Of all the soccer goalies from Lagos, Nigeria, who have gone on to NBA stardom—an adaptive bunch to begin with, you would think—the former Akeem Olajuwon has proven to be the most agreeable to change. In the course of one NBA season the Houston Rocket center has come up with a new name (Hakeem Olajuwon), has accessorized with goggles (Hakeem Kareem Olajuwon?) and has blended with his no-longer-ineffectual teammates into a force that is challenging San Antonio and Utah for the Midwest Division lead (Team Hakeem?).
It's a brave new world indeed when a man can go to sleep one night and the next day have to throw out all his monogrammed shirts, which pretty much have to be tailored for Olajuwon's 6'10" frame in the first place. His first name, which means "wise one" or "doctor" in Arabic, has always been correctly spelled with an H, he explains kindly. But things just seem to get anglicized, like Qur'an; he carries a copy with him on the road, and he keeps it on his hotel nightstand. So O.K., it's Hakeem. But the one thing you might ask about is why he waited 10 years to correct the Western world. "Better late than never," he says.
Presumably that goes for playing on a championship team as well, although Olajuwon has not tolerated what he considers mismanagement as patiently as he has a misspelling. Ever since he had a taste of the NBA Finals in 1986—the Rockets lost to the Boston Celtics in six games and then slipped back to being a .500 team—he has been a fairly reliable source for postseason quotes on the stupidity of Houston's upper management. When the Rockets didn't get out of the first round of the playoffs in 1988, he blistered teammates Sleepy Floyd for selfishness and Joe Barry Carroll for lack of desire, and he ripped Houston's management for bringing in the tired, the poor and the wretched refuse. Every year, it seems, he has vented frustration over his teammates. Nothing personal, though, he says: "All I was saying was, you don't build with these guys. I wasn't criticizing my teammates. I was only saying that it's O.K. to have one or two guys [like that], but not a whole team of them. After all, my career's on the line."
His seven-year career of sustained excellence—his awesome rebounding (12.5 per game, going into this season) nearly makes you forget that he has averaged 23 points a game—seemed doomed to regional obscurity. The way the NBA works, you can be the most complete center in the game and still be denied greatness if you don't make the Finals on a regular basis. But as we have learned, things change. One day you're signing autographs with an A, the next with an H. One day you're on a team of misfits, the next day you're on a contender. It can happen that fast. "It can even happen by accident," Olajuwon says. It can happen as suddenly and painfully as a Bill Cartwright elbow.
April 7, 1991
Three months ago, the Rockets were pretty much the team everybody predicted they would be, a mishmash of talent held up by the remaining pillar of the Twin Towers (Ralph Sampson was the other). Always guard-poor, Houston seemed to have grown especially foolish in its desperation. Floyd's numbers were going down. Vernon Maxwell, obtained the year before for a reported $25,000, wasn't looking like any bargain. And then the Rockets brought in Kenny Smith. He was so popular that he had been dealt twice in less than nine months. In short, it was still Team Akeem. "You know," says coach Don Chancy, "pass the ball to him, wait for the double team, he kicks it back out. Or pass the ball to him, let him go; one-on-one. What else would you do?! The guy had super numbers with the system."
The Rockets were 16-13 and playing the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 3 when it happened. The Bulls' Cartwright swung one of his huge elbows into Olajuwon's face and fractured the right orbit, the bone structure that houses the eye. Olajuwon quickly had surgery, and though the possibility of double vision couldn't be entirely discounted, the operation was considered a success. He would probably be back, good as ever. Still, his return was two months down the road, and it is hard to exaggerate the sense of doom that set in over Houston. What happens to the team without Akeem? "I'll tell you how negative things got," says Chaney. "The papers were full of headlines saying we ought to just hope for the [draft] lottery."
Chaney considered life without Olajuwon. "We hoped—hoped—we could continue to hover around. 500," he says. "We figured that would be a struggle, but at least we thought .500 was a possibility." Actually, that seemed equally ridiculous. Olajuwon was replaced by Larry Smith, who is 33, stands just 6'8" but weighs 240 pounds, and has missed huge chunks of two seasons himself due to injury. Smith, who looks like an especially mirthless Larry Holmes, is called Mr. Mean, as much for his dour expression as for his single-mindedness under the basket. He was long known as a workaday rebounder for Golden State and was useful off the bench for the Rockets last season. Olajuwon himself used to marvel at Smith's relentless rebounding for the Warriors. "He'd bang and bang and bang," Olajuwon says. "All he wanted was a rebound. Then he'd get the ball under the basket, and do you know what he'd do? He'd pass it back out. Just wanted the rebound! A dinosaur." The selflessness was spectacular, but still nobody anticipated the dawning of Team Mean. "I knew what he had to do," says Chaney, referring to Smith's performance. "I just didn't know if he could."
