Much like his Dream Shake, Hakeem Olajuwon can be imitated but never duplicated
Like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, the first time he came to America he was Prince Akeem.
Now, he returns as King.
All in Houston hail the return of Hakeem Olajuwon
, as he comes back to the city he still owns, as an honorary mayor—of sorts—of 2006 NBA All-Star Game festivities. Houston has its share of present-day star-power in All-Stars Tracy McGrady
and Yao Ming
, and the annals of Houston’s basketball history are filled with the names of some the greatest to ever play the game: Elvin Hayes
, Moses Malone
and Clyde Drexler
. Even in such resplendent company, though, the man nicknamed “The Dream” stands tall.
For 17 years, he put in some serious work here, and ran up numbers so high they won’t be touched by another Rocket, setting standards so unreachable his NBA superstar brethren still hold him in the highest esteem.
Three-time NBA Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal has called him the best big man he has ever faced. Six-time NBA champ Robert Horry has called him the best player he’s played with. The only four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Dikembe Mutombo, has called him his inspiration.
Outside of Michael Jordan, Olajuwon was clearly the NBA’s best player of the ’90s.
Bouquets are thrown like rose petals before royalty whenever the subject of Hakeem Olajuwon is brought up in NBA hallways. So now, from his new home in Jordan (ironic, huh?), Olajuwon is anxiously anticipating his return to America—his return to the city that put him on the map and vice versa.
“I cannot wait to see all those familiar faces in Houston,” says Olajuwon.
The feeling is mutual.
He came to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria in 1981 as an 18-year-old named Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon and played for Guy Lewis’ University of Houston team. He captivated the city, state and nation, playing for the exciting team nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma, leading Houston to three Final Fours, before becoming the 1984 No. 1 NBA Draft pick of the Houston Rockets.
In the pros, he changed his name back to its original spelling, and went by Hakeem Olajuwon. We’ll never forget our classic exchange on how he now pronounced his first name. “It’s with a silent H,” he began, before contradicting himself with, “HAH-KEEM!” Hilarious... (or is it “ilarious?”).
Once a pro, Hakeem then took his game up yet another level. Leading the Houston Rockets to two NBA Championships. Winning two NBA Finals MVPs. Winning one regular-season MVP. Playing in 12 All-Star Games. Setting the NBA all-time blocked shots record.
And doing it with a dignity rarely seen. He had everybody’s respect…namely, because he was the first to give respect.
Olajuwon's Rockets got the best of O'Neal's Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
We’ll never forget Hakeem’s photo shoot with Shaquille O’Neal in February ’95 when Shaq was on the Orlando Magic. There was no tension whatsoever between the two legendary giants. In a shot that would foreshadow that year’s NBA Finals, Hakeem and Shaq were nothing but Giggles & Chuckles on the set.
When asked to strike some surly poses, a giddy 23-year-old O’Neal said, “We can’t do that,” while the 32-year-old Olajuwon explained, “We have too much respect for each other.” The two proceeded to clown around through four rolls of film, until the end, when the 7-0, then-303-pound version of O’Neal unexpectedly whisked the 7-0 Olajuwon into the air, lifting the man nicknamed Dream like a 255-pound curl bar. Dream giggled the whole time.
Classic shot. Classic Shaq. Classic Hakeem.
It so typified the relationship Olajuwon had with his biggest rivals. They could not help but become his biggest friends.
That’s what makes this All-Star Game reunion all the more special. Although he keeps in touch with friends by phone and email while living in the Middle East, he does not see his NBA teammates as much as he used to.
He follows their careers, though—Horry winning his sixth NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs, Sam Cassell leading the Los Angeles Clippers resurgence, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley hamming it up for NBA on TNT.
“As a matter of fact, Clyde and I stay in touch regularly,” says Olajuwon, of his Hall of Fame teammate Clyde Drexler, who played with Dream on the Rockets for four seasons and two seasons at the University of Houston. “I’m very happy for all those guys.”
At most, nowadays, he only makes it to America once or twice a year, spending most of his time in Jordan.
“I visited Jordan each summer during the last 10 years of my playing career,” says Olajuwon. “I would enroll myself in a basic Arabic language program during that time. I always said I would come back to Jordan and become a full-time student when I eventually retired. My family is here with me, which allows me to spend more time with them.”
Olajuwon has always been big on serenity. There was no more peaceful place than his Sugarland, TX home, where he would entertain guests on the gazebo of his lakeside house with tea served by a woman he called “Grandma”—a Houstonian who looked after him when he was a teenage college student from another country—and his daughter playing at the foot of the gazebo.
That same looking-out-for-family attitude was seen in his on-the-court demeanor, too. When he won the 1994 NBA MVP award, he called his teammates out on the floor to accept the trophy with him. Longtime Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson says, “Nobody had ever done something like that at that time.”
“As a center,” Olajuwon says, “I always tried to be a well-rounded player and I take that same mindset and apply it to my life outside of basketball—my personal life with my family, my business ventures and my religion. It feels good to be free to be able to do what I enjoy doing.”
