Olajuwon was one of my favorite players from the 90’s. His signature move was the dream shake and no one was stopping it. Almost the same way no stopped Kareem’s sky hook no one stopped the dream shake. In my opinion Olajuwon was one of the games greatest big men ever …in the same class as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul Jarbar.
The Rockets had immediate success during Olajuwon’s rookie season, as their win-loss record improved from 29–53 in 1983–84 to 48–34 in 1984–85. He teamed with the 1984 Rookie of the Year, 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m) Ralph Sampson to form the original NBA “Twin Towers” duo. Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.68 blocks in his rookie season. He finished as runner-up to Michael Jordan in the 1985 Rookie of the Year voting, and was the only other rookie to receive any votes.
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 won the series fairly easily, four games to one, shocking the sports world and landing Olajuwon on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Olajuwon scored 75 points in victories in games three and four, and after the series Lakers coach Pat Riley remarked “We tried everything. We put four bodies on him. We helped from different angles. He’s just a great player.” The Rockets 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
Olajuwon gained a reputation as a clutch performer and also as one of the top centers in history based on his performances in the 1993–94 and 1994–95 seasons. He outplayed centers such as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Dikembe Mutombo, and other defensive stalwarts such as Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone. Many of his battles were with his fellow Texas-based rival David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. In the 30 head–to–head match-ups during the seven seasons from the 1989 to 1996, when both Olajuwon and Robinson were in their prime, Olajuwon averaged 26.3 points per game, shooting 47.6% from the field, while Robinson averaged 22.1 and 46.8%.
The Rockets won the 1994 NBA Finals in a seven-game series against the New York Knicks, the team of one of Olajuwon’s perennial rivals since his collegiate days, Patrick Ewing. After being down 2–1, the Knicks took a 3–2 lead into Game 6. The Rockets were defending an 86–84 lead when in the last second, Knicks guard John Starks (who had already scored 27 points) went up for a finals-winning three. Olajuwon pulled off a clutch play by blocking the shot as time expired. In Game 7, Olajuwon posted a game–high 25 points and 10 rebounds, which helped defeat the Knicks, bringing the first professional sports championship to Houston since the Houston Oilers won the American Football League championship in 1961. Olajuwon dominated Ewing in their head–to–head match-up, outscoring him in every game of the series and averaging 26.9 points per game on 50% shooting, compared to Ewing’s 18.9 and 36.3%. For his efforts Olajuwon was named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.
Olajuwon was at the pinnacle of his career. In 1994 he became the only player in NBA history to win the MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. He was also the first foreign-born player to win the league’s MVP award.
Despite a slow start by the team, and Olajuwon missing eight games toward the end of the season with anemia, the Rockets repeated as champions in 1995. They were bolstered in part by the acquisition of Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon’s former University of Houston “Phi Slama Jama” teammate, in a mid-season trade from the Portland Trail Blazers. Olajuwon averaged 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game during the regular season. Olajuwon displayed perhaps the most impressive moments of his career during the playoffs. San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, recently crowned league MVP, was outplayed by Olajuwon in the Conference Finals: Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points on .560 shooting (Robinson’s numbers were 23.8 and .449) and outscored Robinson 81–41 in the final two games. 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. Olajuwon outscored O’Neal in every game,scoring more than 30 points in each and raising his regular-season rate by five while O’Neal’s production dropped by one. Olajuwon was again named Finals MVP. He averaged 33.0 points on .531 shooting, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.81 blocks in the 1995 Playoffs. As in 1994, Olajuwon was the only Rockets All-Star.
The Rockets’ two-year championship run ended when they were eliminated in the second round of the 1996 NBA Playoffs by the eventual Western Conference Champion Seattle SuperSonics. Michael Jordan had returned from a 21-month hiatus in March 1995, and his Chicago Bulls dominated the league for the next three years (1996–98). The Bulls and Rockets never met in the NBA Playoffs. The Rockets posted a 57–win season in 1996–97 season when they added Charles Barkley to their roster. They started the season 21–2, but lost the Western Conference Finals in six games to the Utah Jazz. After averaging 26.9 and 23.2 points in 1995–96 and 1996–97 respectively, Olajuwon’s point production dipped to 16.4 in 1997–98. After the Rockets lost in the first round in five games to the Jazz in 1998, Drexler retired. In 1998–99 the Rockets acquired veteran All-Star Scottie Pippen and finished 31–19 in the lockout-shortened regular season. Olajuwon’s scoring production rose to 18.9 points per game, and he made his twelfth and final All-NBA Team. However, they lost in the first round again, this time to the Lakers. After the season, Pippen was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Houston began to rebuild, bringing in young guards Cuttino Mobley and 2000 NBA co-Rookie of the Year Steve Francis. On August 2, 2001, after refusing a $13 million deal with the Rockets, Olajuwon was traded to the Toronto Raptors for draft picks (the highest of which was used by Houston to draft Bostjan Nachbar at #15 in the 2002 NBA Draft), with the player having a three-year contract that would give him $18 million. Olajuwon averaged career lows of 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in what would be his final season, as he decided to retire in the fall of 2003, due to a back injury. Olajuwon retired as the all–time league leader in total blocked shots with 3,830, although shot blocking did not become an official statistic until the 1973-74 NBA season. Shortly after his retirement, his #34 jersey was retired by the Rockets.
Smallthoughts : Old School Tuesday salutes one the games best big men ever …Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon.