They say that everything in Texas is bigger. That’s certainly true when it comes to the Rockets legendary, larger-than-life centers.
Their names were bigger than life, their games were bigger than their names and their legacies—intertwined with each other over the past four decades—forever live on.
Big E. Moses. Dream. Sampson. Yao. Mutombo.
Say their names collectively and you think you’re quoting either Biblical icons or superheroes from some new Marvel Comics book.
. Moses Malone
. Hakeem Olajuwon
. Ralph Sampson. Yao Ming
. Dikembe Mutombo
These are the Rockets centers since the ’71-72 season—Houston’s first year in the NBA—and collectively, arguably they will go down as the greatest group of big men any franchise has ever known.
When it comes to quantity, no franchise could match the Houston Rockets centers. Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers may have greater quality in its all-time great center quartet of Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Minneapolis’ George Mikan.
But when it comes to numbers—nobody tops the Rockets.
Hayes, 60, and Malone, 50, are already in the Hall of Fame, and Olajuwon, 43, surely will be inducted when eligible in 2008. The six centers have played in 51 NBA All-Star Games, and 28 of those have been in a Rockets’ uniform.
“They are heroes for the town of Houston,” says Yao, the young’n of the group. “That about says it all.”
Their fame goes far beyond America’s fourth-largest city. The six represent not only Houston, but the world as a whole. Part of the appeal of the Houston Six is their international appeal—three were born and raised outside of the USA—and their pioneering ways.
In Hayes, you have a 6-9, 235 pounder who played center early in his career—power forward later—and helped put college basketball on the map. Hayes led his University of Houston team to an upset over 47-win-streaking UCLA—led by Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor—in front of a record crowd of 52,963 at the Astrodome in a record-breaking nationally televised game in January 1968.
In Malone, you had a 6-10, 255-pound center who was the first prep-to-pro player, joining the ABA in 1974 as a 19-year-old.
In Sampson, you had a 7-4, 220-pound center who had athleticism and floor skills not seen from seven-footers and a precursor to the versatile big men that came after him, like David Robinson and Kevin Garnett.
In 7-5, 310-pound Yao, you have the first star from Asia, the first star from China—the most populous country on the planet—whose influence and game is still dawning.
In 7-0, 250-pound Olajuwon and 7-2, 260-pound Mutombo, you have the first two stars from Africa—in a sense, the first two international stars—who paved the way for so many others.
Hayes, along with Malone and Olajuwon, was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images
“It’s great to be on a team that has had so many pioneers at the center position,” says second-year Rocket Mutombo, 39, who played in eight All-Star Games with three other teams. “I’m especially happy to be a Rocket because I’m now on the team of Hakeem Olajuwon, the all-time blocked shots leader.” Olajuwon is the NBA’s career blocks leader with 3,830, while Mutombo, at the beginning of the ’05-06 season, is fourth at 3,097—less than 100 away from the second slot.
“I remember when I was in college at Georgetown, spending time with Pat, there was no chance that went by that I didn’t watch some of Hakeem’s tape,” says Mutombo, now 39, referring to Olajuwon and former Georgetown teammate and Rockets assistant coach Patrick Ewing. “I feel so proud that by the time I decide to walk away from this game, I’ll be behind one of my former African heroes, a man who inspired me so much to improve my game. And I’m so happy to be part of the family and the tradition.”
Mutombo is saying all this in the locker room in Los Angeles, after a tough loss to the Clippers. Before the questions about his idol, the Kinshasa, Zaire native was glumly eating his postgame meal. But just talking about Hakeem has brought back his trademark smile and his Cookie Monster laugh.
“Hakeem always calls me the King of Africa,” says Mutombo upon reflection, “but I think he’s the King of Africa because he inspires all of us. He led the way by passing the torch to us.”
You can hear the Lagos, Nigeria native laugh his trademark giggle when the remark is relayed to him. “That’s an ongoing joke we have,” says Olajuwon from his new home in the Middle East country of Jordan. “That’s my title for him and his title for me. It’s going to be nice to see the King of Africa and all the familiar faces in Houston for the All-Star Game.”
What makes this reunion of the Houston six centers so special is that so many of their Rocket careers were intertwined. Hayes started the ball rolling as a San Diego Rocket from ’68 to ’71, and stayed with the franchise for its initial year in Houston during the ’71-72 season. The 12-time All-Star (four with the Rockets) played for the Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets franchise from ’72-81—winning an NBA title in ’78—before closing his career in Houston from ’81-84.
