Posted Oct 26 2010 10:47AM - Updated Oct 31 2010 5:44PM
In about 15 minutes, Hakeem Olajuwon would be jogging out onto the floor to warm up for the game that would forever define his career. He would turn right out of the locker room and go down the hallway, turn left through the tunnel and then finally step out into the hot glare of the spotlights as the roar of what sounded like a dozen jet engines filled his head.
The wall of noise would hit him with a tidal wave force, and from that point on there would be no time to think, only act. He would be running and jumping and shooting and battling for position against the New York Knicks, playing on instinct and emotion. It would be swirl of action, a wild collage of colors, and in the end, as the clock ran out on Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, he would be squeezing the ball to his chest and later the championship trophy as a celebration raged around him.
But in these last quiet moments before the game of his life, Olajuwon sat on the stool in front of his locker, methodically lacing his high-topped LA Gear shoes, when he looked up to his right and found a familiar face.
"Remember this," Olajuwon said as a smile ran a fast break from ear to ear. "That's what I'm trying to do. I'm looking at my teammates, I'm listening to all of the excitement in the building, in the room, and I'm trying to remember it all -- the season, the playoffs, this series.
"Hasn't it been fun?"
It was fun to watch a group of players recognize their potential early on and come together so quickly and cohesively as a team. You watched them set a league record by starting the season 15-0 and you knew as well that it could be something special.
Mostly, it was fun watching Olajuwon's career come to full bloom as he finally received the recognition he deserves as the finest big man of his generation and perhaps -- with his spins and dunks and scoops and whirls and baseline fadeaways and peerless footwork -- the most unique of any.
On the other side of that door the excitement, anticipation and tension was palpable as the crowd sizzled with the apprehension of a long fuse in the hope that Houston's first ever major professional sports championship would soon be delivered. The walls shook and the hardwood floor of the basketball court practically hummed and you could tell from the expressions on the faces that kept joining the layup lines that they were all feeling it too.
One by one his teammates finished up their preparations -- fastening the snaps on their warm-up jackets, adjusting their wristbands, checking their shoelaces -- and jogged past him to join in the pandemonium until there were only two of us left in the silent, empty locker room.
"You cannot put all of your emphasis on the outcome of a single game, the winning or the losing," Olajuwon said. "It is all about the journey."
For all of the exotic aspects of the hero arriving from Africa, his had really been a familiar journey, the late 20th century version of the classic tale. For so many years, immigrants came to this place from across the ocean in search of the American Dream. They traveled here like cattle, they passed through Ellis Island and in some cases, gave up the names with which they had been born just to get a toehold in the land of opportunity. They toiled in sweatshops; they lived and worked in the most unbearable conditions, suffering indignities in return for nothing more than hope. Many of his ancestors came here in chains.
Now, here was Olajuwon, not simply living the dream, but carrying a team and a city on his shoulders as Hakeem the Dream.
"It is humbling," he said. "I never imagined that it would be like this. So good. So full."
Yet full of obstacles to overcome and hills to climb.
"Do remember Albuquerque?" he asked.
That hot, bitter night in New Mexico in 1983 when Dereck Whittenburg hoisted his desperate shot, a young Olajuwon froze in place and Lorenzo Charles snatched the airball and dunked it home to give North Carolina State the NCAA championship over his Houston Cougars. It was a game that ended with him face down in the paint, pounding the floor in dismay, a moment that had in many ways fueled the past 11 seasons of this game in which he excelled and brought him to this night.
There had been a meteoric ride to The Finals and a loss to the Boston Celtics in his second season, but then seven seasons of empty playoff frustration, including four consecutive losses in the first round. He had toiled and shone like the Hope Diamond amid a roster full of cubic zirconia for so many of those years until finally this team, these teammates could match his sparkle.
From Otis Thorpe to Mario Elie to Kenny Smith to Robert Horry to Vernon Maxwell to Sam Cassell to Scott Brooks to Carl Herrera to Matt Bullard to Earl Cureton to Chris Jent, they were the proper dots that had at long last been connected.
All season long, I had seen him make amazing plays -- slam dunking, spinning though traffic, grabbing rebounds, swatting shots -- but had never seen him as satisfied or at peace until now.
Out there, Game 7 was still waiting to be played. But in here he turned to look around at all of the different lockers with all of the different names and you could see his head nod with a smile. The confetti and the trophy and the happy shouts would come later. This was a quiet celebration of the road taken, a moment to remember all of the cracks and bumps he'd ridden over along the way.
Someone finally pushed open the door and a voice said: "Are you ready to do this, big fella?"
Hakeem Olajuwon stood. Yes, at last, he was.
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