Hakeem Olajuwon's Journey From Nigeria to the Basketball Hall of FameThis Friday, the Basketball Hall of Fame will enshrine seven new members: Adrian Dantley, William Davidson, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Pat Riley, Cathy Rush and Dick Vitale. Each of these inductees has an interesting life story but Olajuwon's is certainly the most remarkable and unlikely: the Nigerian native did not even play basketball until he was 17. Prior to that, he played soccer and handball, sports that helped him to hone the agility and fluidity that later characterized the unique way that he performed on the hardwood.
Nowadays, top high school basketball players become nationally known figures and young overseas prospects like Ricky Rubio are household names--at least in households that follow basketball. The basketball world was a lot different in 1980, when Olajuwon arrived in Houston with no fanfare and took a taxi cab from the airport to his meeting with University of Houston Coach Guy Lewis. Olajuwon was a raw prospect who redshirted his freshman season (1980-81) but he also was a marvelously talented athlete with a tremendous work ethic.
Olajuwon averaged 8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 2.5 bpg for Houston in 1981-82. He shot .607 from the field but just .563 from the free throw line and although he was already an intimidating defensive presence he had more personal fouls than blocked shots, averaging nearly three fouls a game despite barely playing 18 mpg. Still, Olajuwon helped the Cougars to make it to the Final Four, where they lost to the eventual champions, a North Carolina team led by James Worthy and Michael Jordan. During the summer, Olajuwon became a regular at the top notch pickup games at the legendary Fonde Recreation Center, where future Hall of Fame center Moses Malone held court and helped Olajuwon to refine and hone his skills.
That hard work enabled Olajuwon to improve his statistics across the board in 1982-83 (13.9 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 5.2 bpg, .611 field goal percentage, .595 free throw percentage) while reducing his fouls per minute by 25%. He helped lead the Cougars to the NCAA Championship Game, where they lost to Jim Valvano's Cinderella North Carolina State squad. Olajuwon won the NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award despite Houston's loss; he is the last player to receive that honor without playing on the championship team.
In his senior season, Olajuwon again improved markedly in four categories (16.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 5.6 bpg, .675 field goal percentage) while slashing his fouls per minute rate by more than 20%. Olajuwon led the NCAA in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage and his Cougars returned to the NCAA Championship Game but this time they fell to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown squad, a loss that Olajuwon later avenged in the NBA by beating Ewing's Knicks in the 1994 Finals; Olajuwon never won a college title but Ewing never won an NBA title, proving that even a Hall of Famer cannot win a championship without help from his supporting cast.
The Houston Rockets made Olajuwon the number one overall selection in the 1984 NBA Draft and even though Michael Jordan was the third pick no one can really say that Houston made a mistake by choosing Olajuwon; his lengthy NBA resume includes two championships, one regular season MVP (1994), two Finals MVPs (1994, 1995), two Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1993, 1994), six All-NBA First Team selections, five All-Defensive First Team selections and 12 All-Star selections. Olajuwon also won a pair of rebounding titles (1989-90), led the league in blocked shots three times (1990-91, 93) and is the career leader in that category with 3830 rejections, though it must be noted that the NBA has only tracked that statistic since 1973-74, several years after Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell retired. Remarkably, Olajuwon ranked in the top ten in steals four different times (1988-90, 1995). Olajuwon had at least 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in 12 seasons, tying a record set by Julius Erving; in 11 of those seasons, Olajuwon had at least 200 blocked shots, easily making him the career leader in "100/200" seasons. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 3.1 bpg during his 18 year NBA career, shooting .512 from the field and .712 from the free throw line; in the playoffs he improved those numbers to 25.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.2 bpg, .528 field goal percentage and .719 free throw percentage. The numbers are nice--actually, they are fantastic--but numbers are just numbers. To borrow a line from one of my favorite Julius Erving stories--John Papanek's May 4, 1987 Sports Illustrated tribute to Erving (which would have been included in my post about Julius Erving Stories if I had been able to find the link in time), "You had to see the man and hear the music." So, without further ado, look and listen to what Olajuwon at his absolute peak did to fellow all-time great David Robinson right after Robinson won the 1995 regular season MVP:
That video contains several examples of Olajuwon's patented "Dream Shake," plus assorted other devastating moves in his offensive repertoire; Olajuwon combined amazing balance, dexterity and grace with stunning quickness and power. Defenders had to respect his outside shot, which made it even more difficult to stop him from getting into the paint. That performance against Robinson, coming on the heels of winning the 1994 championship and en route to winning the 1995 championship, is the defining moment of Olajuwon's career. The 1995 championship was sweet redemption for Olajuwon and his Houston Cougars teammate Clyde Drexler, who joined the Rockets in the middle of the season; Olajuwon and Drexler did not win an NCAA title but together they brought the NBA championship to Houston. They remain just the fourth set of teammates to each score 40 points in an NBA playoff game.
