<h3>Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon Continues To Inspire Others and Impact Today’s Game</h3>
I recently read a New York Times story that discussed New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s friendship with former NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon, and how Olajuwon is at the team’s practice facility this week tutoring Carmelo, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire on the nuances of his mesmerizing and devastating offensive weaponry. As a long suffering Knicks fan, that one story was enough to make my entire offseason feel like Christmas eve.
Hakeem was always among my favorite players ever, whose effectiveness on both ends of the floor was a joy to watch and cherish. What I love about Hakeem’s journey, and what I tell young players who place a stupefying emphasis on meaningless sixth grade rankings, is that he’s proof positive that one’s journey to greatness is a marathon, not a sprint.
Prior to the monument outside of Houston’s Toyota Center, the Olympic gold medal, NBA championships and MVP awards, prior to his induction into the University of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity and three straight Final Fours, Hakeem Abdul Ajibola Olajuwon was a tall, skinny teenager who grew up on Bank Olemoh, a street in the Surulere neighborhood of the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Lagos, Nigeria.
While his father, Salaam, brokered cement deals, Olajuwon was expending his youthful energy on handball courts and dusty soccer fields. It was there that he formed the foundation of feints, spins, footwork, jukes, head fakes, agility, athleticism and speed that would later amaze the basketball world.
At the urging of friends and coaches, who were anxious to get the long, athletic kid on the court, Hakeem made his first foray as a high school student at Moslem Teachers College. Early on, he had no concept or understanding of the game’s rules. The head coach took Olajuwon, along with one of the team’s guards, to one side of the court while the rest of the team practiced.
“He stressed my role as the center,” Hakeem told Fran Blineberry of the Houston Chronicle. “He told me not to let anyone score. He gave me the picture. He let me know, from day one, that center is the most important position in basketball.”
In a matter of weeks, the lanky Hakeem showed enough promise to gain a spot on the Nigerian national team. On the Lagos playgrounds, he idolized and tried to mimic a local legend by the name of Yommy Sangodeyi.
After an outdoor tournament in 1980, in a small town forty miles outside of Lagos, Hakeem sought out Christopher Pond, the coach of the Central African Republic team. Pond was a contract employee with the U.S. State Department who was conducting coaching clinics throughout the continent.
Pond observed that Olajuwon, though clearly unpolished, had raw talent. “He just came alive,” was how he described his first impressions of Hakeem on the court.
“I was only doing two things, blocking shots and dunking,” Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle’s Blineberry. “I was going after every shot on defense and a guard was setting me up to finish on offense.”
The teenager approached Pond and inquired about obtaining a scholarship to a college in the United States. When Pond found out that Hakeem was only 17, the two dashed to the U.S. Embassy. Pond called Guy Lewis, the University of Houston coach and raved about his 6-foot-10 African prospect. Lewis informed the embassy of his interest in having Olajuwon attend the school and a Visa was hastily prepared.
A number of college visits were arranged and Hakeem’s first stop was actually in New York City to visit St. John’s University in Queens. (Am I the only one thinking that this Coming to America story could’ve given Eddie Murphy’s movie a run for its money?) He took a flight from Lagos to JFK Airport in October of 1980 armed with an itinerary that also included visits to Providence College, the University of Georgia, the University of North Carolina and Houston.
But the frigid, wintery conditions, coupled with the fact that no one from St John’s bothered to show up and meet him at the airport, killed what could have been a dream scenario for any New York City hoops addict.
Which leads me to the following hypothetical scenario, What if then St. John’s Head Coach Louie Carnessecca had showed up at JFK airport wearing his gaudy, lucky sweater while New York was in the midst of an unseasonably warm fall day?
Can you imagine the paradigm shift in college hoops culture if Olajuwon wound up playing ball for Louie Carnesecca’s Redmen teams in the early 1980’s? The thought of what could’ve been, and what we lost out on, as a kid who grew up cheering for St. John’s, makes me sicker than Maya Rudolph and her friends after they ate some bad Brazilian food in the movie Bridesmaids.
Hakeem then asked, of all the schools on his list, which one was in the hottest climate. He proceeded to board a plane en route to Houston. And just like that, something as simple as the weather and a coach not showing up at the airport irretrievably altered the landscape and history of college basketball.
