A booming voice boosts the Rockets

There's nothing in Gavin Maloof's appearance that gives away his identity as owner and president of the Houston Rockets basketball team. In fact, at 24 years of age he looks far too young to be a sports tycoon.

He doesn't necessarily act like one either, assuming there are some behavioral standards associated with the job.

People quickly come to know who Maloof is, though, even if they're just breakfasting in Boston's sedate Ritz-Carlton Hotel. That's where I caught up with perhaps the youngest owner in major professional sports history, in town to watch his team face the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association championship series.

Maloof's voice fills a room, especially one accustomed to muffled conversations. With no air of pretention or inclination to impress people, his words spill over onto other tables. Soon everyone knows who he is, even if not by name, and cocks his ear in the best E. F. Hutton style.

One woman even scurries over to the table, says she's from Houston, and petitions him for two tickets. "I know tonight's game is sold out," she begins, "but. . . ."

Maloof scratches a note to himself to take care of the request. He aims to please.

"My family's of Lebanese descent," he observes, "and the Lebanese have always been a hard-working people. They take pride in running a good operation and serving the customer. My dad always said you had to cater to the customer."

The imprint left by George Maloof on his son is inescapable. Gavin constantly refers to his father, an Albuquerque, N. M., businessman who owned the Rockets a year and a half before passing away last November. Since Gavin knew the Rockets' operation better than anyone else in the family, he assumed the reins of the club while his older brother, Joe (25), became president of other business concerns.

Meanwhile, the boys' mother, Coleen, serves as chairman of the board to the Maloof Companies, a diversified empire that does some $100 million in business each year. Throw in aunts and uncles at key positions and you have one big, happy family operation.

The whole thing began many years ago when Gavin's grandfather opened a general store in Las Vegas, N. M. "The lost art of serving the public" became basic to commercial survival, says Maloof, who is well versed on the family's early business history. "Customers bought enough supplies for six months, so if you lost a customer to another store along the highway, you lost a lot of business."

Remaining just plain folk -- to the degree millionaires can -- has been and still is part of the Maloof success formula. "We've always had money in the family," Gavin indicates, "but I don't flaunt it. I'm pretty down-to-earth. I don't have a plane, I don't have a yacht, I don't have a beach house; all I'm dedicated to is my family."

The young bachelor sidesteps the big-shot image, preferring to mingle with the average man or woman on the street. His wardrobe is not heavily stocked with ostentatious western clothes or three-piece suits. In fact, before beginning a whirlwind Boston interview tour, he had to drop by Brooks Brothers to purchase a suit.

Back in Texas, he avoids the Summit's "high rent" district of skyview suites to sit among the hoi polloi at court level. From there, he can exercise his vocal chords, occasionally aiming his remarks at a passing referee. "They hear me and it makes them think," he says of the officials.

Basically, Maloof loves to talk -- mostly to fans. His favorite topic? The Rockets, of course.

He's gung-ho on NBA basketball, which he considers a "vibrant" sport on the move, and comes ready to convince anyone of this, any time, anywhere.

Selling, he says, is his hobby. Though a resident of Albuquerque, Maloof flies sales missions to Houston, looking to round up new season ticket holders by contacting both individual prospects and corporations. The Rockets had 3,900 such ticket owners during the past regular season and he's looking to at least double that figure.

Texans, he's convinced, are not the one-track sports fans some think. "I don't buy arguments that Texas is strictly a football state," he replies. "We've had nine consecutive sellouts, which tells me fans just want a winner. The Rockets are the first Houston team ever to be in a world championship and the city's gone crazy over them."

The club already has developed a fierce intrastate rivalry with the San Antonio Spurs, who fell to Houston in a seven-game playoff series. And as the expansion Dallas Mavericks become more competitive they should enter into what Maloof calls the Texas Shootout.

A younger brother, Phillip (13), believes the NBA championship series should have an equally catchy name. Gavin concurs, saying, "It needs an identity.Football has the Super Bowl, baseball the World Series. Maybe the NBA should have a Super Series or something like that. At the next owners' meeting I want to propose a nationwide name-the-series contest."

Just two years ago Maloof collected a diploma from Trinity College in San Antonio, where he studied speech communications and played football. Today he's something of a celebrity, but one with a grass-roots orientation. If the bellhops at the family's new Albuquerque hotel are occupied, Gavin will personally handle a guest's bags.

Maloof doesn't generally care to look the "part" of the millionaire, but occasionally such an aura would help. It would have, for example, after the Rockets beat the defending NBA champion Lakers in Los Angeles earlier in the playoffs.

Gavin tried, but failed to talk his way past a security guard into the Houston locker room.

"Look, I'm the owner of the team," he pleaded.

"Yeah, and I'm the president," the guard shot back.

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