Original Old School: Dream’s World
The game belonged to Hakeem Olajuwon. We’re just happy he let us live in it.
He’s probably not the one your average high school player talks about when speaking of his all-time favorites. Jordan, Magic, Bird. Those guys get all the love. But the Dream deserves a mention. While being the only dude to capture a crown while Jordan was peaking, he paved the way for today’s 4s and 5s. The common conception of the big changed forever after, and the Dream Shake was trademarked. Hakeem: The definition of consistent greatness.–Franklyn Calle
by Khalid Salaam
His name should be at the front of any conversations about the best players of the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s not. Usually, what you hear is the same old playlist: Jordan, Magic, Bird, Ewing, Barkley, Malone. Yet the numbers and impact tell a different story. During a career that spanned 18 seasons, Hakeem Olajuwon revolutionized the game by combining the power of a big man with the footwork and grace of a guard. Non-believers, pay homage.
“For real, I don’t know why he isn’t more revered. There was a time when he was the best, period,” says Bobcats big man and Houston native Emeka Okafor. “His game was so different that you couldn’t understand it. He was ahead of his time and really, I still haven’t seen anyone like him.”
Nobody has, and really, it might be a while before we do. Not only did Hakeem defy the assumption of NBA big men as dimwitted and slow, he obliterated it. He was listed at 7 feet but is closer to 6-10; to counter the height disadvantage, he developed a game based on quickness and positioning, spinning and pump-faking foes like crazy. The famed Dream Shake was but a small piece of his arsenal. He was also a dominating defender with the ability to shut dudes down man-to-man or from the weak side. He finished his career as the League’s all-time leader in blocked shots but was so versatile that he also ranks seventh all-time in steals. He played a cerebral game, using his opponent’s strengths to his advantage. If a guy used brute force, Dream would use finesse against him; if the opponent used finesse, Olajuwon used strength. In short, he had you every which way.
A native of Lagos, Nigeria, Akeem Olajuwon (he changed his first name midway through his NBA career) got into basketball late in his teenage years after playing soccer as a child. He realized his height could be used to further his education if he concentrated on basketball. The coordination he learned on the pitch aided him greatly on the basketball court, his exceptional footwork and balance making him a match-up nightmare for anyone who tried guarding him. In ’81, he started at the University of Houston, where he teamed with Clyde Drexler for three seasons of NCAA flight school called Phi Slamma Jamma. Three Final Four appearances (but no titles) later, the Houston Rockets made him the No. 1 pick in the 1984 Draft, taking him ahead of Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan. He responded with a rookie campaign that saw him finish second to Jordan in ROY honors.
With the Rockets, Dream teamed with Ralph Sampson to form the NBA’s original Twin Towers, and in his second year, helped lead Houston to the Finals and an eventual six-game loss to Boston. Injuries would wear down Sampson, but “Akeem the Dream” only got better, starting four straight All-Star Games to close out the decade. Olajuwon hit a peak in the early ’90s and stayed there for five amazing years, culminating in two titles, an MVP, Defensive POYs and a run in the ’95 playoffs in which he played some of the best basketball the L has ever seen. Over 22 games, including a dismantling of League MVP David Robinson and the Spurs in the conference finals and a title sweep of Shaq and the Magic, Olajuwon averaged 33 points—on 53 percent shooting—10.3 boards, 4.5 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.2 steals.
Current Golden State assistant and former Rocket guard Mario Elie takes you back. “He was unstoppable in the box,” Elie says. “In the mid ’90s, it was MJ and Hakeem and that’s it. He was an undersized center who didn’t back down to anyone. I never saw this guy have a bad game. Never. He seriously was on another level. The best I would say is how he played in the Western Conference Finals against the MVP. He totally dominated him. He had a game where he had, like, 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks against the MVP, on the road! And on top of that, he was an amazing teammate. I thank him for being the player I am.”
Dream played six more years in Houston, anchoring teams that tried one last title run before submitting to a youth influx. He often played hurt during those last few years before the Rockets traded him to Toronto in 2001, where he played his final games. Houston retired his number with a ceremony in November of ’02. Olajuwon now lives in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan with his wife and kids.
SLAM: When you first came to the States, how much of a culture shock was it for you?
DREAM: Well, I left home when I was 12 years old to go to boarding school in Nigeria, and then through sports, I traveled through different states in Nigeria, as well as other countries in Africa and Europe. I did all of this before setting foot in the States, so my exposure to different things was pretty broad. However, I was surprised at the stereotypes people had of Africa and the “jungle life.” I think the influence of Tarzan was their image of Africa.
SLAM: How was the environment at the University of Houston as a member of one of the most exciting teams ever?
DREAM: College ball was a lot of fun, As I’m sure you know, we were known as “Phi Slamma Jamma.” That was the fraternity we created as players, and it was surprising how well it caught on. And people are still talking about it today! We had a dominant team and we won a lot of games, but a championship is never guaranteed. We were good enough to win because we made it to the Final Four three years in a row, and two of those years we lost in the final, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. I feel blessed to have been part of that team.
SLAM: You played in the Finals early in your career, then went a long time before getting back. Why were those Rocket teams so inconsistent?
DREAM: We were always contenders, but the game itself was at a different level. Any team that wanted to beat us knew it wouldn’t be easy and they would have to work hard to beat us. But team chemistry is a must if you want to avoid inconsistency, and it’s difficult to have that—the teams with that chemistry are the ones that win championships. Eventually we gained that chemistry.
SLAM: In ’91-92, you asked the Rockets to trade you because of a disagreement regarding an injury. The team basically said that you were faking it to get a better contract. How did you resolve that issue?
DREAM: You can never question an injury someone is claiming. The injury I had was a hamstring injury, and coincidentally it happened during contract negotiation time. I would never use the excuse of an injury to negotiate a contract. I use my skills. This was a situation that was blown out of proportion and was cleared up when the Rockets owner at that time [Charlie Thomas] and I talked on our way to play a regular-season game in Japan.
SLAM: In the ’94 conference semis, the local media coined the name “Choke City” after you lost the first two games at home to Phoenix. How did you and the team deal with that?
DREAM: It was unfortunate that it took a disgrace like that—blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter in a playoff game, twice!—to wake the team up. Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the phrase, but I think it did some good. We didn’t look back after that.
SLAM: Your game went to the next level during those years. How do you explain that?
DREAM: It was a combination of experience and maturity, not to mention the desire to win. My recommitment to Islam helped me develop the mindset I needed to reach that accolade. I also say Coach Rudy T. He was our leader and worked hard to get everyone on the same page. He deserves a lot of credit for that. We couldn’t have played for a better coach.
SLAM: Explain the feeling of being able to play with Clyde Drexler again.
DREAM: Clyde and I always had a great time playing in college, and it was a thrill to have the opportunity to play with him again in the pros. When he was in Portland, we always talked about how great it would be if we could play on the same team again. That dream came true, and we had the opportunity to win it all in ’95.
SLAM: When people talk about the best players of your generation, your name isn’t mentioned enough. Why do you think that is?
DREAM: The knowledgeable sports fan who understands the game will know that my contribution to the game was instrumental in changing the role of the big man.
SLAM: You’ve mentioned how much Islam influences everything in your life. Did other players say anything negative about it?
DREAM: I’m happy to say I never experienced anything like that. People would often tell me how much respect they had for me because of my dedication to my faith.
SLAM: You’re living in Jordan now. How do you spend your days?
DREAM: I’m in Jordan studying Arabic, which has always been a dream of mine, so I can understand the Qur’an without translation. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.