Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon (born on January 21, 1963) is a retired Nigerian American professional basketball player in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Olajuwon played center for the Houston Rockets, whom he led to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, and the Toronto Raptors.
Olajuwon traveled from his home country of Nigeria to play collegiately for the University of Houston. Hakeem had a standout career for the Cougars alongside future NBA Hall of Fame player Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, which included three trips to the Final Four. Olajuwon was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the first overall selection of the 1984 NBA Draft, a draft that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. Olajuwon joined the Houston Rockets and was affectionately known as Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon. He combined with the 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m) Ralph Sampson to form what was dubbed the "Twin Towers" duo. The two led the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals where they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics.
After Sampson was traded to the Golden State Warriors in 1988, Olajuwon became the undisputed leader of the team. He led the league in rebounding twice (1989, 1990) and shot-blocking three times (1990, 1991, 1993). In the 1993-94 season he became the only player in NBA history to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player (MVP), Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP awards in the same season. His Rockets won back to back championships against The New York Knicks, avenging his college championship loss to Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic. In 1996, Olajuwon assisted in the gold medal-winning performance of the United States national team, and was selected as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. He ended his career the league's all-time leader in blocked shots. Olajuwon is also the only NBA player ever to end his career in Top 10 for blocks (1st all-time) and steals (7th all-time).
Listed at 7 ft 0 in (2.13 m) but closer to 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) by his own admission, Olajuwon is generally considered one of the five greatest centers to ever play the game, along with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal. Olajuwon is also a devout Muslim who observed Ramadan throughout his NBA career. He was reverentially nicknamed "Hakeem the Dream" for his grace on and off the court.
After redshirting his freshman year in 1980-81, Olajuwon played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 1981–82, and the Cougars were eliminated in the Final Four by the eventual NCAA champion, North Carolina Tar Heels. Olajuwon sought advice from the coaching staff about how to increase his playing time, and they advised him to work out with local Houston resident and multiple NBA MVP winner, Moses Malone. Malone, who was then a member of the NBA's Houston Rockets, played games every off season with several NBA players at the Fonde Recreation Center. Olajuwon joined the workouts and went head to head with Malone in several games throughout the summer. Olajuwon credited this experience with rapidly improving his game, saying, "...when you play against a guy like Moses it can't help but make you better."
Olajuwon returned from that summer a different player, and in his sophomore and junior years he helped the Cougars advance to consecutive NCAA championship games, where they lost to North Carolina State in 1983 and a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team in 1984. Olajuwon won the 1983 NCAA Tournament Player of the Year award, even though he played for the losing team in the final game. He is, to date, the last player from a losing side to be bestowed this honor. Drexler departed for the NBA in 1983, leaving Olajuwon the lone star on the team.
After the 1983–84 season, Olajuwon debated whether to stay in college or declare early for the NBA draft. At that time (before the NBA Draft Lottery was introduced in 1985), the first pick was awarded by coin flip. Olajuwon recalled: "I really believed that Houston was going to win the coin flip and pick the number 1 draft choice, and I really wanted to play in Houston so I had to make that decision (to leave early)." His intuition proved correct, and a lucky toss placed Houston ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. Olajuwon was considered the top amateur prospect in the summer of 1984 over fellow collegians and future NBA stars Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, and was selected first overall by the Rockets in the 1984 NBA Draft. It is to his credit that very few have ever criticized Houston for picking Olajuwon ahead of third pick Jordan, who went on to have a spectacular NBA career (in stark contrast to the second choice, Portland's Sam Bowie).
Olajuwon averaged 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game during his second pro season (1985–86). The Rockets finished 51–31, and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they faced the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Rockets would go on to win the series fairly easily (4–1), shocking the sports world in the process and landing Olajuwon on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Rockets then advanced to the 1986 NBA Finals where they succumbed in six games to the Boston Celtics, whose 1986 team is often considered one of the best teams in NBA history.