When he arrived in Houston, Guy Lewis didn’t meet him at the airport either. It turns out that Dick Pond had once sold Lewis on a Venezuelan player that had been nothing near what was promised, so the coach was wary.
“I didn’t even go out there to meet him,” Lewis says in Filip Bondy’s book, Tip Off, How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever. “I called him a cab.”
When Hakeem’s cab pulled up, he was greeted by a welcoming committee of the coaching staff and some players, including Clyde Drexler. Olajuwon stepped out of the taxi sporting a white dashiki, white pants and sparkling dress shoes.
“Then he got out of the cab and he just kept going, going, going, going, going,” Drexler says in Tip Off. “We had no idea how tall he was.”
“He hadn’t played organized ball for more than three, four months,” said Lewis. “I thought the guy told me he was 6′4″, 6′5″. Then I saw him. He was 6′10″, 6′11″.
They immediately got him into the locker room and gave him some shorts, t-shirts and, after trying numerous sneakers that didn’t fit, a pair of comfy, size 16 sneakers.
“I couldn’t believe all these brand new shoes,” Hakeem told the Houston Chronicle’s Blineberry. “For the first time ever, I would play basketball without pain in my feet. It was always a distraction when I was running and jumping. But this was comfortable. I thought, Oh Man! They’re in trouble out there on the court.”
After one pick-up game, the coaching staff checked him into a hotel and got him enrolled in school.
“I don’t remember who I blocked first,” Olajuwon told Blineberry. “I was reading and anticipating all the shots. Guys were expecting to get layups. You do not just get a layup. No. No. You have to deserve it.”
Hakeem was redshirted during his freshman year and joined the Cougars for the 1981-1982 season. He was a key role player on a team that reached the Final Four in New Orleans. That year’s championship became a memorable event due to a game winning shot, in the waning moments, by a skinny freshman from North Carolina named Michael Jeffrey Jordan that helped the Tar Heels beat one of coach John Thompson’s great Georgetown teams.
“When we won some games in the tournament and everybody began to celebrate and yell, ‘We’re going to the Final Four!’I didn’t understand the significance,” Hakeem told Blineberry. “I didn’t know what we had done.”
The incredible thing was that Olajuwon was just learning how to play, and his amazing development unfolded in front of the eyes of the entire basketball-loving nation.
During his freshman year, he was a spark of raw energy off the bench, a dizzying compilation of arms and legs who rejected shots and delivered monstrous dunks with the same reckless abandon that he collected personal fouls.
But that summer, Hakeem – playing the role of Luke Skywalker, came under the tutelage of Yoda, played by the incomparable Moses Malone. And that knowledge transfer and mentorship would shake the global foundations of basketball. At Houston’s Fonde Recreation Center during the offseason, Olajuwon would go on to earn his hoops Ph D.
Moses didn’t come to the game until his teens as well, but his hard work and determination on the playgrounds of Petersburg, Virginia laid the foundation of his future legend.
The war-proven veteran from the American South found a kindred spirit and willing disciple in the Nigerian import. Hakeem’s development over that one summer was so Bunyanesque, it was truly unfathomable. The rugged battles with Moses, the reigning NBA MVP at the time, forced Olajuwon to dig deep.
Those lessons, administered at the highest levels of banging, shoving and pushing, allowed Hakeem to distend his skill set. Understanding that he couldn’t move an immovable force, The Dream had to learn how to succeed, as the great martial artist Bruce Lee once said, at the art of fighting without fighting.
He incorporated those old soccer and handball moves, utilizing the change of pace, stutter steps, head fakes and shake-n-bake moves that would later annihilate his future competitors.
“Moses gave me nothing easy on the floor,” Hakeem told Blineberry. “He made me earn everything, and it made me expand the limits of my game.”
“The guy worked hard every second,” said college teammate Michael Young in Tip Off. “He already had great footwork from playing soccer. Then he played a lot of pick up. He was a gym rat.”
On one occasion at the Fonde Recreation Center, at the end of the summer, Malone called a foul. And Olajuwon exploded.
“Awww no! Dammit Mo, Be a Mon!” he screamed. Anyone else would not have lived to tell that story. But Moses, who had taken a liking to the 20-year-old Hakeem, was proudly amused.
“And then, boom, it seemed to happen overnight,” Young says in Tip Off. “His game just developed.”
