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Background: Nigerian-born Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon has staked his claim as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Long considered to be a physical marvel, his efforts in the Houston Rockets' back-to-back NBA Championships have earned him a place among the game's best. In 1993-94 he had a storybook season, becoming the first player to be named NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season as Houston won its first NBA Championship. The following season he rallied the Rockets from a sixth seed in the playoffs to their second straight NBA crown, making Houston one of only five NBA franchises ever to win back-to-back titles. In addition, Olajuwon and fellow center Ralph Sampson had pushed the Rockets as far as the NBA Finals in 1986.
Olajuwon, whose name translates into "always being on top," began playing basketball at age 15 in Nigeria. Two years later he enrolled at the University of Houston and quickly became a dominating player. His training as a soccer and handball player helped give him the footwork and agility to balance his overpowering strength and size. He played three seasons and pushed the Cougars' "Phi Slamma Jamma" squad into the Final Four each year. In 1983-84 he averaged 16.8 points and led the NCAA in rebounding (13.5 rpg), blocked shots (5.6 per game), and field-goal percentage (.675). He was a First Team All-America selection that season.
The Houston Rockets claimed Olajuwon with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. The Rockets had selected Sampson with the No. 1 pick the previous year, thus forming the so-called "Twin Towers" duo of 7-foot Olajuwon and 7-foot-4 Sampson. In his rookie year, 1984-85, Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting .538 from the field. (He has averaged above 20 points and 10 rebounds and shot better than .500 every season that he has been in the league.) That same year he and Sampson became the first teammates since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor in 1970 to both average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds. Olajuwon finished second to Michael Jordan in Rookie of the Year balloting.
The next year, 1985-86, Olajuwon and Sampson powered the Rockets into the NBA Finals, in which they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. In 1986-87 Sampson began to suffer from injuries, and Olajuwon developed into one of the game's top big men. He was an All-NBA First Team selection for three straight years from 1987 to 1989; an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection in 1987, 1988, and 1990; and the starting center for the Western Conference All-Stars in 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1990.
Olajuwon regularly placed among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, and steals. He won rebounding titles in 1989 and 1990, averaging 13.5 and 14.0 rebounds, respectively. In 1989 he became the first player to finish among the league's top 10 in scoring (24.8 ppg, 10th), rebounding (13.5 rpg, first), steals (2.60 per game, sixth), and blocked shots (3.44 per game, fourth) for two straight seasons. He led the NBA in blocked shots in 1990 with 4.59 per game and in 1991 at 3.95 per contest.
Despite Olajuwon's play, the Rockets had settled into mediocrity since the team's trip to the NBA Finals in 1986-Houston didn't win a playoff series from 1988 through 1992. Beginning in 1992-93 Olajuwon got even better, taking himself and the Rockets to new levels of success. Introducing a new line of spins, fadeaway shots, and jump shots, he became virtually unstoppable on offense while continuing to mature both on defense and as a team leader. In the next three seasons he averaged 26.1 points, 27.3 points, and 27.8 points, respectively. In 1993 he was NBA Defensive Player of the Year and runner-up for league MVP as the Rockets won 55 games and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals.
In 1993-94 Olajuwon attained the pinnacle of achievement when he won both the league and NBA Finals MVP Awards while leading Houston to its first-ever NBA crown. The Rockets entered the 1994-95 postseason seeded sixth, but Olajuwon averaged 33.0 points on .531 shooting from the field in the playoffs to help Houston capture its second consecutive NBA Championship. His transcendent performance throughout the postseason earned him mention among the greatest winners in recent history-players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isiah Thomas.
Following his triumphant 1994-95 season, Olajuwon was named to the 1996 Dream Team, which will compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The Nigeria native became a naturalized American citizen in 1993.
Transactions: Selected by the Houston Rockets in the first round (first pick overall) of the 1984 NBA Draft.
1994-95: Coming off one of the most accomplished seasons in NBA history, Olajuwon managed to win additional respect in 1994-95 with the Houston Rockets. During the regular season he averaged 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.85 steals, and 3.36 blocks while shooting .517 from the floor. He finished second in the league in scoring and blocks, eighth in rebounding, ninth in steals, and 21st in field-goal percentage. Despite Olajuwon's impressive performance, the league's Most Valuable Player Award went to San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson after he led the Spurs to the NBA's best record.
