During his 18-year career, Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon staked his claim as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Long considered a physical marvel since his days at the University of Houston, his aesthetic and productive play — highlighted by his Houston Rockets’ back-to-back NBA titles — earned him a place among the game’s best.
In 1993-94 he had a storybook season, becoming the first player to be named NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. The following season he rallied the Rockets from a sixth seed in the playoffs to their second straight NBA crown, making Houston the fifth NBA franchise ever to win back-to-back titles.
Olajuwon was the third of six children and acquired the basic values that pushed him to succeed from his parents, who were middle-class and owned a cement business in Lagos, Nigeria.
“They taught us to be honest, work hard, respect our elders, believe in ourselves,” the NBA great has said.
Olajuwon, which translates into “always being on top,” began playing basketball at the late age of 15. Olajuwon’s high school, the Muslim Teachers College, was an entry in the basketball tournament at the All-Nigeria Teachers Sports Festival in Sokoto — but Olajuwon was on the handball team. A fellow student approached the coach and asked if Olajuwon could play for the team. Permission was granted and a basketball superstar was born.
Two years later he enrolled at the University of Houston under the name of Akeem Abdul Olajuwon. He dropped references to “Abdul” prior to entering the NBA and officially adopted “Hakeem” on March 9, 1991. To paraphrase Shakespeare; a great basketball player by any other name is still a great basketball player.
Although his athletic career began as a soccer goalkeeper and handball player, which ultimately helped give him the footwork and agility to balance his overpowering strength and size in basketball, he quickly became a dominating player at Houston. He played three seasons at Houston and help push the Cougars into the Final Four each year.
In 1982, Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were on a Houston squad that made it to the NCAA semifinals but lost 68-63 to the North Carolina Tar Heels, led by James Worthy and Michael Jordan. The next year in the semifinals, the Cougars — by this time known as “Phi Slamma Jamma” for their above-the-rim play — soared above an equally athletic Louisville squad 94-81 in perhaps the most exciting end-to-end, high-flying act the NCAA Final Four has ever seen. However, the Cougars were upset 54-52 in a thrilling championship game on a shot at the buzzer by North Carolina State, an overwhelming underdog.
In 1983-84, Olajuwon averaged 16.8 points and led the NCAA in rebounding (13.5 rpg), blocked shots (5.6 per game) and field-goal percentage (.675). He was a First Team All-America selection that season, but Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas defeated Olajuwon’s Cougars 84-75 in the championship game.
After the Rockets won a coin flip with the Portland Trail Blazers for the first pick in the 1984 NBA Draft — one year before the institution of the Draft Lottery — Houston selected Olajuwon. Although the talented Jordan was also available (he would be picked third by the Chicago Bulls), almost all in the basketball world thought Olujawon was the correct selection at No. 1.
One year earlier, the Rockets won a coin flip with the Indiana Pacers, allowing the franchise to select the University of Virginia’s Ralph Sampson. Thus, the fickle flips of a coin created the “Twin Towers” of 7-foot Olajuwon and 7-foot-4 Sampson — two agile giants.
In his rookie year, Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting .538 from the field and finished second to Jordan in Rookie of the Year balloting. The Rockets went from a 29-53 record before Olajuwon’s arrival to a 48-34 mark, but they were eliminated in five games by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1985 NBA Playoffs.
Olajuwon ranked fourth in the league in rebounding and second in blocked shots with 2.68 per game. He played in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. He and Sampson became the first teammates since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor in 1970 to both average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The next year, Olajuwon and Sampson powered the Rockets into the 1986 NBA Finals. On the way there, they defeated the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game Western Conference Finals. In the series’ final three games, Olajuwon scored 40, 35 and 30 points to lead the Rockets. The Boston Celtics, champs in 1981 and 1984, had a formidable front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and defeated the Rockets in six games.
