Posted Aug 31 2011 9:54AM
Before there was a monument outside the Toyota Center in Houston, before a Hall of Fame career, before two championships, before two Finals MVP awards, before Phi Slamma Jamma, there was a skinny 17-year-old kid sitting on a gym floor one hot afternoon in Lagos, Nigeria.
As the coach spoke, he listened to the instructions, but his eyes and his mind wandered. His gaze kept rising toward the rim.
When the talk ended and his teammates began to stand slowly, stretching their arms and legs before the start of practice, he rose like a shot. Gathering the leather basketball into both hands, he went up, up, up.
"My first dunk ever," says Hakeem Olajuwon. "Oh, I remember because the coach had been trying for weeks to get me to dunk the ball. I had never seen anyone do it. I didn't really think it was possible, the coordination of the jump and holding the ball.
"Then everything he was trying to tell me came together in that one moment. Everyone was shocked. The coach said, 'Do it again.' So I did. And I did it again and again and again. I guess it changed my life."
Dreams have to start somewhere.
For the third of six children to Salaam and Abike Olajuwon, who brokered cement deals in their neighborhood and at the Lagos docks, sports were simply an outlet, a way to blow off steam and expend the youthful energy that is the same anywhere in the world.
There was never a goal, a grand vision laid out that would take him from the dusty soccer fields of Africa's second-largest city to a hallowed ranking in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It was a serendipitous journey, maybe touched by fate, often guided by one helping hand or another, that brought him to his destiny, a home in Houston and a seat at the head table in NBA's pantheon of legends.
"You couldn't plan all of this," says Olajuwon, now 48.
Team handball, seven to a side, played on a court roughly 70 meters by 40 meters, was his first love. It was the place where he developed the spins, the head-fakes, the jukes, the angles, the footwork, the speed, the athleticism that would eventually become his calling card in America's game.
The myth and the legend are always more colorful, more exciting, more fantastic. Not to mention more fun.
It makes a better folk tale to say that a raw jumping bean named Akeem was deposited by a taxi on the doorstep of the University of Houston and began dunking basketballs almost before unpacking his luggage.
It grew into a sheer fantasy, in which basketball scouts from all over the United States would simply follow his roots back to Lagos and begin importing scads of whirling, spinning, fadeaway-shooting prodigies through an African pipeline that could gush like Spindletop.
His became the ultimate coming-to-America success story when the gangly, hot-tempered kid grew into Hakeem Olajuwon, the NBA big man who put his stamp on the center position with his footwork and speed and carried the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 with statesmanlike aplomb and the gentle, graceful nature of a yoga instructor.
For those who would diminish those championships for coming during Michael Jordan's "retirement," consider that during the first "three-peat" from 1991-93, the Rockets posted a 5-1 record against the Bulls. And following a home loss in 1993, Jordan sat in the bowels of the old Chicago Stadium, shook his head and said, "It's a good thing those guys can't find their way to the Finals, because we don't have an answer for the big guy."
Nobody did and in more than three decades since he first set foot in Texas, the anticipated flood of dominating, overpowering big men with the combined strength of a cape buffalo and the speed of a cheetah never materialized. Olajuwon didn't transform the center position, simply because there has never been any one else like him.
"Oh, not even close," said his former college and NBA teammate Clyde Drexler. "Plenty of big men have had this or that, but not everything like Dream. We're talking one of a kind.
At the 1997 All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, when the league honored the selection of its 50 Greatest Players, Olajuwon was stopped in a hotel hallway by a pair who might as well have stepped down off basketball's Mt. Olympus -- Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
"Ah, our bloodline," Chamberlain told him. "The big man who plays at both ends of the court the way a big man is supposed to play."
"You're the one who represents us," Russell told him. "You carry on for us. I just enjoy watching you play."
It was the mixture of ferocity, speed, competitiveness, agility and hunger that made him swirl about down in the low post like the howling winds of a hurricane and yet drop in his signature turnaround, fadeaway shot -- the Dream Shake -- from the baseline with a surgeon's touch. Those roots that first sprung up through African soil blossomed at Fonde Rec Center in downtown Houston in those early days under the green thumb of three-time MVP Moses Malone.
"I remember the first time I saw him," said former Rockets teammate Robert Reid. "This skinny kid walked into the gym and played a few games with us. He loved to run and had raw ability and didn't mind getting pushed around by Moses.
"Then he came back the second summer, playing on a team of UH guys that Clyde Drexler had organized. Somebody took a shot and Hakeem and Moses went for the rebound. Hakeem grabbed the ball, took one bounce on the floor, cleared Moses out of the way with one arm and slammed it.
"The whole place got quiet. We all looked at one another. In one year, he had improved to the point where he could take it right to the guy who was the reigning MVP of the league. It was right then, on that play, that we all thought, 'Whoa! What have we got here?' "
What the NBA eventually got was a star exploding like a supernova who would play 18 seasons -- 17 in Houston -- and getting named to the All-Star team 12 times, six times was on the All-NBA First Team, won the regular season MVP (1994), the Finals MVP twice ('94 and '95), and along with Jordan is one of just two players in history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season. Olajuwon is the only player in history to end his career ranked in the top 10 all-time in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals.
"If you wrote this story in a book, nobody would ever believe it," Olajuwon says. "To have been directed here from Nigeria, gone to college in Houston, played virtually my whole pro career in Houston. To look back from a place in the Hall of Fame, it is like I'm standing outside and looking at someone else's life."
Just like the 17-year-old sitting on a gym floor in Lagos, staring at the rim, pondering the possibilities.
"Look at the nickname," he says. "It describes my relationship with the city, my life in Houston and everything that came from it.
"Yes, a Dream."
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