Basketball: Houston in control of the mission

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The Independent Online
THE Houston Rockets have been America's NBA Champions for the past two seasons. Now, to nobody's surprise, they can call themselves champions of the world after winning the first unofficial world club title here last night, beating the Italian side, Buckler Bologna, 126-112.

The McDonald's Championship brought together the six national league winners of the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, England and Israel as part of the NBA's grand scheme for global expansion. In their semi, Houston had left the Australians from Perth overawed with a 44- point victory that seemed to be amassed with a minimum of effort. Against the excellent Italians yesterday, the Rockets at least looked extended at times against a side that included former NBA veteran Orlando Woolridge and the gifted Croatian Arijan Komazec.

They were the principal characters behind a first-quarter effort that saw Bologna lead without interruption for over seven minutes. With Woolridge - 35 years old and clearly revelling in his reunion with former friends and foes - in scintillating form, that lead stretched to seven points, and the Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovic, practically a waxwork model during the semi-final canter, was not only on his feet but agitated with it.

This after all, was the first time NBA champions had been forced to defend the League's record of never having lost to foreign opposition. They had also entered the tournament without the injured leader, the 7ft Hakeem Olajuwon, considered to be comfortably the best player on the planet at this time.

Hakeem, who underwent elbow surgery last week, watched from the bench in street clothes as Bologna shot into a 17-10 lead. Had he considered putting his kit on? "I didn't bring my shoes," he grinned afterwards. "But I knew all we had to do was settle down and raise the intensity. We respond so well under pressure so I wasn't worried."

Hakeem was correct; talent came through. Sam Cassell, a young playmaker who would be a strong contestant for the title of the world's most confident sportsman, scored 12 points in seven minutes as the Rockets built a 64-57 half-time lead.

In the third quarter Houston demoralised their opponents. Clyde Drexler, who will be paid $9.8m [pounds 6.4m] for his troubles this season, and Robert Horry, one of the league's young stars in waiting, were unstoppable. To use the parlance of the NBA, it was show-time and Bologna were 21 points down.

It was a tribute to the Italians that Tomjanovich kept most of his key players on until the end. "This has been a positive experience," he said. "Coming here as the first champions to play in this tournament I have to say to the people of London that their hospitality has been warm and they have made us feel welcome."