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Fran Blinebury

From the moment he arrived in town (here he is in 1984), Hakeem Olajuwon seemed at home in Houston.
From the moment he arrived in town (here he is in 1984), Hakeem Olajuwon seemed at home in Houston.

From myth to MVP, The Dream came to full life in Houston


Posted Feb 15, 2013 9:45 AM

HOUSTON -- From George Washington and the cherry tree to Betsy Ross and the flag to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Americans love their myths.

Texans just like them bigger.

So perhaps it was only natural that a tale stretching across an ocean from Lagos, Nigeria to the Lone Star State should acquire more than just a bit of ... embellishment.

A rim-rattling babe in swaddling clothes was not delivered by taxi one day on coach Guy V. Lewis' doorstep at the University of Houston.

A teenager in a dashiki and sandals with no coat did not get off a plane on a cold afternoon in New York, shiver and decide that he could not handle the frigid temperature and then re-board the next flight to a warmer climate along the Gulf Coast.

A leaping, smiling kid who had played organized ball for only three months lacing up the first pair of correctly fitting sneakers in his life and then taking over and thoroughly dominating a scrimmage of veteran college players?

Oh, yes. That last one is true.

"I don't remember who I blocked first," Hakeem Olajuwon said laughing. "Clyde Drexler, Larry Micheaux, Rob Williams, Michael Young. I was reading and anticipating all of the shots. Guys were expecting to get layups. You do not just get a layup. No, no. You have to deserve it."

They took him off the court and stashed him in a hotel until they could get him enrolled in school. He was red-shirted his first year, attending classes while getting his basketball competition in intramural games. Olajuwon joined the UH team for the 1981-82 season, bouncing off the bench as a brief role player, all arms and legs and unbridled enthusiasm, collecting blocked shots, slam dunks and personal fouls with little regard for the subtleties of the game.

"I just wanted to donk and donk and donk," he says now in that clipped, English boarding school accent. "Man, I was at home."

More than three decades later, Hakeem the Dream is known to a new generation more as mentor, guru, the master whose clips one can call up on YouTube to see him passing the so-called secrets of the game to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Amar'e Stoudemire.

But before he became Yoda in the paint, his was the ultimate coming-to-America success story of the raw, tempestuous young talent blossoming into the confident, unstoppable big man. Olajuwon left an indelible mark on the center position with his footwork and speed -- you can see that mark this weekend when James, Bryant and Howard join Olajuwon in Houston for the All-Star Game -- and carried the Rockets to back-to-back championships with a statesmanlike aplomb and a gentle, graceful nature.

It was, of course, far more complicated than that. It was a long, tireless process of developing and then honing his skills, of fully comprehending the fundamental concept of the game and learning to trust his teammates, of finally finding a way to become the relentless battler, the ultimate warrior, by first making peace with himself.

"We think of the finished product, the gentle giant who is a great ambassador for sportsmanship and for the way we'd like to see everybody play the game," said one longtime NBA official. "But I'll tell you, when Hakeem first came into the league, he was cheap-shotting people, he was cussing people out, he was hard to coach.

"You can go back to his rookie season in the league, when he punched out Billy Paultz, got himself thrown out of the game and cost the Rockets a playoff series to Utah. It's amazing to think that he got from there to here."

He grew from a wild, uncontrollable kid on and off the court into a veteran in lifestyle and production. He picked up bruises the hard way banging away in a manner where he tried to do everything himself in every game, eventually learning to trust and embrace worthy teammates.

His was a personal transformation. Olajuwon recommitted himself to his Muslim faith around 1991 and found that it enabled him to live life and play basketball at a higher level.

"To become better, you have to go back to the foundation, which for me was Islam," he said. "Islam is a way of life, not just a religion. And when you understand Islam correctly, you see that it allows you the opportunity to broaden your mind and live a life of peace and contentment with high standards, morally and professionally.

"In short, it was growing up."

The growth in his game and his personality was remarkable. He went from being unrefined talent to unstoppable force, from combustible hothead to comfortable, confident, composed leader.

There were all the numbers and all the stats and all the records. He is the NBA's all-time leader in blocked shots, was a 12-time NBA All-Star and a six-time All-NBA first-teamer. More than any of that was the unrelenting effort learned by the kid who was first turned loose on a basketball court and told to try to block every shot. So he did.

He had helped the Rockets reach the NBA Finals in his second pro season in 1986, but struggled for nearly a decade to finally make a return appearance in 1994.

"It would have been nice to have kept our team from '86 together and won championships," Olajuwon said. "But now that I look back, it was the struggle, the fight, all those years of trying to make the climb back up that finally made it all special when it came.

"I can still remember the final seconds running out in Game 7 against the Knicks. I was leaning on the scorer's table and I took it all in. I looked at my teammates. I looked at the fans. I looked at the scene. This was why I played, why I worked, why I came to Houston."

He was the MVP of the regular season, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Finals, the only player ever to achieve that combination of awards. And he led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1995, sweeping a young Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic in The Finals.

"Hakeem Olajuwon was the only guy that I couldn't intimidate," O'Neal said recently on TNT. "When I would say something, if you say something back, I had you. If I elbow you and you complain, I had you.

"Right before the 1995 Finals I was in my own zone and wasn't really worried about anybody else. First play of the game, I gave him the patented Shaq elbow, jump hook, 2-0. He just smiled at me. And then he came down and gave me a move, shot a jumper and said, 'Right back at you, Big Fella.'

"So I came down and did it again, but I could never get to him. I could never intimidate him... The best defense was put your hands up and hope he misses."

Olajuwon has been surprised and humbled by the way today's stars have sought him out for help.

"They're recognizing the importance of the post moves, that's a huge compliment for me," he said. "I can see some of the things we worked on in LeBron's game. See him in the post. His footwork is so much improved. Of course, Kobe already had great footwork. I think he just wanted to brush up with me, to reinforce things that he knew he should do.

"I was a little bit surprised at how much I liked doing this at first. I have no 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.

"It is fun for me when I watch them on television and see our time together being put to use."

Unlike anyone currently working an NBA sideline, "Coach" Olajuwon will have three starters on the floor -- Bryant, James and Howard -- in Sunday's All-Star Game, the exhibition-style, 1-on-1 type event that was never conducive to his game. Even though a 12-time All-Star, Olajuwon scored 20 points only once.

"I always just enjoyed being around the other players," he said. "The 1997 game was one of my favorite memories. It was a special honor to be named one of the 50 greatest players of all-time. It was a thrill that weekend to spend time with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell -- the two greatest centers ever -- and to hear the kind things they both said to me.

"Sometimes when I think of the championships, the awards and all the accolades in my career, I can't believe it all happened."

Part myth, part growth, all Dream.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977 and has lived in Houston since 1982. 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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