Hakeem Olajuwon on Kobe
Kobe Bryant has been steadily assaulting the scoring records of the game’s all-time greats throughout the past few seasons, and in Friday night’s game against Sacramento, his first quarter dunk vaulted Bryant over Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth on the all-time list.
Two summers ago, Bryant spent a few hours working with “The Dream” on low post moves, and still raves to this day about both the session and about the former Rockets center that he says has the greatest moves in NBA history.
We had a chance to speak with Olajuwon prior to the game against the Kings on the telephone; below is a transcription of our conversation:
MT: With 13 points in Friday night’s game against Sacramento, Kobe Bryant will surpass your 26,946 career points to rank No. 8 on the NBA’s all-time list. What stands out to you about Bryant’s career?
Olajuwon: Kobe’s accomplishments speak for themselves. His work ethic, his determination to be the best ... when you talk about Kobe, you talk about his work ethic and how great it is for someone to maximizing his potential. Kobe has reached his whole potential, and maintained it, pushed it as far as it can go. When he passes me on the all-time scoring list, I think there’s no question that it is well-deserved. He’s just a great, great scorer. Just to be mentioned as one of the all-time scorers is a huge accomplishment for me.
MT: What are your reflections on the time you spent working with Kobe on his low post game following the 2009 season?
Olajuwon: I was surprised and impressed when he called me up that he wanted to come and work out. I said, ‘Kobe, you have all the moves already, you don’t need me!’ He said ‘No, I want to master the post, and I love your game.’ He gave me huge compliments (like that). So I knew right away how I could add value to his game from the post point of view, because my moves work better with quicker guys like him. Many of the moves require certain reflexes, agility and fakes. He’s the ideal player to use those moves, and he could add volume to his game. When a big man makes a move, for example, he has one dribble or two dribbles and has to go up, but with a guard, you don’t pick up that dribble until the moment you’re ready to shoot. That gives him the advantage over every big guy that plays in the post because he often will have more dribbles to do more things.
MT: He’s mentioned that he also worked with you on dealing with double teams as well as some specific moves. How would you describe the session?
Olajuwon: We worked on basic moves to create space, how to free yourself from a guy and shake him off. We worked on how to deal with double teams, how to read the defense when it’s coming. It’s really important to be able to go both ways with a move. Any time the defense tries to figure you out, you counter with something else. What makes the moves so deadly is you take whatever the defense gives you. That’s why it was so much fun working with Kobe ... it was unbelievable. What was funny was the game the Lakers played against the Rockets (in the 2009-10 season) because I was there, and after Kobe shook Shane Battier with a move in the post, and finished off the glass, he looked at me and winked. The move was textbook. That was something that we had worked on so much. It made me very happy to make a contribution to his game, to add to his talents, to add to his accomplishments. Now, when I watch his games, I see how much he goes to the post .... And now I even see Gasol using some of the baseline moves, and I wonder, is he showing Gasol some of the moves? The quick baseline spin move is one I don’t remember seeing Gasol use before.
MT: How would you describe how you operated around the paint, and how you tried to impart certain facets of your game upon Bryant?
Olajuwon: I think my principle is to take whatever the opponent gives me. I would take something all day until they take it away. So if it’s the jump hook, I’ll do it until they counter it, then I’ll spin to the baseline. But when I see that he starts playing me honest, not giving me right or left, then I’ll start to create my own shot, force him to commit before I make my move. And Kobe is the master at that. Also, once they started bringing double teams, I developed some tricks over the years that just come by experience. That’s what I shared with Kobe, the secret of what I was trying to do, not just a demonstration. Then it’s about repetition.
MT: It would seem that it’d be difficult to retain all of that information in just a few hours, Hakeem? It’s obvious to say that Kobe’s one of the smarter and more cerebral players in the game, and natural to think his learning curve is a lot steeper than almost anybody’s. Did you find that to be true?
