When we think of '90s basketball, two players come to mind: Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Besides Jordan, Hakeem is the only other star player to win an NBA championship from 1991-98. He was one of the best all-around centers of all time. And how could we forget the Dream Shake? Let’s take a moment to appreciate the greatness and look back on Hakeem Olajuwon’s career.
Hakeem Olajuwon was born on Jan. 21, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria. His family owned a concrete business and instilled hard work and discipline into Olajuwon at a young age.
As a kid, Olajuwon played soccer as a goalie. He credits this experience for giving him an advantage over other centers. The footwork and agility he learned playing goalie translated over perfectly into the NBA.
Olajuwon didn’t play basketball until high school at the Muslim Teachers College. He enrolled in a local basketball tournament and fell in love with the game during his tenure there.
Guy Lewis was the Houston Cougars basketball coach for most of the 1980s. When one of his friends recommended he give Olajuwon a tryout after seeing Olajuwon play, the longtime coach of the Cougars took a chance on the unknown prospect.
Olajuwon redshirted his first year. As the sixth man for the Cougars, Olajuwon averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. Frustrated with his lack of playing time, Olajuwon’s coaches advised him to train with NBA legend Moses Malone, the star center of the Houston Rockets at the time.
Olajuwon entered his redshirt sophomore year as a player with the confidence and savvy to lead a team. The duo of Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler captivated Houston with their dunking antics and streetball playing style during the 1982-83 season, eventually earning the nickname Phi Slama Jama.
Houston’s basketball fraternity lost to NC State in the NCAA title game after NC State’s Lorenzo Charles made a game-winning dunk in the final seconds.
Drexler left for the NBA, leaving Olajuwon as the top dog the following season. The Houston Cougars went back to the national championship. This time, they lost to a Georgetown Hoyas squad led by Patrick Ewing. Olajuwon registered for the NBA Draft in 1984.
The Houston Rockets won the Draft Lottery and received the first pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. With the selection, they had the honor of drafting Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets got their superstar, and Olajuwon was happy to remain in Houston.
Legends such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton are also members of this class.
Olajuwon made an immediate impact with the Rockets, averaging 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game.
The seven-foot, 255-pound Olajuwon teamed up with the 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, forming one of the biggest frontcourts in the league. Their large stature made scoring in the paint difficult for opposing teams on a nightly basis. They dominated from 1984-1987 as a dynamic duo.
In Olajuwon’s rookie year, the Rockets went 48-34 and lost in the first round to the Utah Jazz.
There was no sophomore slump for Olajuwon, who broke out for 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, two steals, and two assists per game. The Rockets soared to a 51-31 record and breezed through the playoffs. They beat the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference Finals, shocking the sports world.
In six games, the Rockets lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. There is no shame in losing to the ‘86 Celtics, as they’re often considered one of the greatest-ever NBA teams.
In 1988, the Rockets fired head coach Bill Fitch and replaced him with Don Chaney after numerous early-round playoff exits.
The 1988-89 season was another great outing for Olajuwon, by now among the top centers in the NBA. He averaged 24.8 points, a league-leading 13.5 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game. It was the first of two rebounding crowns for Olajuwon.
Under their new head coach, they lost in the first round to the Seattle SuperSonics. Olajuwon put up an incredible fight all series long.
Everyone remembers Olajuwon for winning two championships in the '90s. This was The Dream in his prime, no doubt. But his best statistical season came in 1989-90, when he averaged 24.3 points, 14 rebounds, 4.6 blocks, 2.9 assists, and 2.1 steals. Olajuwon was a force in the paint all season long. He led the league in rebounds and blocks, putting him in impressive company. The only other players to lead the league in rebounds and blocks in the same season are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Ben Wallace, and Dwight Howard.
Olajuwon’s amazing season carried the Rockets to a 41-41 record and the playoffs, where they lost to the Lakers in the first round.
On March 29, 1990, Olajuwon made NBA history. Olajuwon got a quadruple-double with 18 points, 16 boards, 11 blocks, and 10 assists in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. It was just the third quadruple-double in NBA history. On this night, Olajuwon put his all-around abilities on full display.
A great interior defender, Olajuwon led the league in blocks three times (1990, '91, '93). His career high for blocks per game was 4.6 in 1990. His career average is 3.1 blocks per game. Every time someone drove into the paint against the Rockets, Olajuwon made sure there was a block party. Olajuwon is the all-time leader in blocks with 3,830.
The Olajuwon era in Houston hit rock bottom in the early '90s. First-round playoff exit after first-round playoff exit took its toll on team morale, especially with the Rockets’ franchise player.
Hakeem’s frustrations peaked after the team missed the playoffs in the 1991-92 season. Before this season, the Rockets had lost in the first round the previous four years. Soon after, tension built within the organization. Olajuwon was tired of carrying the team. He had little to no help around him every single year. They weren’t giving him what he needed to win. Every game, he was being double-teamed or triple-teamed. To make matters worse, he was tired of playing under a bad contract and wanted to be paid like the top center he was. Olajuwon requested a trade.