The 1989-90 season was a disappointment for the Rockets. They finished the season with a .500 record at 41–41, and though they made the playoffs, they were eliminated in four games by the LA Lakers. Olajuwon put up one of the most productive defensive seasons by an interior player in the history of the NBA. He won the NBA rebounding crown (14.0 per game) again, this time by an even larger margin; a full two rebounds a game over David Robinson, and led the league in blocks by averaging a stellar 4.6 per game. To put that in perspective as of 2007, he is the only player since the NBA starting recording blocked shots in 1973-74 to have averaged 14+ rebounds per game and 4.5+ blocked shots per game in the same season. In doing so, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to become the only players in NBA history to lead the league in rebounding and shot blocking in the same season. Olajuwon also recorded a quadruple-double during the season, becoming only the third player to do so.
The 1990-91 season saw a rebound in the Rockets' record as they finished with a record of 52–30 under NBA Coach of the Year Don Chaney. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points per game in 1990-91, but due to an injury to his eyesocket caused by an elbow from Bill Cartwright, did not play in enough games (56) to qualify for the rebounding title. Otherwise, he would have won it for a third consecutive year as he averaged 13.8 a game (league leader Robinson averaged 13.0 rpg). He did, however, average a league-leading 3.95 blocks per game. However, the enthusiasm from the Rockets' resurgent season was seriously dampened by their playoff sweep at the hands of the LA Lakers.
The 1991-92 season was a low point for the Rockets during Olajuwon's tenure. They finished 42-40,and missed the playoffs for the first time in Olajuwon's career. Despite his usual strong numbers, he could not lift his team out of mediocrity. Since making the Finals in 1986, the Rockets had made the playoffs five times, but their record in those playoff series was 1-5 and they were eliminated in the first round four times.
The Rockets began the 1992-93 season with a new sense of optimism after a full training camp under new coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Olajuwon set a new career high of 3.5 assists per game. This willingness to pass the ball more actually increased his scoring, as it made it harder for opposing teams to double and triple-team him. Olajuwon set a new career high with 26.1 points per game to go along with his usual stellar rebounding and shotblocking. The Rockets set a new franchise record with 55 wins, and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, pushing the Seattle SuperSonics to a seventh game before losing in overtime 103-100. In stark contrast to the previous year, the Rockets entered the 1993–94 season as a team on the rise. They had a good core of young players and tough veterans with a leader in Olajuwon who seemed to be entering his prime.
Olajuwon's Rockets finally won a championship during the 1994 NBA Finals in an epic seven-game series against the New York Knicks, the team of one of his perennial rivals since his collegiate days, Patrick Ewing. After five games, the Knicks had taken a 3–2 lead, when the Rockets defended an 86–84 lead in the final seconds of the game. In the last second, hot-shooting Knicks guard John Starks (who had scored 27 points until then) went up for a finals-winning three, but Olajuwon pulled off one of the greatest clutch defensive plays of all time and blocked the shot as time expired. In Game Seven, Olajuwon posted a game–high 25 points and 10 rebounds, which helped overpower the Knicks, bringing the first professional sports championships to Houston since the Houston Oilers won the American Football League championship in 1961. Olajuwon dominated Ewing in their head–to–head matchup outscoring him in every game of the series and posting numbers of 26.9 ppg on 50.0% shooting compared to Ewing's 18.9 ppg on 36.3% shooting. For his efforts Olajuwon was named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. Olajuwon was at the pinnacle of his career. In that year, he became the only player in NBA history to win MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. In so doing he became the first foreign-born player to win the league's MVP award. Olajuwon's recognition was well-deserved, as neither the other starters (Robert Horry, Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith) nor sixth man Sam Cassell were considered stars at the time, documented by the fact that Olajuwon was the only Rockets All–Star player that year.