In 1986-87, Sampson began to suffer from injuries and the following season he was traded to the Golden State Warriors. Olajuwon’s production simply increased as he developed into one of the game’s top big men. Olajuwon led the Rockets in 13 statistical categories, including scoring, rebounding, steals and blocked shots. He began a string of selections to the All-NBA First Team (1987 to 1989) and NBA All-Defensive First Team (1987, 1988 and 1990), and was the starting center for the Western Conference All-Stars four years in a row (1987-90).
Olajuwon regularly placed among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals. He won rebounding titles in 1989 and 1990, averaging 13.5 and 14.0 boards, respectively. And in 1989 he became the first player to finish among the league’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocked shots for two straight seasons. That same year against the Milwaukee Bucks, Olajuwon had 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists, recording the rare quadruple-double. He also led the NBA in blocked shots in 1989-90 with 4.59 per game and in 1990-91 at 3.95 per contest.
During this run, Olajuwon came back from two serious injuries. He took an elbow in the eye from the Chicago Bulls’ Bill Cartwright in the middle of the 1990-91 season, suffering a blowout fracture of the bones that surround the eyeball and forcing him to miss the Rockets’ next 25 games. In 1991-92, he missed seven contests early in the season after an episode of atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat).
Despite Olajuwon’s play, the Rockets had settled into mediocrity since the team’s trip to the NBA Finals in 1986 — Houston didn’t win a playoff series from 1988 through 1992. But beginning in 1992-93, midway through his career, Olajuwon got even better, taking himself and the Rockets to new levels of success.
Because of stagnated contract negotiations, many thought he had played his last game for Houston at the end of the 1991-92 campaign. But on a flight to Japan, where the Rockets played the first two games of the 1992-93 season against the Seattle SuperSonics, Olajuwon and Houston owner Charlie Thomas smoothed out their differences. In the next three seasons he would average 26.1 points, 27.3 points and 27.8 points, respectively.
Whether the contract squabbles had affected Olajuwon’s 1991-92 performance may never be known, but that year he failed to make an All-NBA Team or an NBA All-Defensive Team for the first time in his career. And he certainly experienced a resurgence in 1992-93. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich began his first full season with the Rockets, preaching defense and imploring the team to feed off of Olajuwon’s energy.
The eight-year veteran, who later in the season became a naturalized United States citizen on April 2, 1993, was simply spectacular throughout the year. He averaged 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 4.17 blocks, which established him as the league-leader in blocked shots for the third time in four seasons. More importantly, he led a Rockets team that had finished 42-40 the previous year to a 55-27 mark and the Midwest Division championship.
At season’s end, Olajuwon finished second to Charles Barkley in the voting for the NBA Most Valuable Player award. He was also named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the first time, while reclaiming spots on the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Akin to an athlete who shared his faith of Islam, Muhammad Ali, who devised the strategy of the rope-a-dope later in is career, Olajuwon introduced a new line of spins, fadeaway shots and jumpers, and he became virtually unstoppable on offense. The man called “Hakeem the Dream” had now developed a set of patented moves involving great footwork with ball and head fakes with either his back to the basket or facing opponents abusing defenders. All of which became known as the “Dream Shake.”
During the 1995 postseason run culminating in Houston’s second NBA championship, the Rockets defeated the San Antonio Spurs and the Orlando Magic, two teams with great centers who were left bewildered by Olajuwon’s moves.
In a Life magazine story, San Antonio’s David Robinson seemed perplexed. “Solve Hakeem?” said Robinson. “You don’t solve Hakeem.”
Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal felt the same way after going down in a Finals sweep . “He’s got about five moves, then four countermoves,” said a stunned O’Neal. ” That gives him 20 moves.”
This new Olajuwon had evolved after the dispute with management prompted him to reflect and then rededicate himself. His maturation as a player and in his faith carried onto the floor as a team leader, offensive powerhouse and defensive stalwart.
The transformation was apparent when the Rockets advanced to the 1993 Western Conference Semifinals. However, the team lost a tough Game 7, 103-100 in overtime, against a Seattle SuperSonics team led by Gary Payton and a young, explosive Shawn Kemp.