Toward the end of the disappointing 91-92 season, the Rockets fired Don Chaney and replaced him with Rudy Tomjanovich, a former player of the Rockets and a longtime assistant coach with the team. He reignited the team with drive and optimism.
The following year, the Rockets improved, winning 55 games. In the playoffs, they lost in the second round to the Seattle SuperSonics in a hard-fought series that went to seven games. When it was all said and done, Olajuwon received a hefty new contract and was never traded. The Rockets looked like a team heading in the right direction.
Michael Jordan won NBA titles in 1991, '92, and '93. When the victory parades were over, Jordan retired and gave professional baseball a try.
The league felt like it was wide open without its best player. It was as if every team had a fighting chance to bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Olajuwon and the Rockets set out to take advantage of this power vacuum.
Olajuwon won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards in the prime of his career (1993, '94). In his era, he had to guard centers like Shaq, Mutumbo, Robinson, Pat Ewing, and sometimes Karl Malone. Similarly, he could guard every position and was a great rebounder and blocker.
The Rockets capitalized and went 58-24 in the 1993-94 regular season. As the Rockets' lone superstar, Hakeem led a talented group of role players to the NBA Finals, including Robert Horry and Kenny “The Jet” Smith.
The stage was set. The Rockets would go up against center Pat Ewing and the New York Knicks. Olajuwon and Ewing duked it out the entire series, dazzling fans with their post moves, rebounding, and old-school basketball. The Knicks took a commanding 3-2 lead in the series. In Game 6, Olajuwon blocked shooting Knicks guard John Starks' game-winning three-pointer that would’ve led to New York winning the championship. In a do-or-die Game 7, the Rockets handily defeated the Knicks, 90-84. Olajuwon outplayed and outscored Ewing, winning Finals MVP.
Olajuwon was finally a champion. He became the only player in NBA history to win MVP, the championship, Finals MVP, and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He also became the first foreign-born player to win the NBA MVP.
By now, Olajuwon was the top player in the league and entering his prime. And the Rockets were only getting better. A midseason trade sent star shooting guard Clyde Drexler to the Rockets. Phi Slama Jama was reunited. Peaking at the right time, Olajuwon led the Rockets back to the NBA Finals with a little help from his friend. The Rockets swept the Penny Hardaway-Shaquille O’Neal led Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Olajuwon dominated Shaq the entire series, finishing with 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, two blocks, and two steals per game. Olajuwon took home Finals MVP honors for the second year in a row. His ‘95 Finals performance was the best basketball Olajuwon ever played. From this point on, there was no questioning he had the clutch gene.
The Rockets won as a sixth seed and had no home field advantage the entire playoff run. Coach Tomjanovich gave an iconic speech in the postgame celebration when he said, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The Rockets came back down to Earth after winning back-to-back championships. Michael Jordan was back with the Bulls, and he went on another three-peat. The Rockets almost met the Bulls in the ‘97 Finals, but the Rockets lost to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.
Olajuwon played a few years with Scottie Pippen and fellow ‘84 draft class member Charles Barkley. Even with this star power, he never made another Finals appearance. And that’s OK. The previously mentioned stars were at the tail end of their career, and Olajuwon had nothing left to prove.
Seventeen years with the Rockets was enough for Olajuwon. He decided it was time for a change of scenery. In his final year in the NBA, he was traded to the Toronto Raptors. Olajuwon wasn’t the same player. At 39, The Dream averaged 7.1 points and six rebounds per game. Although he wanted to play one more year, he retired after suffering a back injury the following autumn in October 2002.
The 1996 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team won the gold medal in the Summer Olympics. Drawing comparisons to The Dream Team of ‘92, they were nicknamed Dream Team II. Star power like Olajuwon, Barkley, Pippen, and John Stockton to name a few dominated in the Olympics. Olajuwon averaged five points and three rebounds as he shared minutes with center David Robinson and Shaq.
The Dream Shake was Olajuwon’s signature move. He fooled a lot of would-be defenders with the Dream Shake during his career. The footwork and agility necessary for the Dream Shake were built during Olajuwon’s time as a goalie. For a guy his height (7 feet), Olajuwon was fluid and nimble in his movements. It’s what made him a generational talent at the center position.
Two-time champion Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008. He finished his career with averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 3.1 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game. A 12-time All-Star, Olajuwon possessed great footwork and agility that helped him dominate in the post. He’s a Houston sports legend and an international icon who went down as one of the best foreign-born NBA players ever. Hakeem is more than the guy who won two championships in between Jordan in the '90s. He’s the best all-around center ever.
David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. He ran cross country at Penn State, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and is a self taught journalist. He's a diehard Philly sports fan. When he isn't watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing, and traveling. You can find more of his writing at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter at @dave_hunt44.
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