Despite a slow start by the team and the erratic behavior displayed by the team's starting shooting guard Vernon Maxwell—which resulted in not only "Mad Max"'s exile from the team, but also Olajuwon's former University of Houston Phi Slama Jama teammate Clyde Drexler's acquisition in a mid-season trade with the Portland Trail Blazers—the Rockets repeated as champions in 1995, led again by the stellar play of Olajuwon who averaged 27.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, and 3.4 bpg in the regular season. Olajuwon displayed perhaps the most impressive moments of his career when the Rockets faced the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Finals. Recently crowned league MVP Robinson was outplayed by Olajuwon, 35–24 PPG. When asked later what a team could do to "solve" Olajuwon, Robinson told LIFE magazine: "Hakeem? You don't solve Hakeem." The Rockets won every road game that series. In the NBA Finals, the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic, who were led by a young Shaquille O'Neal. The whole basketball world had waited for the matchup of the two great centers, and it was Olajuwon who outscored O'Neal 33–28 PPG. Olajuwon outscored O'Neal in every game, scoring 30+ points in each of the 4 games, and raised his own regular-season PPG rate by a full 5 points whereas O'Neal's production dropped by one. Olajuwon was again named Finals MVP. During the entire 1994–95 playoffs Olajuwon was unstoppable, averaging 33.0 ppg on .531 shooting to go along with averages of 10.3 rpg and 2.81 bpg. As a side note, Olajuwon was again the only All-Star Rockets player.
Over the course of two seasons Olajuwon had cemented his place in history by leading his team to victory in playoff series against teams led by three centers who are members of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. This is made even more impressive by the fact that none of these players was considered on the downside of their playing careers during this period. In addition, Olajuwon did not have an All–Star teammate to aide him during this period.
After the 1993 season, Olajuwon became a naturalized American citizen. This enabled him to be a part of the Dream Team 3, the famed U.S. men's basketball team that went on to win the gold medal during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
On offense, Olajuwon was famous for his soft touch around the basket and his footwork combined with a vast array of fake moves, highlighted in his signature Dream Shake (see below). He was a prolific scorer, averaging 21.8 points in his career, and an above average offensive rebounder, averaging 3.3 offensive rebounds per game in his career. Beyond this, Olajuwon could "put the ball on the floor" and dribble with guard-like quickness. He is also one of only four players to have recorded a quadruple-double, illustrating his versatility.
Beyond statistics, Olajuwon was also known to step up his game in clutch moments. He was twice named NBA Finals MVP and he outplayed the best centers (e.g. David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Patrick Ewing) of his generation at clutch times in head-to-head matchups.
The Dream Shake was extremely difficult to defend, much like the sky hook of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Dream Shake's closest modern equivalent comes from Kevin Garnett, whose moves have less variety and include some perimeter action.
One particularly standout Dream Shake came at The Alamodome in Game 5 of the 1995 Western Conference playoff series against rival David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, who was voted the season MVP. With Robinson guarding him, Olajuwon crossed over from his right hand to his left, drove to the basket, and faked a layup. Robinson, who was an excellent defender, kept up with Olajuwon and did not fall for the fake, remaining planted. However, Olajuwon spun counterclockwise and faked another layup. Robinson took the bait this time and jumped to block the shot. With Robinson caught in the air, Olajuwon performed an up-and-under move, scoring an easy basket.
Olajuwon, who endorsed a sneaker made by Spalding which retailed for $35, is one of the very few known players in any professional sport to endorse a sneaker not from Nike, Reebok, Adidas, or other high retail brands. As Olajuwon declared: "How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120?" he asks. "She can't. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them.
In the 2006 NBA offseason, Olajuwon opened his first Big Man Camp, where he teaches young frontcourt players the finer points of playing in the post. While Olajuwon never expressed an interest in coaching a team, he wishes to give back to the game by helping younger players. When asked about how the league was becoming more guard-oriented and whether big men were being de-emphasized, Olajuwon responded, "For a big man who is just big, maybe. But not if you play with speed, with agility. It will always be a big man's game if the big man plays the right way. On defense, the big man can rebound and block shots. On offense, he draws double-teams and creates opportunities. He can add so much, make it easier for the entire team." Olajuwon has worked with several NBA players such as power forward Emeka Okafor, of the Charlotte Bobcats, and center Yao Ming of the Rockets, among others. He also runs the camp for free.
Olajuwon was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2008 on September 5, 2008. To this point, every member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in NBA History list who is eligible has been inducted.
DREAM SEASON Politics aside, Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon is playing like a world-beater and looking like an MVP
Jan 12, 1994; HOUSTON -- He should have stuck with handball. There are no politics in handball; the best player is the best player -- period....