Former NBA player and current assistant coach on the Sixers, Sam Cassell recently made a guest appearance on a podcast with Baron Davis where he talked about numerous things from his NBA career. Since the preseason in the NBA is starting as we speak, it was interesting to hear what he had to say about Hakeem Olajuwon and how he didn't take preseason games seriously, especially in the late stages of his career.
Cassell came into the NBA in the 1993/94 season, by which time Hakeem was already a seasoned veteran with plenty of minutes under his belt. The necessity to perform well in the preseason wasn't a concern of Hakeem, and Cassell details a story when the Houston Rockets lost every game in the preseason with Hakeem playing unbelievably poorly in almost every game.
In my rookie year, we go 0-7 in the preseason…we lose by 40 to GP and Seattle. I remember calling my boy and saying, man, Hakeem Olajuwon, sorry as shit. He was 3-12 and only got 3 rebounds in 15 minutes. He got 3 rebounds, not knowing veterans didn't take preseason serious; they used the preseason to get in shape. Back then, the preseason was a full month.
Sam Cassell, via Point God
Veteran players like Hakeem tend to manage their efforts on the court really well, taking some time to see where they are in terms of fitness and preparation before the regular season starts. That is what happened with Hakeem as well, and Cassell recalls one of the first regular-season games in which Hakeem dominated on both ends of the floor, showcasing he is ready to play and an MVP candidate. That came as a big surprise for young Cassell, who initially thought Hakeem was washed up because of his poor performance in the preseason.
Opening night comes, we play the Golden State Warriors; Hakeem Olajuwon is out there handling his BUSINESS!!!! I'm sitting back, saying, where did this come from? Why didn't he do this in the preseason? I mean he gave those boys the business. He comes out of the game, I say way to work Dream. He says, "Son, preseason don't count, the popcorn is popping now. Preseason stat sheets, they don't send to New York, these stats sheets, they send to New York." He put on a show. He had like 37 and 15 in 3 quarters.
Sam Cassell, via Point God
Cassell witnessed the best version of Hakeem that season in which he won the regular-season MVP award and later on an NBA championship. Hakeem really came to play during those playoffs in which he led the Rockets to their first title, completely dismantling every team that stood in his way. The incredible competitive spirit was one of the most underrated traits Hakeem possessed at a full display from the first regular-season game.
However, he knew that timing and preparation were everything, so he didn't care about his performance in the preseason. Hakeem understood the season was long because he felt he had a great chance to win a title since that was the year Michael Jordan was out of the league. He realized that was his best chance to win it finally, but the precondition was that he remains focused in the regular season, and more importantly, in the playoffs. Cassell helped him along the way and learned quite a bit about winning and being a true professional such as Hakeem.