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NBA History: The Underappreciated Greatness of Hakeem Olajuwon

NBA History Hakeem Olajuwon

The NBA season is postponed until further notice. With games on hold, fans have an opportunity to catch up on NBA history and look back on some of the most important moments and players.

Hakeem Olajuwon had one of the greatest careers in league history, and was one of the NBA’s most dominant big men for nearly 15 years. Still, his Hall of Fame career remains underappreciated.

From Nigeria to Houston

Olajuwon was born in 1963 in Lagos, Nigeria, and didn’t start playing basketball until he was 17. In 1980, he moved to Texas to play for the University of Houston, but was red-shirted his freshman year. In his three seasons in college, Olajuwon blossomed into one of college basketball’s best players, averaging 13.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game for the Cougars.

NBA history Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon in college. Photo credited to NBA.

Olajuwon was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, and was selected to two NCAA All-Tourney teams. The Cougars made it to the championship game in 1983 and 1984, but lost to North Carolina State and Georgetown respectively. The 1984 NBA Draft had the Houston Rockets picking first, selecting the local star. Olajuwon was followed by Sam Bowie second to Portland, and Michael Jordan to Chicago.

Upon entering the league, Olajuwon was a force to be reckoned with. He averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 blocks his rookie season, but was the Rookie of the Year Award runner-up to Jordan. Olajuwon and fellow 7-footer Ralph Sampson, who was drafted the year prior, became one of league’s best big-man duos, and made an unlikely run to the 1986 NBA Finals, where they would lose in six games to the Celtics, arguably the greatest team of all-time.

Sampson would eventually be dealt, and Olajuwon was made the centerpiece of the Rockets. While the team struggled at points, “The Dream” did not. He averaged 25 points, 13.7 rebounds, four blocks and 2.4 steals in the two seasons following Sampson’s departure, and began a dominant run from 1989 to 1996 as the most dominant big man in basketball, even in an era with all-time great bigs like David Robinson, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal. By this time, Olajuwon’s passing had improved, making him one of the game’s best all-around players.

Back-to-back titles

In the span of time where Michael Jordan was out of the league playing baseball, the Rockets won back-to-back championships led by their now-MVP (1994) center, both of which outperforming another of the NBA’s top big-men.

NBA History Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon. Photo credited to NBA.

The 1994 Finals was a matchup between the Rockets and the Knicks, who had defeated the rival Pacers in seven games the series prior. Patrick Ewing led New York to the Finals, with a supporting cast of John Starks, Derek Harper, Charles Oakley and others, but fell in seven games to Olajuwon’s Rockets.

After taking 2-1 lead in the series, the Knicks evened up the series in Games 4 and 5, the latter becoming famous for broadcasters cutting to OJ Simpson’s police chase during the game while Ewing put up 25 points and 12 rebounds.

In Game 6, Olajuwon served the game-saving block on John Starks, who scored 27. In Game 7, Starks famously imploded, shooting 2-18 while Olajuwon put up 25-10-7. Houston won by six and captured the city’s first NBA title.

In 1995, the Rockets aimed to defend the title. The team traded for Portland swingman Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon’s college teammate and fellow perennial All-Star, early in the season. In an improved West, Houston ended the season as the sixth seed.

Behind the duo, the Rockets defeated the 60-win Jazz, the 59-win Suns and the 62-win top-seeded Spurs to earn a spot in the NBA Finals. Olajuwon and Drexler led Houston to its second consecutive Finals appearance against a level of competition that hasn’t been done in recent memory.

The ’95 Finals was once again a matchup of big men.The East top-seed Orlando Magic were led by All-Stars Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. They defeated the Celtics, the Jordan-returned Bulls, and the Pacers in a seven-game Eastern Finals showdown.

After winning Game 1 in overtime, the Rockets continued their momentum and ended up sweeping the Magic in four games. While O’Neal played well, the more-experienced Olajuwon outperformed him, averaging 33 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and two blocks. He earned the Finals MVP Award once again and cemented his legacy as one of his era’s most dominant players.

Legacy

Olajuwon spent the last season of his career with the Toronto Raptors, and retired after 18 years in the NBA in 2002. His accolades are some of the most impressive in league history: two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, 1994 MVP, 12-time All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, six-time All-NBA First Team, five-time All-Defensive First Team, and more. Non-award accolades add to Olajuwon’s storied legacy: passing the torch to Shaq, mentoring today’s big men, and being undoubtedly the best international player in NBA history.

“The Dream’s” all-around skills make him one of the greatest players in the history of basketball. He could score both facing and back to the basket, could knock down a mid-range jumper, pass the ball well, play lockdown post defense, and had the best footwork of anyone his size (see his signature “Dream Shake” move.) His stats are all the more impressive considering Olajuwon played while observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, fasting from sun-up to sun-down.

While Olajuwon’s legacy on the court is remembered as part of the Michael Jordan era (the two regrettably never met in the Finals), his greatness speaks for itself. “The Dream’s” dominance on both ends of the court easily make him a top-10 player in NBA history. Olajuwon would dominate in any era, given his versatile skillset that set him apart from even the best of his contemporaries at the time.

While a third championship hurts his case as part of  NBA’s ‘Mt. Rushmore’, Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen, yet he often doesn’t get the recognition he deserves when talking about them.

 

Featured image credited to University of Houston.

Stats credited to basketball-reference.com.

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