The coach played for his general manager in high school, spent most of last season with the Puerto Rican Olympic team and will forever be remembered - or is that forgotten - by trivia freaks everywhere.

Question: Who's the only man ever to be the head coach of all three professional basketball franchises in Texas? The first person to answer "Tom Nissalke" get a 10-gallon hat and exclusive D.C. distributing rights for Pearl beer. Nissalke now coaches the Houston Rockets.

The rebounder for the Rockets is a bearded 23-year-old giant who once was ready to deliver Maryland to the promised land of college basketball, only to turn pro at 19 and wander through two leagues as his namesake roamed the desert.

But Moses Malone has found a home, actually, an apartment, as well as his game. He also has a new nickname.

"We call him Nadine," says a teammate who prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons." Why Nadine? Cause he acts like a little woman at times. He gets in these moods and you just like to kill him he's so nasty."

The playmaker is known as Tweety Bird.

"I guess it's because I talk so much," says John Lucas, who did make it to Maryland and would prefer to be called "clyde" after his idol, Walt Frazier.

The team's sixth man is a megna cum laude graduate of Utah. He majored in English, has gone to summer school at Harvard and recently donated his impressive art collection to a Houston museum. Mike Newlin, who has a way with words, describes the recent unconcious performance of his team as "a melding together, a gradual process that's also very subtle.

"It's like a pianist who sees the sound in his mind before he touches the keys. That's how we've been playing. Everything seems to go exactly the way it's supposed to."

With Malone and Center Kevin Kunnert supplying the rebounding, Lucas, the assists, Newlin the fire and adjectives, Calvin Murphy, Rudy Tom Janovich and John Johnson the points, the Rockets have blasted off into the upper stratosphere of the NBA.

"When people read in the papers the Houston Rockets were coming to town, I'm sure a lot of them thought we were a bunch of astronauts," says Nissalke, the coach. "I think people know who we are now."

Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams knows.

"They're the success story of the league," Williams said. "Six months ago, they had no ownership, there was worry that the league would have to assume operation f the franchise. All of a sudden, it all just completely turned around."

Nissalke remembers to the day precisely when that happened.

On Feb. 22, his team trailed by as many as 34 points in the first period against Denver. "I told them to try and cut it to 20 at the half, and we did," said Nissalke. Then I told them to try and get it down to 10 by the fourth period, and they got within six."

"We were down four eventually and lost the game, but I think our guys saw what kind of potential we had.You could see them saying to themsleves, 'hey, we can play.'"

So the Rockets won their next two on the road, lost to the Lakers by five at Los Angeles, then went on a nine-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA this season, before the 76ers ended the good times on Friday night.

In three weeks, the Rockets went from 3 1/2 games behind the Bullets to a three-game bulge in the Central division.

They also set a club record for victories in a season (42), giving Houston the first above .500 team in the history of the francise and all but guaranteeing a place in the playoffs.

"When we first started," said Nissalke, "I hoped we could he .500 because that's what I thought it would take to make the playoffs. No, I didn't think we'd be in the first place at this point. But I think these guys know we've got something here. I don't know how good we are, we won't know that until the playoffs. But I know this, people respect us. They better respect us."

Most of the Rockets point to the hiring of Nissalke last year, the drafting of Lucas and the trade for Malone two games into the l976-77 season as the major reasons for the Rockets' stunning success.

"Lucas give us the playmaker we never really had," said general manager Ray Patterson. "He's done everything we've asked. He gets the ball to our scorers, and that's what we needed."

He also is averaging 30 minutes, 11 points and five assists a game.

Malone was obtained for two No. 1 picks after playing only six minutes in two games for Buffalo. Nissalke had coached him at Utah and convinced Patterson to make the trade.

Malone is still suspicious of strangers - "no comment, no comment," he says, often - and makes a lot of rookie mistakes. But he is averaging 12 points and 12 rebounds a game and is closing in on the NBA's record for offensive rebounding. Best of all like Lucas he is only 23. "If he'd gone to Maryland," said Nissalke, "they might have lost one game."

"He's our stopper," said Newlin. "The other night against Cleveland, he scores on a follow, goes down and blocks a Cleveland shot, scores on another follow, gets another rebound and starts a break for us. He broke the game open. With him on the offensive boards, we're getting a lot of second chances. Even if our shooting is off, teams just can't get momentum on us."

And the Rockets's shooting rarely is off. They lead the NBA in the field goal percentage, with Tomjanovich - one of the game's great shooters - averaging 23 points a game and 52 per cent from the floor and Calvin Murphy 17 points a game and 50 per cent.

Every time Tomjanovich touches the ball on the Rockets' home court, the Summit, the fans begin chanting "two, two," and lately there have been enough folks around to make the building shake.

There have been two sellouts this year with several more expected in the next three weeks and crowds are averaging 8,100, up by 1,700 a game a year ago. "If we make the playoffs, I don't think you'll be able to get a ticket," said Lucas.

Last month, the owners of the giant shopping and apartment complex that includes the Summit bought the team from the holding company that paid the bills for a year after owner Irv Kaplan declared bankruptcy.

That ended two years of financial uncertainty, and the Rockets are hoping to end nine years in the league without a title. "The way we're playing, anything can happen," said Newlin. "We think we can beat any team in the league. Now we'll have to prove it."