HE’S SIMPLY : A Cut Above the Rest : Hakeem Olajuwon, in 10th Season, Propelling Rockets and Himself to Lofty Heights

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He was too good to be true.

Akeem Olajuwon was innocent as a fawn, gifted as a god. In a world of head cases, he was pleasant and easygoing. He would have been the All-American boy except he was from Nigeria.

Not to worry.

In the years that passed, he got Americanized.

He became rich and famous, not to mention notorious. He was paid millions of dollars and blamed for many Houston Rocket disappointments that weren’t his fault.

He learned it was a business and discovered a new favorite word: renegotiate. His fans grew callous. His employer accused him of faking an injury to get a new contract. Had it not been for a salary-cap technicality, he might have been traded.


Eighteen months later, the Rockets are flirting with elite status and people are saying he’s the game’s best player, the front-runner for the most-valuable-player award.

And he’s still pretty much the same guy, except for the H he added to his first name to reflect the Arabic pronunciation. It’s enough to make a young man laugh or cry or something.

“You have to look at the career span, from when I came in in my rookie year,” says Olajuwon, choosing to ignore the irony.

“This is my 10th year in the league. I’ve had a successful career. I’m still on top of my game. No injuries, so I’m very blessed. I look at it from that point of view.”

It’s a serene point of view and a relatively new one for Olajuwon, whose skin used to be thinner, whose sunny disposition used to cloud over.

“He was a young man who just wanted to get the ball, throw it on the floor and run up and down,” says Robert Reid, a Rocket for Olajuwon’s first five seasons.


“I remember a time when I was playing point (during) Dream’s rookie year. He said in his accent, ‘Bobby, gimme the ball, mon.’

“I said, ‘But Dream, you’ve got four guys hanging on you.’ He said, ‘That’s OK, I dunk on all of them.’ ”

The Rocket coaches, who had only expected a player as good as their other Twin Tower, Ralph Sampson, were amazed at what they had.

So was everyone else.

“Nobody’s gotten to him and distorted his mind,” said then-Laker coach Pat Riley, laughing during a break in the ’86 Western finals, in which Olajuwon and the Rockets surprisingly ousted the Lakers, 4-1.

“Centers in this league are supposed to pace themselves. Nobody’s told him to pace himself. He’s irrepressible. He just never stops playing. He pursues the basketball and pursues the basketball. You can’t block him out. He’s so persistent and so strong. He just comes through people.”

But the Rockets went from the wave of the future into a ripple breaking on the last years of the Laker dynasty. The blame fell first on Sampson, who was traded; on the Rockets’ flotsam-jetsam guards, three of whom went into detox programs; on coach Bill Fitch, who was fired.


Finally, the perennial disappointment began to reflect on Olajuwon himself.

“He was getting scarred up a bit,” Reid says. “In Dream’s mind, if you didn’t get upset or play as hard as he did, he felt you were leaving something. . . .

“I can remember a couple times, if I missed Dream if he was open down low or if I threw a ball away, he would scold and get mad and you would argue with him.

“This team that has matured around Hakeem and Rudy T (Coach Rudy Tomjanovich), they now have a focused leader--Hakeem. Think about it. Two to three years ago, who was the leader on the floor? You didn’t have one. Who was the guy who stood in front of everyone and said, ‘Damn it, we’re not going to lose?’ Or if things went down, who spoke out first? No one did.”

Two seasons ago, the Rockets went on a 15-2 run while Olajuwon was sitting out because of an eye injury. Houston talk shows burned up with calls for Hakeem to come back as the sixth man, or to be traded.

Olajuwon, his eyes always on Los Angeles, said it was OK with him.

“Sure, they could always trade me,” he said. “You know how long that would take the Rockets? (Snapping his fingers), I’d be gone like that. The Rockets would get two or three players and probably some money. And I know that I’d get more money. So I guess everybody could be happy. I could be happy with more money if that’s what everybody wants.”

Olajuwon added that if hard work wasn’t good enough for the man in the street, “He can go to hell.”


Years later, however, he understands.

“The people that make suggestions, that put their opinions about, oh, trade this, do this, it’s very easy to say than when they don’t have their money where their mouth is,” he says. “I don’t listen to outside people because it’s just talk. Anybody can talk. But who are the decision-makers? They know it can cost them a lot of money for any mistake. They have to pay for their mistake. People on the street just talk.”

Actually, the decision-makers were coming after him, too.

A year later, Olajuwon, seeking a one-year $15-million extension of a contract that paid him $3 million annually, found himself at an impasse with the Rockets. General Manager Steve Patterson said later that their last meeting ended with Olajuwon’s telling him: “You do what you have to do, I’ll do what I have to do.”

The next night, Olajuwon scored 21 points and took down 18 rebounds in a victory over the Clippers. He came out complaining of a hamstring twinge, but returned in the fourth quarter.

When he sat out two games, the Rockets suspended him. In all, he was out for four games--$130,000 worth.

Olajuwon filed a grievance.

The Rockets produced an expert who said there was no injury. Other doctors said a soft-tissue injury, or the absence of one, would be difficult to prove. Management backed down, but the Rockets were a demoralized team. Kenny Smith said the atmosphere was worse than Sacramento’s. Vern Maxwell said it was worse than his season in San Antonio, when the Spurs lost 61 games.

Just to prove it, the Rockets finished 1-5 and missed the playoffs.

The Rockets set out to trade Olajuwon. They reportedly agreed with the Lakers on a deal for Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Elden Campbell, but it couldn’t be made. Although Divac had just signed an extension paying him $3.6 million a year, for salary-cap purposes he had to be listed at his old $975,000.


Olajuwon came back to camp, an unhappy Rocket. On media day in the fall of 1992, he called team owner Charlie Thomas a coward.

Thomas was trying to sell the team, but it was a slow process. Instead, he and Olajuwon made up on the team’s long flight to Tokyo to open the ‘92-93 season.

Said Thomas: “I’m a businessman. He’s a businessman.”

The Rockets started 14-16, but finished 41-11. Olajuwon, passing out of double-teams, patting teammates on the back after mistakes but otherwise playing the same way he had for a decade, was chosen defensive player of the year and ran a strong No. 2 to Charles Barkley in the MVP voting.

Thomas found a buyer, Les Alexander. Alexander signed Olajuwon to a $26-million, four-year extension with a clause that makes him a free agent in 1997.

“I don’t look at it--oh, the owner call you this,” says Olajuwon. “I look at my position, my career, where I am today.

“I mean, you’re talking to me today. He’s no longer the owner.

Friends say Olajuwon’s serenity flows from his new devotion to Islam. Now everything has fallen into place and if it falls back out, well, he’s an innocent no longer.


“I think I’ve had a wonderful career,” he says. “I don’t look at the bad, I look at the good. The good way overrides the bad. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun.”