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NBA 75 Series: #10 Hakeem Olajuwon

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

At #10 of my elusive NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time list, a big man who moved unlike any before him, with his nimble ballerina-like feet and the agility of a guard with impeccable footwork, is Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon was born January 21, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria, to his parents, Salim and Abike, who instilled the value of hard work, respect and belief in oneself into their children from a young age.

Olajuwon was a huge soccer player during his youth, playing as a goalkeeper, which helped give him tremendous footwork, agility and balance, and it would make him an incredible shot blocker. He did not play basketball until the age of 15, in high school, while at a local tournament at Muslims Teachers College. Despite being athletic and standing 6-foot-10, Olajuwon couldn’t even dunk the ball when he was first learning the sport (even if he stood on a chair).

Olajuwon would crossover to the United States to play his college basketball at the University of Houston for the Houston Cougars, under coach Guy Lewis. He redshirted his freshman season in 1980-81 due to not being cleared by the NCAA to play. As a redshirt freshman in 1981-82, Olajuwon averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as the sixth man. He would shoot 60% from the field in just 18 minutes per game, and the Cougars were eliminated from the Final Four that season by the eventual champions, North Carolina Tar Heels, who were led by future NBA legends Michael Jordan and James Worthy.

The summer heading into his sophomore season, Olajuwon worked out with the then Houston Rockets star at the time and an NBA MVP, Moses Malone, who worked out at Fonde Recreation Center during the offseason with several other NBA players. Olajuwon joined Malone and others in pickup games in the summer of 1982, which rapidly improved his game. He credited Malone for helping him by “being out there playing and allowing me to go against that level of competition. He was the best center in the NBA at the time, so I was trying to improve my game against the best.”

Olajuwon came back for the 1982-83 season a much more confident and improved player from the year prior, and was even nicknamed “The Dream” due to his ability to dunk so effortlessly, Lewis saying it “looked like a dream.” He made a great duo with Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, forming the “Phi Slamma Jamma” due to their unique high-flying abilities.

Olajuwon helped the Cougars reach the national championship game in consecutive years, unfortunately losing to North Carolina State on a last-second tip in1983, losing to his future NBA rival, Patrick Ewing, and the Georgetown Hoyas in 1984. He averaged 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 5.1 blocks in 1982–83 and 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.6 blocks in 1983–84. He went on to become the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament in 1983, as well as lead the NCAA in rebounding and be named the SWC (Southwest Conference) Player of the Year and first team All-American in 1984.

Olajuwon entered his name in the 1984 NBA Draft by bypassing his senior year of eligibility. He stayed local after being selected as the first overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets, who won the first pick by a coin flip. It was the last draft to use a coin, as the lottery was introduced in 1985. Olajuwon was a part of a historic, iconic class that featured arguably the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan; the NBA’s all time assists and steals leader, John Stockton; and one of the greatest power forwards of all time, who has also become a TV treasure, Charles Barkley.

So how could the Rockets not be criticized for passing on a guy like Jordan and the career he would go on to have? Well, Olajuwon came in with a bang, helping turn the franchise around instantly from a 29-53 record, the year prior to his arrival in 1983-84, to a 48-34 record in 1984-85. He averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and a staggering 2.6 blocks, showing the elite defensive instincts he had as just a rookie! He formed a fearsome duo known as the original “Twin Towers,” alongside the 1984 Rookie of the Year and star center, Ralph Sampson, who stood a whopping 7-foot-4 to Olajuwon’s 7-feet.

Olajuwon went on to become an All-Star and finish as the runner-up for the 1985 Rookie of the Year to Jordan, showing that he belonged in the league and would be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Olajuwon elevated his game during his second year, in 1985-86, by averaging 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game, good enough to earn him another All-Star selection and All-NBA second team honors.

The Rockets finished 51-31 that season, advancing to the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Rockets would beat them in five games to advance to the NBA finals against the ‘86 Boston Celtics, considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history, composed of Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, sixth man and former NBA MVP, Bill Walton, and Robert Parish.

Bird was coming off winning his third consecutive league MVP, and the Celtics' experience and ball movement was too much for the Rockets, who ultimately lost in six games.

It looked like Sampson and Olajuwon would be a duo to be reckoned with, and they formed a dynasty in Houston, but knee injuries derailed the promise of Sampson’s career, which caused the Rockets to have average to mediocre success for the next five to seven seasons.

Ultimately, the Rockets and Olajuwon would overcome those hard times, as he became "The Dream" because of his marvelous footwork, the best ever of any big man and even any player in NBA history.

Posting a picture would be doing a disservice to the most graceful big man to ever grace a basketball court, Hakeem Olajuwon. He is arguably the best defender in NBA history, being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), the all-time leader in career blocks with 3,830 and the only big man to be top 10 in all-time steals, with 2,162!

Olajuwon was one of the most versatile defenders ever, and whether it was guarding guards on the perimeter (like blocking John Starks’ shot in the 1994 NBA Finals to seal a game), or in the post, guarding giants such as Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson. Olajuwon is also an MVP (1994), a two-time champion (winning back-to-back in 94 and 95), a two-time Finals MVP winner, a 12-time all-star, a 12 time all-nba, and a nine time all defensive team member. He also led the league in rebounds twice and blocks three times.

On his way to his two chips, he outplayed all of the star 90s bigs, from Shaq to Robinson, to Karl Malone, Ewing and Barkley. “The Dream” was the most elegant ballet dancer on the hardwood that the league has ever seen and probably will never see again from someone that size.He was a true unicorn.

Believe in “The Dream!”

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