The 1984 NBA Draft is considered as the best of all times. Michael Jordan, John Stockton, and Charles Barkley were all a part of that class.
The big prize was nevertheless a center from Nigeria, who had started playing basketball at the age of 15. And to this day nobody complains that the Houston Rockets drafted with the first pick Akeem (then without H) Olajuwon, although even the best basketball player of all time was available. The story of his arrival to the NBA was even more fascinating.
Like most Nigerians, Hakeem was not interested in basketball but played in the Nigerian national sports football, hockey, and handball. That helped him develop the footwork that should make him legendary later. At the age of fifteen – he was two meters tall – a basketball coach persuaded him to try the orange leather after it happened he saw him while Hakeem played handball – and things started rolling.
Olajuwon took on the new sport quite naturally and was able to keep up the great footwork despite growing more and more. Hakeem also had the drive to outclass the competition and constantly wanted to work on his game. As a result, he moved to the US. He received a scholarship from Houston University and, together with Clyde Drexler, led them to the Final Four of the NCAA in each of his three years of college.
Until his transfer to college, there were several ways in which Olajuwon’s career could have been prevented. What would have happened if it had not happened that a basketball player saw handball player Akeem and thought: “Boy should try basketball”? If he simply had no desire to do so? Or if his talent did not adapt to the ever-growing body, so he would lose his footwork?
In 1984, then followed the change in the NBA. With his infinitely versatile game, Olajuwon filled from the beginning of the statistics sheets at both ends of the field and was already in his first year an All-Star. Along with Ralph Sampson (2.21m), who was brought in a year earlier, Olajuwon (2.13m) was the first combination of teammates since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to score more than 20 points and 10 rebounds.
In their second season together, Olajuwon and Sampson led Houston in the NBA Finals. In the West, among other things, they threw out the “Show Time” Lakers, an absolute sensation at that time. Olajuwon averaged 35 points over aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the last three games. Lakers icon Magic Johnson ennobled the young center afterward: “When it comes to raw athletic ability, Akeem is the best I’ve ever seen.”
In 1986/87, he led his team in unthinkable 13 categories, including points, rebounds, steals, and blocks. He achieved all this with Ralph Sampson struggling with injuries since this season. Sampson never got back to full form and was traded to the Warriors in the following season.
Olajuwon was now on his own. Between 1987 and 1995, he played with exactly one other All-Star (Otis Thorpe) and began to complain about the situation and his teammates in Houston. Although he continued to provide fable statistics, he could not lead his team beyond the first playoff round. Out of frustration he used to fight with opponents and referees and got into several fights in the field.
In 1991, trade rumors about Olajuwon were already making the rounds. In the same year, however, a change took place in him, which was symbolized by the name change from Akeem to Hakeem: He devoted himself more strongly to his religion, fasted from then on in every season during Ramadan. More inner peace was the result. During the season 91/92 came in Rudy Tomjanovich a new coach, the playoffs were nevertheless missed for the first time in the Olajuwon era. But from then on it went uphill.
In the 1992 draft, the Rockets drafted Robert Horry. A year later Sam Cassell and Mario Elie joined Houston and Hakeem finally had a good team at the perfect time. Before the 93/94 season, Michael Jordan declared his first retirement from basketball.
With a team that was built around him and gave him space through good shooters in the middle, Olajuwon marched straight into the NBA Finals. During the regular season, he won the MVP Award and became Defensive Player of the Year. In the Finals, Houston secured the title after seven competitive games against the Knicks and their star Patrick Ewing. This was the first major center rival beaten. Two more should follow soon afterward.
After the first title, there a significant change in the Rockets squad. Otis Thorpe was released during the season for was Olajuwon’s old fellow Clyde Drexler. In the regular season, it was still difficult, it was enough for Houston only to be sixth in the West. They did not have home advantage in the playoffs, but that was obviously no problem.
At first, the Jazz and the Suns were beaten. What followed then were two of the most one-sided star duels in league history. Prior to the Conference Finals, Spurs Center’s David Robinson received the MVP Award for the Regular Season. A choice that apparently gave Olajuwon a boost in motivation and led him during the series.
He dominated the opponent, smothering him with his defense and playing him with his “Dream Shake”. Robinson later admitted that he simply did not come up with a solution to the Hakeem problem. The expert world agreed: Rarely has there been a better performance in a playoff series.
The next opponent was much like Robinson. “He has about five moves, which he can counter with four moves, which is a total of 20.” These words come from the young Shaquille O’Neal, who has just received several lessons from Olajuwon and was swept in the Finals with his Orlando Magic. “The Dream” had just won its second Finals MVP title and clearly showed its three biggest rivals in less than 13 months who was wearing the pants in the center position.
Olajuwon had a very impressive NBA career. Two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, regular season MVP, twice Defensive Player of the Year, Twelve-time All-NBA Team. These are just the main awards.
And to this day, the name Hakeem Olajuwon is common in NBA circles. Several current stars paid him in recent years to give them training in footwork and post-moves.