HOUSTON - Some scenes are not easily forgotten. Certain images attach themselves to the mind’s eye and linger long after the moment of origin has passed.
When Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard set foot onto the Toyota Center floor Monday afternoon, there was little doubt a series of indelible memories was about to be created for the dozen or so people on hand to bear witness to what was about to take place. With 26 All-Star appearances and five NBA championships to their name, these titans came together to share secrets and impart knowledge that few posses and fewer still can comprehend.
Of course, each and every one of those world championships belongs to the two men who are already Hall of Famers and charter members of the club recognizing the 50 greatest to have ever played the game. McHale’s and Olajuwon’s legacies are secure, their credentials operating as an eternal testament to their singular greatness and voluminous achievements. They are rightfully regarded as two of the premier low-post tacticians of all time, a status that has earned them a permanent place in the hallowed, mythical fortress that houses basketball’s preeminent behemoths.
On the other side of that door stands Howard, a highly-decorated, prodigiously gifted seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, yet also a man still very much in the process of shaping his own hoops legacy and attempting to master the art that McHale and Olajuwon ultimately perfected during their playing days. At the age of 27, his journey has brought him to Houston where the beginning of a new chapter awaits. So here he stands, a chiseled, bouncy basketball Adonis in a black compression shirt and shorts down to his knees, eager and willing to prostrate himself before this dual-pronged fount of knowledge, all in an attempt to soak in as much wisdom as these two sages are willing to share (which is, quite simply, everything).
Howard watches and he listens. His gaze never wavers while McHale hammers home the importance of mastering the fundamentals and taking pride in one’s craft. When Olajuwon demonstrates the deft and dazzling intricacies of the low-post dance he still performs with the flair and balletic grace of a man half his age, Howard takes it all in with equal parts reverence and understanding. And when both gurus implore him to get lower and deeper into his stance upon receiving the ball on the block, Howard heeds their words and incorporates this bit of knowledge with the awareness that doing so will only make him even more explosive when embarking upon his forays to the basket.
Of course one doesn’t learn at the feet of da Vinci and Dali one day and start creating worthy masterpieces the next. This is simply the beginning of a long process that promises to play itself out on a regular basis over the days, weeks, months and years to come. Howard specifically asked Olajuwon and McHale to work with him this week before he departs for Asia on Thursday. Since Dream will soon become an official member of the Rockets organization once more, these workouts will occur every time Olajuwon returns to Houston (he says he’ll next be back in town to work with Howard and Houston’s other bigs during the preseason). And of course McHale will be around every day once training camp begins, giving him ample time to tutor his prized pupil on the finer points of the slippery eel and other low post gadgetry.
“Having these guys in my backyard and have them pushing me to the limit is just going to make me better,” said Howard after his 90-minute workout wrapped up. “It’s not about emulating Dream. That’s the thing. We get caught up in comparing players, trying to do what this guys does just because you work with him. The thing is, when you workout with a guy like Hakeem or Kevin McHale, you take away certain things. You don’t try to do everything they can do. I could workout with Michael Jordan, but I’m not going to be able to shoot the fadeaway like Michael Jordan.
“The biggest thing when we’re working out is I’m always watching his feet. Today we were working on spin moves and I was doing a spin move with my left foot in the back and I saw him doing it with his right. So once I caught that, I adjusted. It’s little things like that where you see something and you put your own mix to it – that’s what makes it great.
“We’ve been working out for years and I’ve never tried to be Hakeem Olajuwon. We made jokes about the Dream shake – he’d call mine the milk shake – but I don’t want to say I’m going to be like Hakeem Olajuwon. The moves we’re doing and how we’re doing them, it’s not about doing it just like Hakeem or doing them just like McHale. It’s about understanding why and how you do certain moves.”
To that end, every time Olajuwon demonstrates a move he makes sure to explain not just the how, but the why of it as well. He wants each and every dribble Howard takes to be made with the exact same movement every time; the better to mask his intent while formulating a plan to chain one move and one counter to the next. He wants his protégé to dominate, and he knows that can only be done by employing a mastery that is just as much mental as physical. He wants the 27-year-old to understand the impact he can have on the game even when the ball isn’t in his hands; a point hammered home when McHale emphasized how a hard roll to the rim can be all it takes to draw in the defense, allowing his teammates along the perimeter acres of space to launch those precious corner treys.
This is the arsenal these legends are offering. This is the mindset they want to instill. And they come equipped with a wealth of knowledge and experience so encyclopedic and expansive that even Olajuwon himself appeared somewhat awestruck by what had just taken place on an otherwise uneventful Monday afternoon.
“Standing there with Coach McHale, for me as a big guy, it was incredible to listen to what he was teaching and to see the look in his eyes, realizing his basketball IQ and understanding of the game,” Olajuwon said. “I was just thinking, ‘Wow, how lucky (Howard) is to be with two Hall of Famers, adding true value to his development.’
“As good as he is right now, he’s still very raw. But he has all the tools so I’m like a kid in a candy store. That’s why we give him the fundamentals of these moves. There’s a rhythm. And once he sees it, then it’s easier to emulate and then incorporate with power. He has the power. Now we’re adding finesse to the power.
“The best big men in the game - they’re game-changers. That’s what he is. And he’s in the right situation where the coach understands it, he demands it, and Dwight can give it.”
This is how it begins. Howard is keenly aware of everything that’s been said about both him and his decision this summer. He knows all too well that the sweetest sounding words in August can turn sour in less than a year. He realizes all the talk of improvement and maturation mean little if the actions that follow don’t back them up. But that’s why he’s here right now – not just for a fresh start, but also to stand beside these greats, to watch, to listen and to learn from them in order to ensure he delivers on every ounce of promise and potential he possesses.
“I just feel like having guys like Hakeem and Kevin McHale on my side, I can’t lose,” he says. “They’re going to really stay on me and that’s what I want. I want Coach to hold me accountable. I want my teammates to hold me accountable and to push me which in turn will make everybody better because I’m going to push these guys the same way they’re pushing me.
“Everything Hakeem has done has been positive and geared toward helping me grow. He told me, ‘I see something in you.’ He wants me to dominate. So this is it. This is the right place for me. This was about putting myself in the opportunity to win and to make myself the best player I can be.”
That’s why he’s here. To lay waste to the demons of his past. To build a future filled with banners, rings and parades. To cement his own legacy. To knock on the door of that mythical fortress and earn a seat at the table next to the two titans now tasked with the next stage of his apprenticeship. And to author many, many more of those indelible scenes and images that will forever linger in the minds of those who hope to watch him make the transformation from All-Star to legend.