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Rockets’ Olajuwon Begins Fifth Season Amid Controversy

United Press International

Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon, regarded as the premier center in the NBA, begins his fifth professional season surrounded by controversy over his off-court problems and criticism of his teammates.

But the 7-foot Olajuwon says too much has been made of his private life and his negative comments about the Rockets’ performance last year.

“I don’t have any problems with any of the players,” said Olajuwon, who was crucial in Houston’s trek to the 1986 finals, where the Rockets lost to Boston in six games. “I can get along with all of them. I’ll always be myself. I’m a positive thinker.

“I’m happy now. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t happy. I’m ready to go. I’m still the same person I always was. The public will see the truth. I have too much pride. I don’t have any problems. I’ve been here eight years. If you know me, you know I haven’t changed. People have the wrong picture of me. I will do the right thing.”

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Olajuwon’s ability on the court has never been questioned. He is a four-time All-Star who has scored in double figures 299 times out of 304 games he has played, and has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in 212 games.

However, he can do more than score and rebound. Olajuwon takes pride in his defensive and shot-blocking skills, and his ability to run the court better than any big man playing the game. Teams regularly double- and triple-team Olajuwon, a sure sign of respect.

“I think I can improve my game 20 percent this year,” he said. “I don’t set goals. I just try to be the best I can.”

The Rockets have rewarded him financially. Last year, he signed an eight-year extension that will make him a Rocket through the 1998 season at a salary worth more than $20 million.

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But the last year has been a troubled one for the native of Lagos, Nigeria. During last season, he publicly criticized several of his teammates for what he considered uninspired play and also lashed out at the team’s offensive philosophy. After the season ended, Bill Fitch was fired as head coach and replaced by Don Chaney, who is considered to be more of a player’s coach and who has promised an up-tempo offense.

Olajuwon’s summer, though, was anything but pleasant. He has been sued by his ex-girlfriend for $9 million for allegedly breaking a promise to marry her after she gave birth to their daughter. Olajuwon also is being sued by a television photographer he allegedly assaulted.

Then there were reports he was unhappy with his contract and was considering playing in Europe unless the Rockets increased his salary.

“I don’t want to renegotiate my contract,” he said flatly. “The media made too much of it. I’m here. I have a 10-year contract with the Rockets and I plan on being here.”

Chaney, after being hired, embarked on a summer of player moves intended mainly to take pressure off Olajuwon, who was carrying too much of the load. The biggest moves were to acquire power forward Otis Thorpe from Sacramento and guard Bernard Thompson from Charlotte, and sign free agent guard Mike Woodson.

Olajuwon is pleased with the Rockets’ roster, especially because it will allow him flexibility to play both center and forward.

“I would like to play forward,” he said. “It will give me a chance to go both inside and outside. I think I can make a good forward. Whatever it takes to make the ballclub improve, I will do it. I don’t mind playing power forward if it will help the team win the championship.

“There is no question we will have a better team than last year. We’ve already improved the team, but the chemisty has to be right. We can’t be talking about the NBA finals too soon. We have too much work to do yet. The (Los Angeles) Lakers are the champions and they have a great team.

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“Last year we lost in the first round of the playoffs,” Olajuwon said. “We didn’t even get close. This year, I’d like to go a lot farther.”


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