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Fran Blinebury

Hakeem Olajuwon (left) is still making an impact on the playoffs by teaching today's stars his tricks.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Olajuwon gives today's players a dream tutorial on footwork

Posted Apr 19 2012 9:35AM

It may not be as dramatic of a special effect as the late Tupac showing up on stage as a hologram at Coachella. But if you press your nose to your TV screen and look carefully when the 2012 playoffs begin, you might detect a different kind of blast from the past.

Witness Kobe Bryant gather the ball in the low post, draw defenders to him, head fake, do a 360-spin, pretend that he's dishing the ball to a cutter and then lean back for a wide-open jumper.

See LeBron James use less of his tight end-like muscles and more of his ballet-step agility to dip and spin, make like he's going left toward the baseline and then come back right for an up-and-under move that puts him at the edge of the rim for a layup or dunk.

Observe how Dwight Howard takes the ball on the left side of the lane, moves and dribbles into the paint, uses a deke here and feint there and lifts off his left pivot foot to drop in a soft, unobstructed jump hook.

Watch their feet, look at their free-flowing, improvisational style and see the hand -- if not the ghost -- of Hakeem Olajuwon in those moves.

At 49 and now 10 years removed from playing his last NBA game, Olajuwon has become basketball's Yoda, the wizened warrior who dispenses on-court acumen to a line of present-day stars and journeyman.

"No secrets," Olajuwon says with a laugh, "just footwork."

The late Pete Newell, legendary for teaching the fundamentals of the game, once described Olajuwon's moves as: "The best footwork I have ever seen from a big man."

After beginning with a few private tutoring sessions for then-Bobcats rookie center Emeka Okafor in the summer of 2005, Olajuwon's tutorials have expanded to include forwards and guards. In recent offseasons, a diverse list that includes Bryant, Howard, James, Rashard Lewis, Josh Smith, Marcin Gortat, Garret Siler, DeSagana Diop, D.J. Mbenga and Luol Deng have traveled to Houston to attend the so-called "Dream School."

He lives primarily in Amman, Jordan, with his family, but returns frequently to Houston to tend to business interests and extend a hand to the NBA's next generation. He doesn't charge for his time and he sends each of his pupils home with video of their sessions.

"I was a little bit surprised at how much I liked it at first," Olajuwon said. "I have never had any real interest in a becoming a traditional coach with the travel and the clipboard and being tied to a schedule. But I figured if these players wanted to come to me and I could pass a few things along, then everyone benefits. What interests me is showing some of today's players how they can take their game to a higher level.

"Their recognizing the importance of the post moves, that's a huge compliment for me. And I know also that I can add value to players' careers. There is no question about that."

Olajuwon explains that there was nothing raw and intrinsic about the style of play that enabled him to build an 18-year, Hall of Fame NBA career. It was the footwork that he developed from playing soccer and team handball as a young athlete in Nigeria that helped lay the groundwork for an array of basketball moves that opened up on-court options.

Olajuwon still has the moves, the polish, a satin feel to his game. His body is still lean and taut, his large brown eyes still filled with confidence. The only traces of age are those few gray strands in his closely-cropped hair.

He is diligent, meticulous and patient in his lessons, starting with basic moves in the paint and adding options that are often subtle but devastatingly effective. Seeing the moves executed slowly, broken down, is realizing how numerous and complex they are.

When Olajuwon demonstrates -- whirling, spinning, dipping, twirling with the ball -- his pupils kick into overdrive trying to comprehend. They want to make connections from A to B to C to D. But he wants them to get from A to B and then consider an infinite world of possibilities. Olajuwon's game en route to winning two NBA titles, an MVP award, five first-team All-NBA honors and a dozen All-Star nods was always more reactive to the defense.

"Don't try to go through," Olajuwon said. "Find a way around. It's easier."

It's the light to the unobstructed path that All-Stars such as Bryant, Howard and James have sought from him. Bryant traveled to Houston in 2009, Howard in 2010 and 2011 and James in 2011 after this Miami Heat lost in The Finals.

"When you want to learn about footwork and about post moves, you go to the King," Bryant said, "and that's Hakeem. I was ecstatic to work with him. 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."

"I was shocked when I got an e-mail from him," Olajuwon said. "At first I thought he was kidding. I mean, Kobe had all the moves already. What did he have to learn?"

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 latter portion of his career.

"Kobe had the natural instincts. He already knew mostly what he had to do. He just wanted some added tips about how to clear that space in traffic, in the area close to the basket. If you watch Kobe, you see him do it all. He has fantastic post moves."

After eight seasons of thriving on bull-rushes to the hoop and pulling up for long jumpers, what James wanted was to find a middle ground in a mid-range game.

"I know what Hakeem was able to do in his career," James said. "He was an MVP. He won championships and he did it by dominating in the low post. I just want to see and work on some of the areas where I could get better and hammer it home."

While his scoring average has ticked up this season, James' 3-point shot attempts are down dramatically. He's operating closer to the basket.

"I can see some of the things we worked on in LeBron's game this season," Olajuwon said. "When he came, I said to him, 'What are you trying to accomplish?' He told me that he has been playing outside and he really wanted to establish his post moves.

"But it isn't just about the post move. It is inside-outside, because almost every night he has an advantage over the guy who is guarding him. So it was about how to turn the outside game into an inside game using all of the same skills and strength. When I see how he is separating from his guy now, I see easier shots. I see a game all over the floor that is very, very difficult to stop."

Olajuwon says Howard's quickness and leaping ability, not his size, should give him an advantage on his opponents.

"I started with Dwight's feet and tried to build everything from there," Olajuwon said. "The first fake is to clear space. The second fake -- a head-pump maybe -- is to get the defender off his feet.

"On TV I see opportunities for him that he is not taking. He still tries to go through and not around."

The image to envision is water running down a rocky hillside -- seeking a path to simply flow.

"Dwight needs to do more work, much more," Olajuwon said. "I watch him and I don't see much of what we worked on. I think he has been distracted all season with all of the contract talk. Now that it is behind him for now, maybe he can go back to work."

Or back to Dream School and the Hall of Fame teacher.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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