Masterpiece Theater

Originally published in SLAM 147

by Maurice Bobb / @reesereport

Sitting with Hakeem Olajuwon at his sprawling estate in south Houston, discussing his Mr. Miyagi-like tutelage of NBA superstars who are seeking to enhance their post game (Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard), The Dream invokes art. Specifically, Olajuwon credits his ability to master all the facets that go into scoring in the paint to the words of one of the world’s most influential impressionist painters, Édouard Manet.

“Manet, the leader of the pack for contemporary art during the time that impressionists and abstract artists were at odds, said that painters should ‘free painting from its traditional role of representation,’” Olajuwon says. “I brought that philosophy to basketball. I did things that centers couldn’t traditionally do: fadeaways, jumpshots and face-up moves. I broke that barrier. So from an artistic point of view, the center position was freed from its traditional role of representation and that’s what made me the player that I was.”

The portrait of an artist as an NBA legend—why not? After all, a Hall of Famer with the most recognizable signature post-up move the L has ever seen—the Dream Shake—had to have a muse. So what if it wasn’t Wilt, Bill or Kareem that shaped the career of this 12-time All-Star, back-to-back World Champion, ’94 MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and all-time leader with 3,830 career blocks? All that matters to the players who trek to the Lone Star State to put in work over the summer is that the student has officially become the teacher.

SLAM: You’ve become the de facto guru for guys wanting to improve their moves in the paint. Why is that?
HO: I guess you don’t know how much impact you make on people. These players used to watch my moves and liked my style of basketball, especially the movement in the post, so they want to learn them. But when someone like Kobe calls and wants to learn my post moves to incorporate into his game, it’s the ultimate compliment. The first thing I told him was, You have all the moves already [laughs]. But he said, “I want your moves.” So that’s a huge compliment knowing I can add value to his game. Kobe was very specific. He wanted to Dream Shake and Bake and knew what he wanted to accomplish, and I think we did accomplish that.

SLAM: Walk us through a lesson on the Dream Shake.
HO: When the point guard throws me the ball, I jump to get the ball. But this jump is the set-up for the second move, the baseline move. I call it the “touch landing.” The defender is waiting for me to come down because I jumped but I’m gone before I land. Defenders say “Wow, he’s quick,” but they don’t know that where I’m going is predetermined. He’s basing it on quickness, but the jump is to set him up. Before I come down, I make my move. When you jump, you turn as you land. Boom! The defender can’t react because he’s waiting for you to come down to defend you. Now, the first time when you showed that quickness, he has to react to that quickness, so you can fake baseline and go the other way with your jump hook. All this is part of the Dream Shake. The Dream Shake is you dribble and then you jump; now you don’t have a pivot foot. When I dribble I move it so when I come here, I jump. By jumping, I don’t have a pivot foot now. I dribble so now I can use either foot. I can go this way or this way. So he’s frozen, he doesn’t know which way I’m going to go. That is the shake. You put him in the mix and you jump stop and now you have choice of pivot foot. He doesn’t know where you’re gonna turn and when.

SLAM: The YouTube video of you instructing Dwight Howard really caught a lot of people’s attention, especially since the one facet missing from his game was an offensive arsenal in the paint.

HO: With guys who are more agile like Dwight Howard, he has all the talent and the ability. He has all the tools. He just needs the movement. With the movement that I showed him, he has tremendous skills to the point now, where, now he starts creating his own. It becomes a question of, How creative can you be? Not just, Oh, he’s a good player. They don’t know that it’s down to a science. Basketball is a science when you get to the NBA level. It becomes about space management, maneuvers, height management, angles and space. You have to always be one step ahead of the opponent. For example, the baseline comes down to how much space you have to work with. Space management. I taught Dwight how to maneuver and to use and create space.

SLAM: Stan Van Gundy discredited your work with Howard. What are your thoughts on that?
HO: The coach has no idea of what we talked about. What we talked about is not in the textbook. Dwight was so excited because he knows what he got when he came but the coach tried to discredit it. First of all, I’m not doing it to get credit; I’m not looking for a coaching job. I didn’t get paid for it. There is no payment. I’m not looking for praise. The biggest joy is that he’s using the things we worked on and it’s working for him. That is my satisfaction.

SLAM: The Final Four will be in Houston this year, which brings back memories of you and Phi Slama Jamma.
HO: We all did a photo shoot two weeks ago: Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Larry Micheaux. Every Final Four they celebrate what Phi Slama Jamma did to the college game. We weren’t trying to create an iconic image to the public, we were just trying to win and have fun. And that’s how it happened. So now we look back and think, “Wow, we accomplished that?” When I first came to the University of Houston, the game of the century was the UH vs. UCLA game. Elvin Hayes vs. Lew Alcindor. It was in the Astrodome in 1968. That was when UCLA went undefeated and they broke it here. So when I came to UH, it was tradition. Then when people started talking about the UH vs. Louisville game, the only way I can reflect on it is now people talk about our game like they talked about the UH vs. UCLA game. And how long ago was that now? 1983? And they’re still talking about it now. I feel blessed.