NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Hakeem Olajuwon

A 2-time NBA champion, Hakeem 'The Dream' Olajuwon is considered a pioneer among international players who helped transform the NBA in quality of play as well as global popularity.

The Dream.

That’s the man. That’s his life.

Sure, it’s an easy rhyming nickname, in the tradition of Wilt the Stilt and Stan the Man. But it’s what that moniker tells us about Hakeem Olajuwon, how well it fits his improbable journey from a soccer pitch in Lagos, Nigeria, to the heights of professional basketball and enshrinement in the sport’s Hall of Fame, that takes it to a new level.

That, and the dazzling yet sublime nature of his individual game.

He hit his teens, one of six children in a middle-class home in Africa, looking as if he might become the world’s tallest soccer goalkeeper. He reportedly didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 16 years old, a classmate imploring him to try the sport.

A few years later, when he was a sophomore at the University of Houston, one of the Cougars’ assistant coaches told the New York Times: “Down the road, I see him as a cross between Bill Russell on defense and Moses Malone on offense.”

Bold talk, sure. And remarkably prescient. A quarter century later, in 2008, Olajuwon took his spot alongside Russell and Malone in the Springfield, Mass., shrine, acclaimed as one of the best centers in hoops history. He took with him 12 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA slots, nine All-Defensive appearances, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, one MVP and two Finals MVP trophies, and a pair of NBA championship rings.

Olajuwon was a pioneer among international players who have transformed the NBA in quality of play as well as global popularity. His pride in his heritage and commitment to humanitarian efforts back home are profound. And yet, after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993, he was able to represent the nation that opened up his world for him, to riches, fame, achievements and more.

Olajuwon joined a group of other NBA superstars such as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and more to win a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The Dream, in other words, was a member of “Dream Team II.”

Archive 75: Hakeem Olajuwon

The tale of the 1984 NBA Draft that most folks remember goes like this: Because the Portland Trail Blazers already had young Clyde Drexler at shooting guard, they didn’t need the kid from North Carolina named Michael Jordan. So with the second pick, they stuck with NBA conventional wisdom of the time and went big, picking Sam Bowie. Oops.

What hardly anyone, either then or in the years since, talked much about was the Houston Rockets already having an alleged game-changing center. One year earlier, they had drafted 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, at No. 1 overall.  The four-year Virginia star averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, went to the All-Star Game and was named Rookie of the Year.

Didn’t stop Houston, which had won a coin flip with Portland, from grabbing Olajuwon first in a draft that also yielded Jordan, Barkley and John Stockton. He was a consensus pick, the proverbial “best player available” whose skills compelled the Rockets to take him and sort things out later with Sampson.

Or not. The tall tandem known as the “Twin Towers” tantalized and for a while terrorized the league. From a 29-53 record in Sampson’s first season, the Rockets improved to 48-34 with Olajuwon as a rookie and 51-31 a year later.

Neither was a traditional center in appearance or game. Sampson was a super-elongated finesse guy who loved to shoot mid-range jump shots. Olajuwon was a sinewy, coiled 7-footer, light on his feet, eager to run.

Their pairing was fascinating. They went to three All-Star Games together before injuries started to limit Sampson, with the Rockets trading him in December 1987.

Olajuwon’s production and potential were so impressive, One Tower was going to be enough.

Olajuwon was 21 when he made his NBA debut at Dallas’ Reunion Arena on Oct. 27, 1984. In 28 minutes, he scored a team-high 24 points with nine rebounds, teaming with Sampson (19 points, 13 boards) to outplay the Mavericks’ rookie big man Sam Perkins and whoever helped.

Much of Olajuwon’s repertoire was on display from that opening night: Great mobility, a nose for the basket, running to the rim to clean up teammates’ misses, and more. But it was his defense, alongside Sampson, that wowed the analysts. Houston was on its way from a bottom five to top five NBA defense.

hakeem olajuwon

During Olajuwon’s college years, he would participate in some intense summer pick-up basketball in Houston, a popular city with NBA players in the offseason. He found himself banging with the legendary Moses Malone, who played for the Rockets from 1976-1982 and won two of his NBA MVP awards there.