Olajuwon recorded his 10th career triple-double on December 1 with 37 points, 13 rebounds, and a career-high 12 assists against the Golden State Warriors. He posted back-to-back performances of better than 40 points on January 13 against San Antonio (47 points) and on January 14 against the Denver Nuggets (41 points). He was named NBA Player of the Month for February and NBA Player of the Week twice. Olajuwon also became the Rockets' all-time leading scorer when he passed Calvin Murphy on December 8.
During the season Olajuwon was reunited with college teammate Clyde Drexler, who came over from the Portland Trail Blazers in a trade for forward Otis Thorpe. While trying to adjust to Drexler's presence, the Rockets closed out the season in bumpy fashion and entered the playoffs seeded sixth in the Western Conference. In the postseason, however, Olajuwon provided a performance for the ages as the Rockets rolled past the Utah Jazz, the Phoenix Suns, and the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference. Matched against the Spurs' David Robinson, Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points to Robinson's 25.5.
In the NBA Finals, Houston met the Orlando Magic and the league's other great center, Shaquille O'Neal. The two centers battled each other evenly-Olajuwon averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists to O'Neal's 28.0 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists-but the Rockets swept the series, making Houston the fifth NBA franchise to win back-to-back titles. For his spectacular play, Olajuwon was awarded his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP Award. In 22 playoff games he averaged 33.0 points on .531 shooting from the field to go with 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 2.81 blocks per game.
1993-94: The milestones continued to pile up for Olajuwon as the Houston Rockets roared toward their first-ever NBA Championship. Following a brilliant regular season, the Houston center was named NBA Most Valuable Player for 1993-94, his first such honor. He also earned his second straight NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. Then, for good measure, Olajuwon added the NBA Finals MVP trophy following his team's seven-game defeat of the New York Knicks. The 10-year veteran was simply brilliant in the Championship Series, contributing 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.86 blocks per game.
In 1993-94 Olajuwon became the fifth center in NBA history to score 1,000 or more points in each of his first 10 seasons, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19 seasons), Moses Malone (14), Wilt Chamberlain (10), and Bob Lanier (10). Olajuwon finished the season as the Rockets' career leader in rebounding (9,464), defensive rebounding (6,460), steals (1,338), and blocked shots (2,741), making him the only player other than Sam Lacey of the Sacramento Kings to hold career marks for one franchise in rebounding, steals, and blocks.
At midseason Olajuwon was selected to start in the NBA All-Star Game for a fifth straight time and his ninth appearance in 10 seasons. He certainly lived up to his All-Star billing during the regular season, leading the club in scoring (27.3 ppg), rebounding (11.9 rpg), blocks (3.71 per game), and minutes played (41.0 per game). He finished second on the team in steals (1.60 per game) and field-goal percentage (.528) and placed third in assists (3.6 apg). Olajuwon ranked second in the league in blocked shots, third in scoring, fourth in rebounding, and 10th in field-goal percentage.
1992-93: Olajuwon and the Rockets' management locked horns in a bitter contract dispute that ran from the second half of the 1991-92 season into the preseason of 1992-93. Many thought he had played his last game for Houston at the end of the 1991-92 campaign.
But on a flight to Japan, where the Rockets played the first two games of the 1992-93 season against the Seattle SuperSonics, Olajuwon and Houston owner Les Alexander smoothed out their differences. Olajuwon was happy to be a Rocket once again, much to the delight of fans and teammates in Houston.
Whether the contract squabbles had affected Olajuwon's 1991-92 performance may never be known-he had failed to make an All-NBA Team or an NBA All-Defensive Team for the first time in his career-but he certainly experienced a resurgence in 1992-93. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich began his first full season with the Rockets, preaching defense and imploring the team to feed off of Olajuwon's energy.
The eight-year veteran, who became a United States citizen on April 2, was simply spectacular throughout the year. He averaged 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 4.17 blocks, leading the league in blocked shots for the third time in four seasons. More importantly, he led a Rockets team that had finished 42-40 the previous year to a 55-27 mark and the Midwest Division championship.
At season's end, Olajuwon finished second to Charles Barkley in the voting for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award but won the IBM Award for all-around contributions to his team's success. He was also named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the first time, while reclaiming spots on the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
1991-92: Despite continued excellence from their All-Star center, the Rockets failed to make the playoffs for the first time in Olajuwon's eight-year career. Olajuwon led Houston in scoring (21.6 ppg), rebounding (12.1 rpg), blocked shots (4.34 per game), and steals (1.81 per game) for the fifth time in six seasons. He returned to the NBA All-Star Game after a one-year absence but failed to receive a postseason award for the first time in his career.
