert Horry ball. Now you read the history and all people know is that we won the title that season. Then we won it again in ’95. They know me as Big Shot Bob. But the reality is that if it wasn’t for a medical emergency, I might have been known as the depressed dude slumped over in the press box. There are so many winding paths and forks in the road in this game.
I’ll give you another example. When I got traded to the Lakers in ’97, Kobe Bryant was just a rookie. The dude couldn’t shoot threes. We would play this shooting game every day after practice. It was me, Kobe, Brian Shaw, Mitch Richmond and Kurt Rambis. Kobe would lose every time. We would get to practice the next day and sure enough, Kobe would already be there shooting nothing but threes. Like clockwork, at the end of practice he’d say, “Let’s play the game! I’m ready for you.” And we would beat his ass again.
He would never stop. It was incredible. He practiced until one day, a couple months later, he finally won. If you literally said, “Kobe, I bet you can’t make five in a row by dropping the ball and kicking it in from half court,” that motherfucker would go out there and practice it until he could do it. And that’s what people don’t understand when they talk about champions — when they talk about a winner’s mentality. Kobe’s dedication to the game is unreal. And I mean that in the truest sense … it was literally unbelievable. The common denominator in every championship team is the mentality that Kobe has, and the mentality that Hakeem had with me at that Christmas party. You have to be so obsessed with winning that you pull no punches with your teammates, even when you’re in first place. Even when you’re a defending champ.
Whenever I hear people crying about Kobe yelling at people in practice, or wondering whether or not LeBron is best friends with his teammates, I just roll my eyes. You know how many off-court conversations I had with the Zen-Master Phil Jackson in my entire time with the Lakers? One. I was sitting in the trainer’s room getting treatment and he was sitting on the table across from me.
“What happened with you and Danny Ainge in Phoenix?” he asked.
“I didn’t like him, so I blew up and threw a towel at him. I didn’t handle it the right way.”
And that was it. We won three titles together. Go figure.
The polar opposite of that was my relationship with Rudy T. He understood that even though he was the coach, we could see things that he couldn’t see from the bench. We could hear things and feel things on the court that he couldn’t see. First thing T would say was, “What’s going on out there?” He would ask us the plays we would want to run sometimes and get a feel for what we were comfortable with.
If we ran a play and it worked, T would tell us to run it again. Phil not so much. Same with Pop. They are both great in their own right, but based on personal experience, T was the greatest NBA coach. I know he doesn’t have nearly as many championships, but sometimes we give one person too much credit for titles.
With Phil, his ability to coach Michael Jordan and the success that he was able to lead those Bulls teams to is why he commanded so much respect from players. The titles Phil won in Chicago translated into titles in Los Angeles. His six rings is what made Shaq get into the gym and become one of the most dominant forces in league history. However, as dominant as we were in that three-peat run, I feel we could’ve done more if it weren’t for egos and complacency. Honestly, I left the Lakers with so much hatred for that team. I felt that the way they handled my situation was so wrong. I remember going into the exit meetings after we had won the title and it was my year to opt out. You walk into the meeting and everyone is hugging you, kissing you, praising you.
I said, “I know I make too much money and I know you’ve got a hard-on for Karl Malone.” They had been wanting him for five years, ever since Phil got there. I’m a realist. Tell me like it is and I will respect you more, just don’t go behind my back. I told them I’d stay for $2 million, but they weren’t interested. All I asked them was to allow me to find a team before the money dried up and not to wait until the last day to release me. They told me, “We won’t do you like that.”
Well, they didn’t do me like that. They waited until the next to last day to release me.
This is what athletes mean when they say, “It’s a business.” Hell yes, we make a ton of money to play a silly-ass kid’s game. But even if you’re the hero, even if you hit one of the biggest shots in franchise history and win multiple titles, your ass can be out the door the next day.
Once again, that could’ve been curtains for me. Luckily, I wound up on the Spurs and the rest is history. My first game back in Los Angeles against the Lakers, they had a thing before the game to present me with a special jersey. Everybody was all smiles. They parade me out there at the Staples Center and I had to act all happy. And I was happy for the fans, and for what we achieved. But if you understand one thing about me, understand this — I’m a guy who is constantly seeking motivation. That’s how you get ice water in your veins. So I remember looking at the smiling people from the Lakers’ front office and thinking, “Man, you just wait. I’m gonna break ya’ll hearts.”
I actually have five NBA titles thanks to the Lakers. Three from playing with the team, and two from them showing me the door.