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Monday April 7, 2008 1:39 PM


Olajuwon selected to '08 Hall of Fame Class


Former Rockets great chosen in his first year of eligibility





Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- During an NBA career that spanned almost two decades, Hakeem Olajuwon established himself as one of the greatest centers in league history with a collection of moves never before seen by a big man.

On Monday, he spun his way right into the Hall of Fame.

The Rockets legend was one of seven basketball icons selected Monday for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The 2008 Hall of Fame class includes New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing, coaching legend Pat Riley, ESPN television broadcaster Dick Vitale, NBA star Adrian Dantley, women's basketball pioneer and Immaculata University coach Cathy Rush and Detroit Pistons and Shock owner Bill Davidson.

The former Rockets center was selected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Olajuwon and Co. will be enshrined on Sept. 6 in Springfield, Mass., home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"Growing up in Nigeria, I didn't really understand the magnitude of what it means to be a Hall of Famer," Olajuwon said. "Coming from Nigeria, my first Final Four was very difficult to digest what it meant. It's the same with being a Hall of Famer. It's a great honor. I still cannot believe I'm in the same company with all these great legends."

The big man known simply as "The Dream" is the NBA's all-time leading shot blocker and set himself apart from the game's other giants with an array of spin moves and twists that have never been duplicated in the post. By leading his team to two NBA championships with his fluid moves, Olajuwon is widely considered the greatest player in franchise history.

Olajuwon carried the Rockets to back-to-back crowns in 1994 and 1995. During the title run in 1994, the 7-footer became the first – and so far, only -- player in NBA history to be named the league's MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. The Nigerian-born center was arguably the league's most dominating player during the franchise's championship seasons as Houston became the fifth team in league history to win consecutive titles.

Before the 12-time NBA All-Star reached the height of his stardom, Olajuwon was a local legend at the University of Houston. He arrived from Lagos, Nigeria after developing his footwork and balance as a soccer player, picking up basketball as a teenager. Relying on those intangibles and getting lessons in Houston from a future Hall of Famer in Moses Malone, Olajuwon blossomed into a college star on the hardwood.

"When you play against a guy like Moses, it can't help but make you better," Olajuwon said.

He guided the Cougars to consecutive NCAA Tournament national championship game appearances and became widely known as a member of Houston's "Phi Slamma Jamma" fraternity. The team, which included future NBA star and Rockets teammate Clyde Drexler, earned the nickname for its rim-rattling play.

Despite coming up short in his quest to lead Houston to an NCAA title, Olajuwon was widely regarded as the most talented player heading into the 1984 NBA Draft. The Rockets won a coin flip against the Portland Trail Blazers for the first selection and, unsurprisingly, took the big man who had been creating a stir on the college campus across town.

Olajuwon's arrival to the Rockets formed yet another famed tandem in Houston basketball lore. Since the Rockets had won a coin flip for the top pick in the draft one season earlier, the franchise already had a 7-footer on the roster in 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. By adding Olajuwon, the Rockets suddenly had one of the league's biggest front lines. The duo was nicknamed, "The Twin Towers."

Instantly, the Rockets became a force in the Western Conference. Houston bounced back from a 29-win season in 1983-84 to finish Olajuwon’s rookie season with a 48-34 record. He finished second to Chicago's Michael Jordan in the Rookie of the Year race.

While the franchise made a first-round playoff exit in his first season, Olajuwon's emergence set the stage for a deeper run in his sophomore season. The center guided the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals, marking only the second time in franchise history that Houston reached the championship round. Despite dropping the championship in six games to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, Olajuwon cemented his stature as one of the league's most talented big men with his play. He helped the Rockets defeat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, scoring over 30 points in the final three games of a series that would last five games.

Eventually, Olajuwon would become a one-man act. The franchise traded Sampson to Golden State in 1987 after Olajuwon’s partner started having injury problems. Still, Olajuwon's production soared and his notoriety increased. He became a regular in the All-Star Game, consistently planting his name among the league's leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals. He claimed rebounding crowns in 1989 and 1990 and led the league in blocked shots in 1990, 1991 and 1993. During a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989, Olajuwon became the third player in league history to record a quadruple-double with 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists.