Eight years Olajuwon’s senior, Malone was 6-foot-10, 210 pounds of “country strong” brute force, pummeling the younger man each time they met (often in front of large crowds).

Those random games fast-tracked Olajuwon’s development through three trips to the NCAA Final Four, including two championship games, and prepped him for the NBA’s physical play in the paint. He handled it fine as a rookie and did even better in Year 2. By the end, the Rockets weren’t content just to earn a playoff berth as they had in 1985. They had loftier goals.

So after winning the Midwest Division, they bounced Sacramento out of the best-of-five first round in three games. They needed six games to oust Denver. Then they faced the “Showtime” Lakers, who had run up a 62-20 record. The previous spring, with Magic Johnson, a still-formidable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a well-oiled supporting cast, L.A. had won its third NBA championship in six seasons.

They spanked the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, despite Olajuwon’s 28 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks and 10-of-14 shooting. Houston turned that into a gentleman’s sweep, though, winning the next four games by a total of 30 points.

The Rockets crashed what many figured, the way the decade was going, would be another Celtics-Lakers showdown in the Finals. They lost to an ’86 Boston team that many pitch as perhaps the greatest in NBA history. Against that renowned front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Olajuwon averaged 24.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 blocked shots and 2.3 steals.

And he served notice that, after much work to come, he eventually would be back.

One of the hallmarks of Olajuwon’s all-around game was a statistical achievement known in NBA circles as a “5X5.” It means cramming a box score with at least five points, five rebounds, five assists, five blocked shots and five steals.

Quirky? Sure. But it’s rare, too, and gives a sense of a player’s overall impact – almost at a whirling dervish level – on a game. There have been about two dozen such performances in NBA history – or at least since 1973, when blocks and steals actually started to be tracked as official stats.

The Rockets’ star had six in his career, one each in 1987, 1990 and 1992, with three in 1993.

Of the other players who have done it, only one has done it more than once (Andrei Kirilenko, 3).

As long as we’re talking quirky numbers, this is the space to note that Olajuwon also is one of only four NBA players to log a quadruple-double.

By now, everyone knows about triple-doubles – reaching double-digits in three categories, most often points, rebounds, and assists. Upping the ante to a quadruple-double means getting at least 10 blocks or steals as well.

Olajuwon got his on March 29, 1990, in a home victory over Milwaukee, filling up the scoresheet with 18 points, 16 boards, 10 assists and 11 blocks.

The others: Chicago’s Nate Thurmond in 1974, followed by San Antonio’s Alvin Robertson in 1986 and David Robinson in 1994.

What few people know is that 26 days earlier on March 3 against Golden State, Olajuwon went for 29 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists and 11 blocked shots.

So only four guys over a span of the 49 years it was possible (remember about the blocks and steals) managed to do it. But one of them almost did it twice — in the same month.

Hakeem Olajuwon wins the MVP

Olajuwon was at the peak of his powers by the 1993-94 season. He had rededicated himself to his craft. He had honed his play in the post — really, in the mid-range out to 15 feet or more. He was in remarkable shape with an invigorated group of teammates.

And while it didn’t hurt that the NBA’s reigning dynasty in Chicago was now without Jordan, we’re not about to attach any asterisk to what the Rockets did that season. Somebody was going to win that season, and there were a lot of viable contenders.

All Olajuwon did was become the first player to be named MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same season. He led the Rockets on the offensive end (27.3 points per game), involved them with a career-best 3.6 assists, anchored them on the defensive end (11.9 rebounds, 3.7 blocks), and sparked them on and off the court as a leader.

When former NBA commissioner David Stern presented him with his MVP trophy during that playoff run, Olajuwon made a point not just to thank his teammates in an acceptance speech. He carried the trophy over to them so each could get a hand on it, the way each had a hand in helping him win it.

It was the equivalent of Mike Eruzione waving all his 1980 “Miracle On Ice” teammates onto the gold-medal platform at the Lake Placid Olympics.

1994 NBA Finals Game 1: New York Knicks vs. Houston Rockets

Two men enter, one walks out.

That “Thunderdome” cage-match creed had played out once before in the careers of Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. When both were in college, it was Ewing’s Georgetown team topping Olajuwon and Houston to win the 1984 NCAA men’s championship at Seattle Kingdome. Olajuwon made his announcement about turning pro immediately after that game.

