HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County - Houston Sports Authority: Honoring the 34s

Hakeem Olajuwon and two other 34s -- Nolan Ryan and Earl Campbell -- will be honored Feb. 8 Photo by Tim DeFrisco/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

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Nolan. Earl. Hakeem.

No last names needed.

They are larger than life and Houston legends. The city’s Mount Rushmore. A trio of Hall of Famers who didn’t waste any time redefining their respective positions the second they put on their Houston jerseys.

And we know there’s no need to remind you they all wore No. 34.

It’s not the least bit of a reach to call Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon the top three athletes in Houston sports history. You can parse the order of that list, but the 34s, as we know them, are simply the best of H-town’s best which is why they’ll be celebrated at the inaugural red-carpet Houston Sports Awards February 8, 2018.

“Somehow, Hakeem, Nolan and myself all ended up with No. 34,’’ Campbell said. “This is extremely rare air to be flying in and I'm truly honored to be surrounded with two of the best to ever do it."

Rare air, indeed.

But did you know that Olajuwon is the only one of the three to wear Number 34 his entire college and pro career?

Olajuwon wore 34 first as the center during the Phi Slama Jama days as a Houston Cougar, then as one of driving forces in the Houston Rockets’ back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

Ryan was drafted out of Alvin High School by the New York Mets and wore No. 30 both there and when he played for the California Angels. When he signed with Houston after the 1979 season, Astros outfielder Jeffery Leonard already had No. 30, so Ryan took No. 34. He kept that number when he finished his career with the Texas Rangers.

“I didn’t feel like it was right that I ask for somebody else’s number,’’ Ryan said of the number change. “The number that was available closest to 30 was 34 and it just happened to work out that way.’’

Campbell’s legend began at Texas where No. 20 – the same number he wore at John Tyler High School -- ran for 1,118 years and 13 touchdowns on his way to All-American status as a freshman and, eventually, won the Heisman Trophy as a senior. But when he arrived at the Houston Oilers, safety Bill Currier had No. 20, so Campbell took 34.

Campbell’s No. 20 was the first jersey the Longhorns retired (1979). The Oilers retired No. 34 in 1987.

“ I remember going to the Astrodome for the first time to play Austin Reagan in our high school state championship game,’’ Campbell said. “It seemed like a world away from Tyler, Texas.

“Little did I know that I’d be back there five years later starting another chapter in my life with the Houston Oilers and the great Bum Phillips.’’

Campbell was the first pick of the 1978 NFL draft and wasted no time establishing himself as one of the league’s most powerful running backs. He won the league rushing title with 1,450 yards and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, All-Pro, and Rookie of the Year in his first season with the Oilers, The now 62-year-old was named to the Pro Bowl in five of his first six seasons and finished his career with 2,187 carries for 9,407 yards.

Ryan was simply amazing. Dale Murphy, a two-time National League MVP, described Ryan as “the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.” Ryan, now 70, was one of the best power pitchers of all time. His fastball was close to unhittable for much of 27-year career, as evidenced by his Major League records of 5,714 strikeouts and  seven no-hitters. His curveball wasn’t far behind.

Olajuwon’s career started slowly, because the Nigerian native wasn’t cleared by the NCAA to play his first season. He was used sparingly the next season, but after a summer working with then-Rockets center Moses Malone, Olajuwon dominated.

His inside dunks – a smooth combination of head fakes and footwork – seemed so effortless the late UH coach Guy V, Lewis said they “looked like a dream.’’ Suddenly, Olajuwon was “The Dream” and those moves were “Dream Shakes.” He helped lead the Cougars to three Final Four appearances, then dominated inside with the Rockets.

The 34s are just three of the players who will be honored at the Houston Sports Awards at the Hilton Americas. Ten other awards honoring professional, college and high school athletes, as well as awards  for sportsmanship and lifetime achievement will be given Feb. 8.

Nominations are open to the public. For more information on the awards and to submit a nomination, go to www.houstonsportsawards.com

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