Olajuwon developed an assortment of moves that had never been seen in the paint. While most pivots were known for their plodding style and back-to-the-basket moves, the Rockets center whirled around defenders with a series of head fakes, spins and fadeaway jumpers. His footwork became his trademark and his assortment of dazzling moves became known as "The Dream Shake."

"'The Dream Shake' was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball," Olajuwon said. "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."

Despite Olajuwon's rise in play, the Rockets weren't one of the league's elite teams until Rudy Tomjanovich took over the team as coach in 1992. Under Tomjanovich, the center became a more willing passer and the front office surrounded his low-post skills with talented perimeter shooters.

"Olajuwon always added something to his game over the summer," said former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson, who was an assistant coach with the organization before moving into the front office. "That's what all the great players do and that's what he did. He might be known for the jump hook, but he could do so many things. We didn't actually start winning with him big time until he learned to pass the ball. We'd talk before every summer about what he was going to work on and he'd come back in the fall with something added to his game. He worked."

His scoring numbers, however, continued to rise as he became a more efficient offensive player. He, in fact, became virtually unstoppable in his peers' eyes. He guided the Rockets to a 55-win season in 1992-93, but the Rockets came up short in their first serious bid at a title run in almost a decade. The team dropped a disappointing seven-game series in the Western Conference semifinals to the Seattle Supersonics.

However, a season later, Olajuwon helped transform Houston into 'Clutch City.' He capped off a brilliant season in which he was named the league’s MVP by leading the Rockets to the franchise’s first title in 1994. Squaring off against New York’s Patrick Ewing during the NBA Finals, he helped the Rockets outlast the Knicks in a grueling seven-game series. Olajuwon sealed victory in Game 6 by blocking a potential game-tying three-pointer by John Starks and ended the series averaging a whopping 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.86 blocks. He was the MVP of the Finals as the Rockets became the first professional sports team in over three decades to win a championship.

"He's been a thorn in my side for many years," said Ewing, who also faced Olajuwon in college. "We've accomplished a lot. He's from Nigeria and I'm from Jamaica so we didn't know the game. The first time I went against him was in the NCAA Tournament. I thought, 'Jesus God, this man is so strong and so agile.' He's an amazing competitor. We've had our battles over the years. Unfortunately, he has one that I would have loved to have won in '94."

The center was even better the following season. Coming off his first title run, Olajuwon averaged a career-best 27.8 points per game in 1994-95. The Rockets, however, struggled and ultimately made a midseason trade with Portland to acquire Drexler, Olajuwon’s former college teammate. With the duo taking time to adjust together, the Rockets earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Stunningly, Olajuwon and Drexler found a groove in the postseason and the Rockets regained their championship swagger. Olajuwon played perhaps his most dominating stretch of basketball over the title run. He upstaged San Antonio center David Robinson – the man who had beat him out for the MVP award in the regular season -- in the Western Conference finals. He bewildered the Spurs big man with his low post moves, averaging 35.3 points in the series to Robinson’s 25.5 points.

"He was so strong and well-balanced," Robinson said. "I always had pride in myself as a good defensive player and Hakeem -- when he was on -- was really not stoppable. He had everything from that fadeaway, fall-away jump shot on the baseline to the hook shots in the paint. You could take one thing away, but you couldn't take everything away. During the playoffs in 1995, it was a level of frustration I hadn't really experienced before that."

Olajuwon carried that momentum into the 1995 NBA Finals, leading the Rockets to a four-game sweep over Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic. He finished the playoffs by averaging 33.0 points and 10.3 rebounds. For his efforts, Olajuwon won his second straight NBA Finals MVP award.

Olajuwon considers winning the championships his greatest accomplishment.

"It would be winning the championships," Olajuwon said. "I didn't win a championship in college and it took me a while in the NBA. It was a great moment for the team and the city of Houston."

The center remained productive over the next few seasons, but never returned to the NBA’s biggest stage. Olajuwon ended up playing 17 seasons in Houston before finishing his career with the Toronto Raptors in 2001-02. During his career with the Rockets, he became the franchise's all-time leader in 26 categories, including scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. The Nigerian-born center even became a U.S. citizen and helped the U.S. national men’s basketball team win a gold medal in 1996.

The man who became one of the game's greatest big men had his No. 34 retired by the franchise in 2002.

Now, he's heading into the Hall of Fame.

"I've accomplished so much over my career," Olajuwon said. "It's an honor, especially when you learn about the legends of the past."