Olajuwon ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots and fifth in rebounding. He appeared in only 70 games for the season, sitting out 7 contests in November and December after an episode of atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat).
He scored in double figures in 69 of 70 games, including a 40-point, 19-rebound effort at Seattle on February 11. He also blocked 5 or more shots in 33 games, with a season-high 9 blocks on four occasions.
1990-91: Were it not for a serious injury midway through the 1990-91 season, Olajuwon would likely have led the NBA in rebounding for a third straight year. He took an elbow in the eye from the Chicago Bulls' Bill Cartwright on January 3, suffering a blowout fracture of the bones that surround the eyeball.
Olajuwon underwent surgery on January 14 and missed the Rockets' next 25 games, the longest idle stretch of his career. Although his average of 13.8 rebounds per game was better than any other player's, he failed to qualify for the leaderboard because he did not play in the required 70 games (only 56) or have the required 800 total rebounds (only 770).
The seven-year veteran did qualify to rank among the blocked-shot leaders, finishing first in the league for a second straight year with 3.95 per game. He added 21.2 points per game, leading the Rockets in scoring and rebounding average for a fifth straight season.
Olajuwon's eye injury forced a break in his string of six consecutive All-Star appearances. (He returned to the All-Star Game in 1992.) At season's end he was named to the All-NBA Third Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
1989-90: Olajuwon led the NBA in rebounding (14.0 rpg) and blocked shots (4.59 per game) in 1989-90, joining Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to lead the league in both categories in the same season. He reclaimed a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team but was bumped from the All-NBA First Team by San Antonio Spurs rookie David Robinson. The five-year veteran Olajuwon finished runner-up to Dennis Rodman for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.
An All-Star for the fifth straight season, Olajuwon became only the fourth player in NBA history to win consecutive rebounding titles, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Moses Malone. (Rodman later accomplished the feat in 1992-93 and in 1993-94.) Besides his defensive exploits, Olajuwon also had a strong offensive season, averaging 24.3 points on .501 shooting from the field.
On March 29 Olajuwon joined Nate Thurmond and Alvin Robertson as the only players in league history to record a quadruple-double. (David Robinson joined the group in 1994.) In a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, he had 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks, and 10 assists.
The Rockets didn't last long in the 1990 NBA Playoffs, however, losing a first-round series to the Los Angeles Lakers in four games. Olajuwon tied a playoff record with 10 blocked shots in Game 2.
1988-89: Olajuwon was named to the All-NBA First Team for a third consecutive season, a string exceeded by only two centers in NBA history: George Mikan (six, from 1949 to 1955) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four, from 1971 to 1974).
Olajuwon stands 7 feet tall, yet he exhibits the agility and quickness of a guard. Those qualities helped him establish two NBA firsts in 1988-89. He became the first player to record 200 steals and 200 blocks in a season, two statistics the league began recording in 1973-74. He was also the first player to finish in the league's top 10 in scoring (24.8 ppg, 10th), rebounding (13.5 rpg, first), steals (2.60 per game, sixth), and blocked shots (3.44 per game, fourth) in consecutive seasons.
Olajuwon thrilled Rockets fans when he started at center in the 1989 NBA All-Star Game in the Houston Astrodome. Making his fourth straight All-Star appearance, Olajuwon scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting. The experience may have inspired him, for after the All-Star break he averaged 26.2 points and 14.1 rebounds in the season's final 36 games.
1987-88: Olajuwon was named to the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team, as well as being made a starter in the NBA All-Star Game, for the second straight season. He opened the year alongside Ralph Sampson, Buck Johnson, Steve Harris, and Allen Leavell in the Rockets' starting lineup, but Houston traded Sampson and Harris to the Golden State Warriors on December 12 for Joe Barry Carroll, Sleepy Floyd, and cash.
Olajuwon hiked his output after the Sampson trade, averaging 23.9 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in Houston's final 60 games. He finished the year ranked 10th in the league in scoring (22.8 ppg), third in rebounding (12.1 rpg), fourth in blocked shots (2.71 per game), and ninth in steals (2.05 per game).
