The forgotten all-time great NBA player: Hakeem Olajuwon
The success of The Last Dance introduced a new generation to Michael Jordan and his dynastic Bulls. While it did not really break much new ground, it was a gold mine for the generation that only knew Jordan from Space Jam.
While Jordan is certainly one of the best to ever play, one of the disappointments of the era was never getting to see his Bulls take on the other generational talent of the era - Hakeem Olajuwon - in the NBA Finals.
First, let's dispel a couple of myths:
1) The Rockets never win those two titles if Jordan doesn't "retire."
If you want to make the case for the first title, be my guest. But the second, Jordan returned, fresh, put up numbers near his career averages. The problem was, the Bulls lacked Horace Grant, who had gone to Orlando. And the Magic were simply a better team that year. The Bulls would add Dennis Rodman the next year and add three more titles. That iteration was even better than the first. But the narrative that somehow the Bulls would have won two more titles is just a poor take. One? Maybe. But the 1994-95 season, they were not good enough. Plain and simple. And that was with Jordan.
2) The Rockets would have beaten the Bulls if they had just gotten to any of those Finals.
"They matched up so well!" This is equally silly. Those teams were not good enough to reach the Finals, plain and simple. So this narrative is the worst kind of empty, wishful speculation.
Lost in all this is how great Hakeem Olajuwon really was. The NBA career numbers are staggering. He played 18 seasons in the league, and was a two-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, MVP of the league in 1994, a 12-time All-Star, made the All-NBA teams 12 times (first team six of those). Twice he was defensive player of the year, twice he led the league in rebounding and three times in blocked shots.
As impressive as all that was, it only tells part of the story.
Olajuwon, in many ways, is the quintessential Houston athlete. Like a lot of Houstonians, he came here from elsewhere - in this case, Nigeria. When he arrived at the University of Houston, he was a raw, hyper-talented athlete who was not a great basketball player. But his talent carried him a long way, and the Cougars made three straight Final Fours, and really should have won it all in 1983.
But Olajuwon was not the best player on those first two teams. In 1982 it was Rob Williams, and in 1983 it was Clyde Drexler. By 1984, Olajuwon had developed into more than just an athlete, and led a less talented team to the NCAA Final against Georgetown.
We continued to watch him grow in the NBA, where he was instantly an impact player as the Rockets first overall draft pick. He averaged at least 20 points per game his first 13 years in the league, and at least 10 rebounds his first 12.
All the while, he was surrounded by teammates who were less than stellar. In his second season, the Rockets surprised the Lakers and made it to the NBA Finals before losing to Boston in six games. It looked like the beginning of a long run for the Rockets, with Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson leading the way.
But injuries derailed Sampson, who would never play more than 70 games in a season again in his career. Early on, Olajuwon was a hothead, and in fact at times a dirty player. He struggled with teammates, and the team struggled to put the right players around him.
With Sampson breaking down, Olajuwon would not play with another superstar until later in his career. He carried his team on his shoulders, but they were never good enough. For six years, he led the Rockets to the playoffs, but with the likes of Sleepy Floyd as his second best player, the team never did much. But by the 1992-93 season, the Rockets started to look like a real contender.
Olajuwon led the league in blocks, averaged 26.1 points and 13 rebounds per game, and would start a four-year stretch of the best basketball of his career. He was also starting to mellow. After coming dangerously close to being traded, he had a long conversation on a flight with then-owner Charlie Thomas, and the two got on the same page.
The Rockets would lose an epic 7-game series with the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference semis. They lost game seven 103-100 in OT, and it wasn't because of Olajuwon. He had 23 points and 17 rebounds and nine assists, but the Rockets came up agonizingly short. However, he had raised his game to an MVP level, and had players around him who were excellent complimentary pieces - Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith and Otis Thorpe. It would be that group who would lead the team to the 1994-95 title over the New York Knicks, with the additions of Sam Cassell and Mario Elie forming the group that would bring Houston its first major championship.
And Olajuwon was the reason. It was one of the few titles won in the modern era where the team was led by one superstar. Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs, perhaps Kawhi Leonard's Raptors come to mind. But for the Rockets, it was all Olajuwon and the perfect collection of role players.
The following year, the Rockets simply weren't firing early on, so they made a deal for Drexler, and Olajuwon had the best running mate of his career, even though Clyde had slowed down. But it took time to gel; they finished as a sixth seed and did not seem likely to repeat.
What followed would be one of the most remarkable runs in playoff history. They knocked off two 60-win teams, a 59 win team and a 57-win team.
In the deciding Game 5 in the first round against Utah, the Rockets trailed by 12 late in the third quarter and it looked like an early exit. But they put together a remarkable run, won the game 95-91 and advanced to take on Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets would fall into 2-0 and 3-1 deficits, but thanks to Elie's famous "Kiss of Death," the Rockets would rally and win the series in seven games. And the new lineup had finally gelled.
From there, they were unstoppable. They knocked off San Antonio - led by MVP David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, in six games. It might be the most memorable series of Olajuwon's career. He averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 4.2 blocks, dominating Robinson in their head-to-head matchup. Even so, Robinson averaged 23.5 points in the series but was overmatched.
It was Olajuwon at the peak of his career. He showed off his brilliant athleticism, and all the skills he had acquired over the years, from UH through his early years of the Rockets. He was simply amazing. By now, the Rockets were a fully functioning Death Star, and they would go on to sweep the Orlando Magic for a second straight title.
The Rockets would never get back to the top, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. They added Charles Barkley and later Scottie Pippen, but would never return to the Finals. Olajuwon would have one more dominant year in 1995-96, but began a steady decline afterward. The years of battling in the paint, the injuries and the double teams caught up with him, and he would eventually finish his career with one year in Toronto, a shell of his former self.
Yes, history will show Jordan was the greatest player of his era, because he was consistently brilliant throughout his career. But Olajuwon was a fantastic player for a long time, and for that four-year stretch, was a good a player as there was in the league, including Jordan.
It's disappointing history never gave us that matchup. The Bulls were simply a better team, with better players around their superstar. However, it's also sad that Olajuwon seems to be lost in history. When people talk about the great centers of all time, they start with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Wilt and Russell played in eight team leagues with inferior opponents. Jabbar was a unique talent who won both in college and the pros and deserves to be in that conversation. Olajuwon and Shaq seemed to get ignored in those discussions, and they should not be. In fact, they deserve to be high up on the list of greatest players, not just centers. Sure, Jordan and LeBron deserve to be at the top of that list. But beyond that? Magic, Kobe, Kareem, Shaq, Duncan...they all deserve to be considered.
But so does Hakeem Olajuwon. It's a shame people have forgotten just how great he really was.
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