Olajuwon: Oh, no question. Because when I demonstrated the moves, he would quickly learn the secret behind the move. To him, it’s so easy because he has so many talents. With him, you only have to show him once. One time, and that’s it to make him comfortable. He’s just very natural. We spent 2-3 hours on some moves we’d repeat about 10-15 times, and towards the last 15 minutes of the session, he was flawless. When I took him to the airport, I could tell that he got it. He was excited. How many people can catch all that in such a short period of time? His ability, his knowledge and his talent is incredible. I was so privileged to be able to work with him.
MT: I know you’ve worked with several other players on low post game, most recently Dwight Howard. Has anybody ever gotten things as quickly as Kobe?
Olajuwon: No … No. I mean, look at what he’s coming in to start with! He has all these weapons. I showed him one move, and told him to use his reflexes as a guard, and he got it. Just by saying that to him, it clicked. All the moves were different from that point on. His reflexes are incredible. He’s a big guard, but he’s as quick as a little guy.
MT: How different is it teaching a big man like Howard?
Olajuwon: The moves I taught to Howard are different from what I worked on with Kobe. He also has tremendous athletic ability, but the moves are a lot different because Kobe can move differently. For example, I didn’t do a lot of jump hooks with Kobe, but I would do a lot with Dwight. It took three days with Dwight. We had more time, and I give him tremendous credit also. But Kobe’s a guard posting up, and that’s always an (advantage). I’m a big guy, but when I face up my opponent, at that time I’m a small forward, I’m not a center any more. When Kobe’s posting his guy, he’s playing center. To have that kind of freedom, and (focus on) reading and reacting is the name of the game. If I’m bigger than a guy, why try to beat him outside? Go post him up. If you can do that like Kobe can (in addition to his other guard skills), it gives you something against everybody.
MT: How do you put what Kobe’s done thus far in his career into context?
Olajuwon: People always compare Kobe with Michael Jordan, and that’s the highest level of achievement right there. Even being mentioned with MJ is the ultimate compliment. When Jordan retired, you just thought a player like that wouldn’t come along again. But then Kobe almost immediately drew those comparisons, and that says it all. He established his own identity as one of the best players to ever play the game.
MT: If you look at the Top 10 all-time scorers, Kobe and Jordan are the only guards other than Oscar Robertson, who’s now 10th. Kobe used the word “feisty” to describe how the “little guys” got in there.
Olajuwon: Well, the two guard is the toughest position, the most athletic position. The average two would be a superstar at the four or five position with the skill set. So, for someone to dominate at the most difficult, the hardest position, it’s just something else. Both what set Kobe and Michael apart was that they were too big for most 2’s, and too mobile for most 3’s, so they have the advantage over most everybody. Very, very seldom do you find a player that matches up with them. If they’re as tall, they don’t have the same athletic ability or skills. Of course, it’s not just about having those physical advantages. The confidence and desire about their ability that they have, you can’t teach. It’s just a gift. That combination together? That’s a true leader that leads their team over and over to a championship. Individual accomplishments? Kobe is not worried about that, he just wants the championships. He’s a big picture guy. He’s playing to win, and when you play to win, everything else will follow. He’s scoring because he sees the opportunity to score.
MT: That’s a good way to put it, with Jordan and Bryant really being that rare combination of physical and mental gifts.
Olajuwon: Yes, it’s so much more than just one or the other. Talent and intelligence and motivation.
MT: Having spent some time with Kobe and taught him some things, what have you seen from him since?
Olajuwon: First of all, I was a fan of his before we worked together. I just have a tremendous admiration for him that he’s reached that level and is still wishing to improve. That says a lot. But now, I try to give him his space and I watch for an opportunity that we could get together again. But I don’t try to follow up. He knows where I am, and when he came to town, we had a chance to discuss how he’s feeling and how he feels about the moves. It was great (when L.A. played at Houston last season), especially when he winked at me. That was a treat.
MT: Finally, I wanted to relay to you what Kobe said earlier this week after a Lakers practice. Quote: “"In my opinion, he is the best post player ever, with all due respect to Kevin McHale. Hakeem was phenominal."
Olajuwon: Wow, what an honor for him to say that. Coming from him that is the ultimate compliment for me.