Mario Elie was Olajuwon's teammate on those teams in Houston and in 1999 Elie won a championship playing alongside Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio. Sometimes when you ask a player about the great players he has played with you get a politically correct answer but when I asked Elie about Olajuwon, Elie told me without hesitation, "I played with a lot of great players but he was number one. He made my game better--having two or three guys on him all night enabled me to get open shots. He was putting so much pressure on the defense. He would say, ‘Mario, don’t worry about getting beat. I will be there to have your back.’ That meant so much. Being a defensive guy, I would pressure guys and sometimes they would get by me, but the ‘Dream’ was always back there to have my back." Later, Elie added, "I love Tim (Duncan). I think he may be the second best player I played with but ‘Dream,’ just his performance in pressure situations--when David Robinson got the ’95 MVP, ‘Dream’ told me, ‘Mario, he’s borrowing my trophy.’ When I heard that I said, ‘Somebody’s in trouble tonight.’ That guy put on a performance--under that pressure against the MVP and we have no home court advantage--and ‘Dream’ just dominated that position. It reminded me of when Jordan dominated Clyde when they were comparing the two guards. They were comparing two centers and ‘Dream’ just totally--I don’t want to say embarrassed--but he really embarrassed him, he dominated him--(series averages of) 35 (points), 13 (rebounds), 5 assists, 4 blocks. Those are amazing numbers for a center."
It is easy to look at Olajuwon's career and come away with the impression that everything went smoothly; that same fallacy also applies to Michael Jordan, who has been elevated to god-like status in some people's eyes even though early in his career Bill Cartwright--a former All-Star center who was then Jordan's teammate--lamented (as reported in Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules), "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He's just not a basketball player." That quote may seem bizarre now but in the mid to late 1980s many people openly questioned if Jordan could lead a team to an NBA championship; there were similar questions about Olajuwon prior to 1994. Although Olajuwon led Houston to the NBA Finals in just his second season (1985-86), the Rockets did not win a playoff series from 1988-92. In 1991-92, Olajuwon did not make the All-NBA or All-Defensive Teams as Houston struggled to a 42-40 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in his career. Olajuwon engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the team's management and that situation seemed to affect his play, though his numbers were still very good. The usually durable Olajuwon missed 26 games in 1990-91 and 12 games in 1991-92, leading Houston General Manager Steve Patterson to assert that Olajuwon was malingering in order to pressure the team into agreeing to his financial demands, a charge that Olajuwon denied. The Rockets tried to trade their frustrated superstar during the summer of 1992 but eventually they agreed to a four year contract extension. Just imagine how much different NBA history--and Olajuwon's legacy--might be if the Rockets had traded Olajuwon just two years before he led Houston to the NBA championship. That is a cautionary tale that owners, team executives, writers and fans should keep in mind before passing judgment on some of today's star players. Just look at last year's NBA Finalists: in one season Kobe Bryant went from being a maligned, disgruntled scoring champion to being the league MVP, while Kevin Garnett emerged from a three year playoff drought to claim his first title.
Did Jordan, Olajuwon, Bryant and Garnett change, as the media airbrushers assert, or did the environment/supporting cast surrounding them--ownership, coaches, teammates--improve? All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis likes to say "The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry"; the traits that led to fierce criticism of those players when their teams fell short of winning titles are the same traits that propelled them to later greatness. The only thing that changed was the media spin.
Olajuwon's legacy is quite secure now and it has long been apparent that he would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as soon as he became eligible. It is fitting that he and longtime rival Ewing are members of the same Hall of Fame class, because they will always be inextricably linked together due to their showdowns in championship level competition at both the NCAA and NBA levels.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:26 AM