He totaled at least 10 rebounds 61 times and had 20-plus rebounds six times. He scored in double figures in all but one game and blocked at least 5 shots in each of 10 games, including a season-high 10 blocks against the San Antonio Spurs on April 21-part of a triple-double that also included 38 points and 10 rebounds.
Olajuwon was simply awesome in the 1988 NBA Playoffs, although his gargantuan efforts couldn't prevent the Rockets from losing in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks. The fourth-year center posted astronomical averages of 37.5 points and 16.8 rebounds per game, setting an NBA Playoff record for most points in a four-game series with 150.
1986-87: With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar winding down, Patrick Ewing still developing, and David Robinson yet to arrive in the NBA, Olajuwon owned the distinction of being the NBA's most dominant center. He earned the first of three straight berths on the All-NBA First Team in 1987, was voted a starter for the West in the NBA All-Star Game, and earned selection to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Olajuwon led the Rockets in 13 statistical categories, including scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocked shots. Only Olajuwon and Dave Cowens (in 1977-78) have led their team in those four categories since the NBA first kept track of steals and blocks in the 1973-74 season. Olajuwon finished 12th in the league in scoring (23.4 ppg), eighth in rebounds (11.4 rpg), and third in blocked shots (3.39 per game).
The Rockets had aimed at a return to the NBA Finals but had to settle for a 42-40 regular-season record and elimination by the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference Semifinals. Olajuwon poured in 49 points in a 128-125 overtime loss to the Sonics in the decisive Game 6. He averaged 29.2 points and 11.3 rebounds in 10 postseason games.
1985-86: Olajuwon was named to the All-NBA Second Team in 1986 after finishing eighth in the league in scoring (23.5 ppg), third in blocked shots (3.40 per game), and 11th in steals (1.97 per game). He would have ranked in the top 10 in rebounding, with 11.5 per game, but because he played in only 68 games he failed to qualify for the leaderboard. An All-Star for the second straight season, Olajuwon missed 14 games between February 15 and March 15 with a sprained right knee.
The second-year center scored in double figures in every game he appeared in, with a season-high 41 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 5. He also grabbed 23 rebounds in a March 22 game against the New York Knicks.
The Rockets blew through the 1986 NBA Playoffs, losing only three games in the first three rounds en route to the NBA Finals. But Houston met its match in the Boston Celtics, who won the series in six games. Olajuwon kept the Rockets alive with an outstanding effort in Game 5. He scored 32 points and tied an NBA Finals single-game record with 8 blocks in Houston's 111-96 victory.
1984-85: Hakeem Olajuwon, who speaks English, French, and four Nigerian dialects, first excelled in soccer and handball. Late in 1978, at the All-Nigeria Teachers Sports Festival in Sokoto, Hakeem's high school was an entry in the basketball tournament-but Hakeem was on the handball team. A fellow student approached the Moslem Teachers College coach and asked if Hakeem could play for the team. Permission was granted, and a basketball superstar was born.
When the Houston Rockets won a coin flip with the Portland Trail Blazers for the first pick in the 1984 NBA Draft-one year before the institution of the Draft Lottery-the Rockets essentially won the right to select Hakeem Olajuwon. Although a talented North Carolina guard named Michael Jordan was also available (he would be picked third), Jordan hadn't shown the same superstar potential in college that Olajuwon had demonstrated at the University of Houston.
Teaming with Clyde Drexler on powerhouse Cougars teams that came to be known as "Phi Slamma Jamma," Olajuwon led Houston to the NCAA Final Four in three consecutive seasons-losing in the 1982 semifinals to eventual champion North Carolina, in the 1983 final to North Carolina State, and in the 1984 final to Georgetown. Olajuwon was ultimately named Southwest Conference Player of the Decade for the 1980s by a panel of coaches and media representatives.
The 7-foot center dominated NBA competition from the start, averaging 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds in his rookie season. He teamed with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson to form the "Twin Towers" in Houston. With Sampson averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, they became the first NBA duo since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor of the 1970 Los Angeles Lakers to each average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Olajuwon ranked fourth in the league in rebounding and second in blocked shots with 2.68 per game. He played in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, and at season's end he was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, finishing runner-up to Jordan for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
The Rockets went from a 29-53 record before Olajuwon's arrival to a 48-34 mark in the 1984-85 season. They were eliminated by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1985 NBA Playoffs.