Olajuwon always was the model of consistency as a player. In his first dozen seasons, he averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks—finishing his 17 years with the Rockets and final season with the Toronto Raptors with 21.8 point, 11.1 rebound and 3.1 block averages.
His 3,830 career blocks—641 swats more than his closest competitor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—is an all-time record that will not likely be broken by anyone in today’s NBA.
He was one of the top scorers and rebounders of his time, but nobody has even come close to him as a shotblocker, with the possible exception of Bill Russell.
“As a goalkeeper in soccer, your main objective is to defend the goal,” says Olajuwon of his soccer upbringing. “So that experience was of great benefit to me. Blocking shots is an art, which is all about anticipation and timing. I guess that ability came naturally to me. Being a shotblocker allows you to intimidate and dominate in the middle and that is the value of a true big man.”
The value of a true big man. Funny, but that was the topic of discussion a year ago when all-time greats Dominique Wilkins and Drexler were sharing the same trailer during a commercial shoot.
The two were enjoying a “What If…” conversation. Wilkins pointed over to his friend Drexler who was snacking at the other end of the trailer and says, “Ask Clyde what it’s like to be able to play with a big man. Clyde was a superstar in his own right, but being able to play with Hakeem? That helped take his game to the next level.“
Drexler says, “Like night and day. He made things so much easier for all of us.”
Wilkins adds, “I betcha I would’ve got a ring, too, if I was able to play with Hakeem. A big man is so valuable.”
A decade later, they’re still talking about his impact. And 10 years from now, they’ll still probably be talking about Dream.
Olajuwon had so problem shaking Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
About his trademark Dream Shake, where he used “the best footwork I’ve ever seen from a big man,” according to Big Man guru Pete Newell. About how he dominated regular-season MVP David Robinson
in the 1995 Western Conference Finals. About how he dominated everyone in the 1994 and 1995 Finals, when he led Houston to the city’s first major sports championships ever.
He was always a great player, but it seemed like the combination of Olajuwon entering his early 30s—he was 31 and 32 when he won titles—and the temporary retirement of Jordan set the stage for Olajuwon to clearly become The Man in the NBA.
“I think it was a combination of experience and maturity not to mention the desire to win,” says Olajuwon. “My recommitment to Islam helped me develop the mindset that I needed to reach that.”
Fundamentally speaking, his footwork on the offensive end was something to behold. He had spins off pivots, and pivots off spins the world had never seen before. These moves, called the Dream Shake, put him on another stratosphere—as far as a player having a trademark move that could not be stopped, a la Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, Jordan’s fadeaway, etc.
“Just such unbelievable footwork,” says The Big Fundamental himself, Tim Duncan.
Olajuwon explains, “The Dream Shake was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball. It would accomplish one of three things: one, to misdirect the opponent and make him go the opposite way; two, to freeze the opponent and leave him devastated in his tracks; three, to shake off the opponent and giving him no chance to contest the shot.”
It was that fleet-afoot attitude that allowed Olajuwon to become one of the greatest all-around players of all-time. His incomparable shotblocking prowess has already been discussed. But it’s his 26,946 points that ranks seventh all-time in the NBA, his 13,748 rebounds that ranks 12th. And he did this while registering 2,162 steals, for a 1.7 spg average.
What other center averaged almost two steals per game while also swatting three shots per game?
That is probably the statistic that shows just how agile he was.
“There was never a big man who could do everything Hakeem could do,” says O’Neal.
He was a rarity on many fronts. NBA law states you need at least two All-Stars on a team to have a chance to win a championship. The ’90s were ruled by dynamic duos—it started with Magic & Worthy, Isiah & Dumars and continued with Jordan & Pippen, Stockton & Malone.
But in the ’93-94 season, Olajuwon was the lone star, putting the Rockets on his back, while his good, but superstar-less supporting cast—Otis Thorpe, Horry, Smith, Cassell, Mario Elie—played their roles to a T, going 58-24 in the regular season, 15-8 in the playoffs and beating the Knicks in a seven-game Finals series.
Olajuwon says Rudy Tomjanovich was the perfect fit for this bunch.
“Rudy T was a fantastic coach and I couldn't have played for anyone better,” says Olajuwon, who averaged 29 points and 11 rebounds in the playoffs, winning the 1994 NBA Finals MVP award. “We grew together and I'll never forget my time with him. I'm happy that we were successful together and even happier at his success as a coach.”
In the ’94-95 season, Olajuwon got some star power help when his old friend and perennial All-Star Drexler was acquired in a midseason trade for Thorpe. Free agent Chucky Brown was signed to fill the rebounding gap, and the Rockets finished 48-34, went 15-7 in the playoffs and swept Shaq’s Magic in the Finals.
Again, Olajuwon was named the Finals MVP, averaging 33 points and 10 rebounds in those playoffs.
“Those were great times,” says Olajuwon. “The best.”
It’s 10-and-a-half years later, but he’s about to relive many of those moments, through the eyes of a new generation.
It’s been almost four years since he retired, but one thing is clear. Through the eyes of his peers and teammates in today’s NBA, the Dream lives on.