“Against Moses, Hakeem was freer, looser, more assertive, going to his killer move on instinct,” former NBA player McCoy McLemore told Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick. “It was like he was no longer a foreigner but a cocky, hip, black schoolyard dude. Confident. A hustler. He also worked the weights and got his weight up to 255. Moses couldn’t take a day off against him anymore. They were two titans. The beauty of it was both were laughing – Moses was so proud and tickled. They recognized they could stop each other while nobody else could. It was a dead standoff.”
Hakeem also kept his teammates in stitches while beating his newly acquired American slang expressions to death.
“After the brothers taught Hakeem ‘rock your world’ he must have used it 100 times in practice one day,” Cougar guard Reid Gettys told Kirkpatrick. “Of course, they use it as a kind of angry, pseudo-threat. You know, ‘I’m gonna slap yo stuff outa here, bro! I’m gonna rock your world!!!’ But when Hakeem tried it, he came out with that clipped British accent. Very precise, polite. He said, ‘Now, I am going to rock your world,’ all afternoon. ‘Now I am going to rock your world.’ It cracked everybody up.”
During the 1982-1983 season, the Houston Cougars, also known by one of the most delicious nicknames in the history of sports, Phi Slamma Jamma, made an indelible impression on the national sporting consciousness with the athletic brilliance of Benny Anders, Larry Micheaux, Michael Young, Alvin Franklin, and Clyde Drexler that still resonates today.
They were progenitors of the above-the-rim style that would strong arm and stylistically brand the college game. Before Michigan’s Fab Five came along, teams like the University of Louisville’s Doctors of Dunk and Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma were America’s first true basketball embodiment of the soon to emerge urban aesthetic and hip hop cultural explosion.
Hakeem became the official Dream in the 1983 NCAA Tournament when he put up 21 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks against Memphis State, followed by a 20, 13 and 8 against Villanova. Against Louisville in the Final Four, he scored 21, snagged 22 rebounds and blocked 8 shots.
Despite losing to Jim Valvano’s Cinderella North Carolina State Wolfpack team in the National Championship game, Hakeem’s Triple-Double of 20 points, 18 rebounds and 11 blocked shots made you wonder if your eyes had the capacity to lie.
So how good was Hakeem during that NCAA Tournament? Well, he became the first player on a losing team in 17 years to be named the event’s Most Outstanding Player.
The next year, in their third Final Four in a row, The University of Houston lost another title to Patrick Ewing’s supreme Georgetown team that also included the wondrous talents of Reggie Williams, Michael Graham and “Downtown” Freddie Brown.
But The Dream went on to become one of the greatest centers, and most beloved figures, in the history of pro basketball. I could go on for days detailing his accomplishments. But if one snapshot encapsulates who he was, it was the 1995 Western Conference Finals against The Admiral’s San Antonio team.
David Robinson had just been awarded the league’s regular season MVP trophy and the Spurs walked into the playoffs with best record in the league. But The Dream averaged 35 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four blocks as he utterly DESTROYED the Admiral. (Allow those numbers to marinate for a second, and now let’s all say in unison, “GOOD LAWD!”)
The Rockets won the series and went on to capture their second straight NBA title.
How good was The Dream? He was the first pick in the ‘84 draft, ahead of Michael Jordan and the pick was never scrutinized. Hakeem was the first international player that achieved greatness on American soil, opening the floodgates for current global imports like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili.
The soccer fields and handball courts of Nigeria supplied the foundation, but Moses Malone sprinkled some hot sauce on Hakeem, unleashing a force of nature, as well as his signature move, The Dream Shake, on the game.
And right about now, the secrets of that Dream Shake are being taught to a group of willing students at the Knicks practice facility in Greenburgh, New York. I must honestly admit that the last time I was this excited was probably while watching the classic movie Purple Rain, at the age of fourteen, when Prince told Apollonia to purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.
So Spike, if you’re out there reading this, and your wife or buddies can’t take advantage of that extra seat due to scheduling conflicts from time to time, I’ll gladly sit courtside with you for, oh, I don’t know, I guess the Bulls, Heat and Lakers games.
And I’d love to hear Tyson Chandler, Amar’e or Melo telling Chris Bosh, Dewayne Wade, LeBron, Kobe, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and anybody else, “Now, I am going to rock your world. Now, I am going to rock your world.”
I think I’d rather enjoy that. Thanks Hakeem.