Posted Nov 5 2009 3:57PM
From the opposite end of the court, it looks as though the years have simply melted away. A head-fake here, a jab stab step there, a spin move that starts toward the baseline and then comes back into the middle for a jump hook that's softer than baby's breath.
Hakeem Olajuwon always knew he never wanted to carry a clipboard, sit on a bench or kneel in a huddle drawing up plays.
But this is different. It's not coaching as much as it is teaching. It's not drilling as much as it is shining a path from his past into the future of the game.
On this morning, he's demonstrating, coaxing, breaking things down for a handful of teenage jumping jacks from the Bahamas who've only been playing the game for about two years. Back in September, just a week before the start of NBA training camps, Olajuwon was going through a quite similar routine with none other than Kobe Bryant.
"First of all, it was a tremendous compliment to me that Kobe asked me to work with him," Olajuwon said. "Beyond that, it shows you clearly what it is about Kobe that makes him who he is. He has been in the NBA 13 years. He has won four championships. He has been MVP. And he still wants to know more, wants to add to his game."
It was a Hall of Fame tutoring session that had been several years in the making, ever since Bryant first heard that Olajuwon had worked out privately with young star Emeka Okafor and several other NBA prospects.
"I was ecstatic," Bryant said. "I was like a kid learning something new. It's like opening up that Christmas gift. You know what's in it and it's the excitement of opening it. That's the feeling I had."
Previous summers had Bryant locked up with commitments to USA Basketball in the run up and eventual winning of the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now through, Bryant was free and ready to expand his game even in the aftermath of his latest NBA title run.
"I got an e-mail from him and he said he wanted to work with me," Olajuwon said. "At first I thought he was kidding. I mean, Kobe has all the moves already. What more does he need to learn?"
But to a fiery competitor like Bryant, that fourth championship only gave him a greater hunger for a fifth and the understanding that if you're not looking to always take your game to another level, then something or somebody will be gaining on you.
At 31, Bryant wanted to glean some of Olajuwon's post and mid-post moves to allow him to get free for easier face-up baskets and score more efficiently, the way Michael Jordan did in the later portion of his career.
"From the first minutes we were on the court, I was excited because Kobe was excited," Olajuwon said. "You could see it in his eyes."
Then on Wednesday night at the Toyota Center, Olajuwon sat in the front row at midcourt to watch Bryant often dazzle with the post lessons learned, pouring in 41 points as the Lakers beat the Rockets, 103-102.
"It was an honor, an absolute honor," Bryant said. "I just tried to make him proud."
They had spent two hours as professor and pupil, master and apprentice, running through drills, working on spin dribbles and breaking down individual moves with the precision of NASA engineers. It was a virtual fantasy camp for a one-time Dream and a player who's own imagination is still without limits.
"If you go to the cream of the crop, the best of the best, they're all very detail oriented," Bryant said. "They know exactly what works and how it works. Maybe it's the middle of the pack guys who play off instincts. Hakeem, Michael, those guys, they know what they're doing."
"I'm a student of the game, so I've been watching Hakeem for a long time and I pick things up pretty quickly. He was very specific, very patient, showing me things over and over, answering a million questions."
"When you see videos of Hakeem's career it looks easy. But you miss the subtleties and the intricacies of the moves. That's why it was imperative for me to be able to talk to him, work with him. It's the details and the execution that make all the difference."
Olajuwon also worked in September with 22-year-old Hasheem Thabeet, the No. 2 overall pick of the Memphis Grizzlies. In addition to Okafor and a session with Yao Ming, most of Olajuwon's tutoring has been with young big men who are quickly tied up into pretzel knots as they try to duplicate his moves that still look as smooth as water going downstream.
More than seven years removed from his last NBA game, Olajuwon, 46, still plays to keep in shape, as evidenced by the washboard stomach and muscled arms that extend from his sleeveless shirt. Some of the young teenagers he's schooling today still couldn't get the heavy leather ball up over the rim back in his heyday of winning back-to-back championships with the Rockets (1994-95). Maybe they've seen classic replays on NBA TV. But watching on TV and trying to defend the real thing is the difference between seeing a video of a tornado and actually being caught up inside the winds of a churning twister.
"The best footwork I've ever seen from a big man," the late Pete Newell, one of the game's legendary coaches and instructors, once said.
"You have to start with the fundamentals and build out," Olajuwon said. "When we first started, Kobe wanted to go from A to Z right away. He was skipping steps because of his natural ability. He was in a hurry to get to the finish."
"I had to explain that you only build the second move off the first. And then the third off the second and so on. When we started breaking things down, he realized there was a lot more to the post game than he had realized, but it was all a natural progression. It is logical. He was serious. He kept working and you could see it sinking in with him, all of the possibilities, where he can go with his game from here."
Though his base of operations is still Houston, Olajuwon spends most of the year living with his wife and children in Amman, Jordan. But during his annual summer sojourns to Texas, the gym door is usually open to those willing to learn.
"Basketball is in my blood," he said. "It is my obligation to give back to the game. So to have someone with the ability and the accomplishments of Kobe come and ask me for help, it is a wonderful feeling. The best part is he got it. He got what he came for and now I'll be watching."
Bryant nods his head and smiles.
"It makes the offensive game a lot easier and it makes me tougher to cover," Bryant said.
For the rest of the NBA, a nightmarish thought born of a Dream.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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