But in 1993-94, Olajuwon attained the pinnacle of achievement when he won both the league and NBA Finals MVP awards while leading Houston to its first-ever NBA crown. Following a brilliant regular season, the Houston center also earned his second straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The Rockets won the title after a grueling seven-game defeat of the Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks. The center’s defensive prowess put an end to the Knicks’ attempt to win the series in Game 6, when he blocked John Starks’ potential game-tying three-point shot at the end of the game. The 10-year veteran was simply brilliant in the Finals, contributing 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.86 blocks per game.
In 1994-95, Olajuwon had a career-best 27.8 ppg along with 10.8 rpg. Despite Olajuwon’s impressive performance, the league’s Most Valuable Player Award went to Robinson after he led the Spurs to the NBA’s best record. Olajuwon also became the Rockets’ all-time leading scorer when he passed Calvin Murphy early in the season. In February, Olajuwon was reunited with college teammate Drexler, who came over from the Portland Trail Blazers in a trade for forward Otis Thorpe.
While trying to adjust to Drexler’s presence, the Rockets closed out the season in bumpy fashion and entered the playoffs seeded sixth in the Western Conference. But Drexler was terrific in the playoffs and Olajuwon averaged 33.0 points on .531 shooting from the field, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.81 blocks per game in the postseason as Houston captured its second consecutive title. Matched against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points to Robinson’s 25.5.
In the NBA Finals, Houston met the Magic and the league’s great young center, O’Neal. The two big men had similar numbers as Olajuwon averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists to O’Neal’s 28.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. But the Rockets swept the series, making Houston the fifth NBA franchise to win back-to-back titles. For his spectacular play, Olajuwon was awarded his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP award.
Olajuwon believes that his religious faith supported his drive to a great career. During an NBA season he observes Islam’s Ramadan, which includes periods of fasting. He would awaken before dawn to eat precisely seven dates — the traditional Muslim fast-breaking food — and to drink a gallon of water. He would follow with a prayer for strength and have no food or liquid until sunset.
When he played an afternoon game, he would pant for water — but did not drink a drop. Still, he would say, “I find myself full of energy, explosive. And when I break the fast at sunset, the taste of water is so precious.”
This transcendent dedication and performance earned him mention among the greatest winners in recent history, including Jordan, Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas.
After winning the championships, Olajuwon maintained his productive play over the next two seasons. However, the team was swept by the Sonics in the 1996 conference semifinals. And even with the addition of Barkley before the 1996-97 season, which reinvigorated the Rockets, the team lost in six games to the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.
Beginning in the 1997-98 season, Olajuwon began to miss time due to injuries and played just 47 games that year. He returned to play close to a full schedule during the lockout season of 1998-99. However, his production was slipping and he played just two more years in Houston, averaging less than 12.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg. He retired after playing one season for the Toronto Raptors in 2001-02, interrupting 20 years, including his college career, of playing in the city of Houston.
His impact in the city, however, did not go unrecognized. The Rockets’ all-time leader at the time of his retirement in a host of categories, including points, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots (All-time NBA leader with 3,830) had his jersey No. 34 retired on Nov. 9, 2002. At the ceremony, it was announced that a life-sized statue of Olajuwon would be on display at the Rockets’ new downtown arena, scheduled to open for the 2003-04 season.
However, due to Olajuwon’s strict Muslim beliefs, the Rockets instead unveiled a bronze monument honoring Olajuwon outside the arena in 2006. Two years later, Olajuwon would receive another honor: induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Ironically enough, Ewing was part of the class, too, providing another link between the longtime on-court rivals.
Following his playing days, Olajuwon spent many NBA offseasons teaching some of the league’s young stars — including Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire and others — ways to improve their footwork in the post.
In 2015, Olajuwon made a brief return to the court as a part of the NBA Africa Game. Olajuwon suited up for Team Africa in his No. 34 Rockets jersey and pulled off a turn-around jumper that delighted the current NBA stars on the Team Africa and Team World rosters.