Olajuwon's influence a growing presence for elite group of stars
Eight years have passed since Hakeem Olajuwon last dream-shaked his way off an NBA court. And though the two-time NBA champion and one-time MVP's career is but a series of
"It's always good to get advice from successful veterans, and he's a Hall of Famer," said Smith, who worked with Olajuwon in 2008. "Everything he gave me I was able to borrow -- countermoves, go-to moves, knowing how to play post defense. I would try to mirror his moves and he helped me work on all the things he was critiqued on when he was a player."
The tutoring is a bit underground for league circles, spent out of the eyes of other NBA teams at a gym near Olajuwon's home in Houston, where he spends the summer of each year before returning to his wife and seven children at his home in Amman, Jordan. Though usually lasting no more than a few hours for a few days, Olajuwon's lessons are personal in nature, custom-designed to take advantage of a player's unique skills and teammates.
"It wasn't just him sitting there telling you or showing you moves," said Rashard Lewis, who worked with Olajuwon last summer. "It definitely is something different. Anybody can go out there and shoot a shot and can go right, left, jump up and down. The moves [we worked on] come within your freedom and make you go in different directions."
The teachings start with the nimble footwork Olajuwon developed while playing soccer as a kid in Nigeria.
"You start with a mental picture, then it is all footwork," Olajuwon said of his approach. "And the footwork is repetition. It is a dance step. You demonstrate it, then you criticize it by breaking it down. All you need to do is figure out how to get this guy, my opponent, off balance while you're shooting. If you don't have the height advantage and you play against a guy who is very long, he will bother your shot. But if you freeze him, misdirect him when you're going up, he can't get to it. So what move are you going to use to make that happen?
"Once you have a base, then it's time to recognize your own abilities; that's how these moves become natural. You have the freedom to create, where you say, 'I love going right more, I love going left more, I feel more comfortable with this.' Then it becomes natural. And then the more you use them in a game, the more they become your moves."
Sounds easy enough for an elite athlete, until you realize that even the likes of Kobe needed a full-day tutorial to grasp the nuances that propelled Olajuwon to average 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.5 assists in 18 seasons.
"There are a lot of subtleties to his game," said Okafor, who has worked with Olajuwon for a couple of summers. "How to feel your guy out, how to cover more ground, how to sell your move a little, how to knock your guy off balance a little better -- a certain fluidity that is his style. I could practice as long as I want, I would never look the way he does, because (1) it's not natural to you, and (2) it's pretty intricate. So it's a matter of adapting his lessons to your own style."
Now 47, Olajuwon doesn't offer his advice as a means to coaching in the league; the constant traveling and a lack of interest in plotting the X's and O's of the game have left Olajuwon content to advise on demand, be it a request delivered by Dwight Howard's mother at the Final Four last April, or by a handful of college players who find themselves playing against him each summer in Houston. A more formal role wouldn't fit into Olajuwon's schedule anyway, what with the Dawat Islamic center he helped found and still operates in Houston, the new Dream line of clothing he is peddling and the children age 13 and under he and his wife are raising.
"They're still too young to play basketball," Olajuwon said of his kids, "but I want them to play soccer for the foot and eye coordination; basketball is just dribbling. When I started learning basketball rules, I began to translate some of these moves from soccer to basketball. That's where the creativity arose."
As much as the footwork, it is those translation skills that resonate most now in trying to impart that creativity. Olajuwon demonstrates, but he also tries to guide, offering frank assessments of his clients' assets and how he thinks they can best use their talents. Howard's "strength is his quickness and his leaping ability, not his height." Bryant could "take the ball from the outside and turn it into a post move by using his feet to create that space." And Smith is "not used to [playing with] his back to the basket" even though "the post is good for him."
To Olajuwon's way of thinking, adding a new drop step or developing a more effective ball fake will only go so far toward making those transformations. A mindset that embraces the easy instead of reveling in the difficult is crucial.
"When I watch games, I see a ton of opportunities where guys are not recognizing what the opponents are giving them," Olajuwon said. "They try to make a move, but it's not there. There is no reason to create a move if I'm successful at what you're giving me. You have to be able to recognize that, make a quick observation. If he's not giving me much, then I'll try to create my own [move]."
That was the type of message Olajuwon delivered when he spoke by phone with Howard after the Magic went down 3-0 in their eventual Eastern Conference finals flameout to Boston last spring. Flustered by the physicality of Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, Howard had taken his attack away from the basket, relying increasingly on a running hook shot rendered ineffective by Perkins' ability to knock Howard off balance.
"I suggested he shoot his jump hook," Olajuwon recalled. "He's a leaper. He has the ability to get his jump hook anytime he wants. And I said to attack [Perkins], not go away from him. Try to face up, use a drop step, a spin move, go baseline. There were so many opportunities."
The words struck the right note. After averaging 16.7 points on 45.4 percent shooting, nine rebounds and 2.6 blocks over the first three games of the series -- all losses -- Howard improved to two points on 64.6 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks over the final three games of the series -- two of which were Orlando wins.
This season, Howard, who spent three days last summer working in Houston with Olajuwon, is shooting a career-best 49 percent on shots from 10 feet and in (but not at the rim),
"My type of basketball is about how to create space, how to maneuver, how to get your shot off," Olajuwon said. "Some of these moves are by accident. When you are double- and triple-teamed and a team is trying to take you out of the game, you've got to find ways of being effective, so you to maneuver to score. You do it instinctively."
As more and more of the NBA's current stars have discovered, those instincts translate to any era.