By that time, Moses Malone had staked his claim as the Houston Rockets All-Star center, playing there from ’76 to ’82—leading his team to the 1981 NBA Finals—before he was traded for financial reasons to the Philadelphia 76ers, where the three-time MVP won the ’83 NBA Championship.
“I see Moses all the time in Houston,” says Mutombo. “Anyone who has come to the League, if you didn’t get a chance to watch Moses play, you should go and try to find some of his tapes. You would learn so much about rebounding. I think he is one of the best rebounding centers ever.”
In fact, 76ers head coach and former Malone teammate Maurice Cheeks brought Malone in last December to work with his team that had been out-rebounded in 13 of the first 18 games, going 8-10. Once Malone began instruction, the Sixers went 7-4, and out-rebounded their opponents in those seven wins.
“I would have loved the opportunity to play with Moses because he was a warrior,” says Olajuwon, in retrospect, of the man who played in 12 All-Star Games—five with the Rockets.
But it was Malone and Hayes who were able to play alongside each other for the ’81-82 season, where Malone averaged 31 points and 15 rebounds and Hayes averaged 16 and 9 for the 46-36 Rockets.
The Twin Towers dominated the Houston skyline.
Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images
Sampson, the 1983 No. 1 NBA Draft pick from the University of Virginia, was the NBA Rookie of the Year and an immediate All-Star, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds in what was the final season of Hayes’ career. Hayes play sparingly in ’83-84, averaging 5 points and 3 rebounds for the 29-53 Rockets.
Because the team did so poorly, they also had the No. 1 pick in 1984 and landed Olajuwon, giving birth to the much-hyped Twin Towers tandem of Sampson and Olajuwon.
“The idea of Twin Towers on one team was unheard of at that time,” says Olajuwon, who played with the four-time All-Star Sampson starting in ’84-85 for four seasons, with both being All-Stars for three of those seasons together.
“It was a lot of fun playing alongside another seven-footer,” says Olajuwon of the Twin Tower era. “It gave me a lot of confidence in knowing we could dominate any frontline at that time.”
The first season together, Sampson was the leading scorer with 22 points and 10 rebounds while the rookie Olajuwon averaged 21 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. But in years two through four together, Olajuwon became the team leader averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds, while Sampson started to battle knee injuries and saw his averages drop to 17 points and 10 rebounds. Sampson, now 45, would be traded to Golden State and he was never able to return to All-Star level because of his bad knees. But the combination of the two athletic big men were dynamic enough to lead the Rockets to the Finals in ’86—where they lost to a dominant Celtics team.
Olajuwon, meanwhile, would go on to become the face of Houston.
No player enjoyed a greater career in H-town than the man known as Dream—setting 13 franchise career records, while being a 12-time All-Star and 1994 regular-season MVP.
But Olauwon’s main claim to fame was being the NBA Finals MVP in 1994 and 1995, leading the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships.
“Hakeem was the only big guy that I truly respected,” says Shaquille O’Neal. “I learned a lot from Hakeem. That’s why I always said he was the greatest.”
King of Africa. The Greatest. Olajuwon has heard these remarks before, and it never gets old for him.
“I feel very honored that people like Dikembe and especially Shaq are always so complimentary of me,” says Olajuwon. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for these guys and their talents, and I just wish them continued success in their professional and personal careers.”
Another contemporary, and the latest in the lineage of Rocket centers, is Yao, who is not as familiar with the Houston greats, but surely will become more acquainted this All-Star Weekend.
“I’ve just said ‘Hi’ to a couple of them,” says Yao. “I’ve met Moses Malone once, and I’ve seen Hakeem a couple times.”
The 25-year-old Rockets center has enjoyed the fast path to success, being voted the All-Star Game Western Conference starter the last three years he’s been in the League. He’s shown steady improvement, going from 13.5 points to 17.5 to 18.3 while not playing much more than 30 minutes per game.
He is the future. He is the present. And when he and teammate Mutombo reunite with Rockets past, it should make for a gigantic event.
“I cannot wait to see all of us in the same room,” says Mutombo. “The history. The tradition...”