Over the next nine seasons, the two Hall of Fame centers had plenty of interconference clashes, real ones in regular-season games between the Knicks and the Rockets and a bunch of easier ones in All-Star play.

Then came the 1994 Finals, with New York and Houston both slogging their way to the championship round. The Knicks needed 18 games, the Rockets 16, to survive three rounds and set up the Finals showdown between the old nemeses.

The NBA at the time was a lower-scoring, defensive-minded game, with over/under totals often around 180 points. The Knicks epitomized and capitalized on that style, punishing foes with physical play. And they did it well enough to split the first two games in Houston.

In New York, the home team took two of three – including Game 5, which famously played out while TV viewers nationwide watched a picture-in-picture feed of the notorious O.J. Simpson slo-mo Ford Bronco chase on June 17.

In Game 6 two nights later, the Rockets fired back but needed a lunging Olajuwon fingertip to misdirect John Starks’ 3-point attempt with 5.5 seconds left to even the series.

In Game 7, people remember John Starks for his 2-of-18 shooting night but a better memory is this: Olajuwon outscoring and outplaying Ewing for his and his franchise’s first NBA championship. The 7-footer from Nigeria was the night’s leading scorer in each of the Finals’ seven games.

Archive 75: Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal

By the following spring, Jordan was back with the Bulls, a new giant center named Shaquille O’Neal roamed the league and the Rockets were bumping along in need of a transfusion. In February, they acquired Drexler, Olajuwon’s old college teammate, from Portland. That brought a learning curve, so by the end of the regular season, Houston was looking to defend its 1994 title from the sixth seed in the West.

What transpired was an arduous postseason climb, facing four consecutive series without home court advantage. The Rockets needed the maximum of five games against Utah in the opening round and seven to beat Phoenix in the West semifinals.

Next up: San Antonio. The Spurs had posted the league’s best record, 62-20, 15 games better than the Rockets. They were led by the magnificent David Robinson, who earned that season’s MVP. Unfortunately for The Admiral and his sailors, when the trophy presentation was made at The Alamodome, Olajuwon was in the house, standing at the other end of the court.

That trophy? His trophy from just a year earlier? He was not smiling.

“Do not worry,” Olajuwon reportedly said to Drexler, “we will get the big trophy.”

Robinson played a solid series, averaging 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.2 blocks while shooting 44.9%. Olajuwon, however, topped those numbers across the board, and not by a little: 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 4.2 blocks on 56% shooting.

His teammates saw him throw moves at Robinson — an eight-time All-Defense selection — they claimed never to have seen before. The performance across six games made Olajuwon’s work in the Finals against Orlando’s O’Neal seem anticlimactic.

Not at the end, though, when Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich praised his team but most pointedly Olajuwon, who won his second straight Finals MVP award. Tomjanovich’s timeless quote: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

“The Dream Shake” sounds like something that would be good, right? Too bad it left such a bad taste in so many opponents’ mouths.

Olajuwon’s work around the basket was marvelous to behold, a creative re-imagining of how low-post centers traditionally worked. Instead of anchoring himself on the right or left block, pounding his dribble while feeling for an advantage against the big guy cozied up to his back, Olajuwon worked fast and free.

With the bounce of a big cat and footwork that enabled him to pivot and spin multiple times in either direction, the Rockets’ legend seemed to be using ballet or ballroom dance moves to shake defenders and create space. Somehow he knew, though the guys guarding him never did, whether and when he would go this way. Or that way. Or when they’d least expect it, up.

Abdul-Jabbar had his hook shot, the most famous offensive weapon in NBA history. He unleashed it like the cannon and turret of a tank turning and aiming – a rolling, slow-paced move that carried a sense of inevitability as he stretched out his long arm to release the ball.

With Olajuwon, the entertainment and the gasps came before he ever left the floor. It was there in the wonder of daylight and distance he opened between him and those tasked with guarding him, the actual or perceived expressions of sheer puzzlement on the faces of those he duped.

Then he would punctuate it with a layup, a short jumper, a simple dunk. Like a magician revealing the card you knew he’d be showing all along.