After Olajuwon's injury the Rockets lost seven of the next 10 games. Explained Floyd at the time: "We're going to win some games and we're going to lose some games, just like we did before Akeem went out. I mean, we weren't exactly tearing up the league before." And then the Rockets suddenly started tearing up the league, winning 12 of their next 15 and playing with more movement and balance. Larry Smith, in his 11th season, was a miracle. He was averaging 14.4 rebounds; he twice had 25, and eight times he had 20 or more. Forward Otis Thorpe averaged 21 points during Olajuwon's absence, six better than he had before. Floyd's average was five points higher, as was Maxwell's. Kenny Smith, whom the Sacramento Kings' Dick Motta once called "the most gutless player I've ever coached," played like the star his old North Carolina coach, Dean Smith, had told Chaney to expect.
The Rockets not only were winning but also, suddenly, were fun to watch. "The fans really got involved," says Chaney. "All that passing to the open man, the shooting, the action." The fans got involved enough that it was no longer possible to dial through the radio spectrum without hearing calls for Olajuwon's immediate trade. So he has been the problem all this time! " 'Trade Akeem' is all we heard," says Chaney with a laugh.
Olajuwon, 28, is a jolly fellow with a beautiful house in the Houston suburbs and a lovely three-year-old daughter, Alon, by his girlfriend, Lita Spencer, both of whom live in Los Angeles but visit him frequently; he stands ready to be amused by everything around him. But this was not funny. All he heard when he was injured was talk about team chemistry. There hadn't been so much discussion about chemistry since cold fusion made the papers. Stung, he said, "Sure they could always trade me. You know how long it would take the Rockets to trade me? About one day. 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."
As his return neared, the trade talk mellowed. Olajuwon, either humbled or impressed by the team's success without him, said he would be glad to come in as a sixth man, that he was very mindful of what had been achieved without him, that he didn't want to wreck the team's new wide-open attack. The players were equally realistic about his return. Floyd, who admits he had been hurt by Olajuwon's criticisms but who had learned to brush them off ("That's Hakeem") and had even become a friend, predicted, "He comes back and takes us to the next level." Said Kenny Smith: "Here it is after the trading deadline, and we have a chance to get an All-Star center for nothing. How could you not be better with him on your team?"
But this much better? The Rockets lost to the L.A. Clippers on Feb. 28 in Olajuwon's first game back, and the talk shows went wild again with trade-Akeem chatter. "I felt so bad for him," says Floyd. "He comes back, and so we lose. Like it was his fault. You should have seen his face." But then Houston beat the Lakers in the Forum in its next game to start a 13-game winning streak that ended last Saturday when the Rockets lost 114-82 in Orlando. The streak included a 100-90 romp on March 25 at Chicago Stadium, where the Bulls had been unbeaten in 26 games, and a last-second, 112-111 win in Atlanta last Thursday. No wonder Warrior coach Don Nelson calls the Rockets "the most feared team in the league right now." Chaney, whose job situation was tenuous, is now a candidate for Coach of the Year. "You can get very smart very fast," he says.
The players are happy to have Olajuwon back, but it is no betrayal for them to admit they were happy to have him gone. "It was a blessing in disguise," says Thorpe. "We needed that so each individual could find himself." In the past the guards would bring the ball up, pound it in to Olajuwon and then commence to daydream. "Their workday was done," says Chaney. But with Olajuwon out of the low post, the other Rockets found they could drive to the basket or just pull up and pop a three-pointer. The three guards—Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Floyd—were having a big time.
This teamwork, this running around, was a revelation to Olajuwon. "Guys diving for the ball, hungry guys," Olajuwon says. "It was like, 'Look at me.' They had a chance to show what they could do."
"He's very smart," says Chaney of Olajuwon, "and, really, all he wants to do is win. He saw what was going on out there. It was self-explanatory." Olajuwon was so happy to blend into this new system that he didn't even want to start ahead of Larry Smith. "I had to force him to start," says Chaney. Olajuwon seemed amazed by this team. So he didn't have to do all the work after all. This was interesting. He can still clog up a lane, still demand the ball, but there is no question that he is only a part of the offense now. The three guards are not about to let their fun stop. They no longer look just to Olajuwon, but to any open man. Or they just shoot. Against Chicago, Kenny Smith was amazing as he drove to the basket. And Olajuwon was careful to get out of the way. In the game against Atlanta, with Houston trailing by a point with eight seconds to play, the ball went to Maxwell, not Olajuwon. Maxwell, to nobody's surprise, calmly hit a 23-foot jumper.
And what has this done to Olajuwon's game? It didn't hurt it any. "Ever since I came to this league, I've been double-teamed," he says. "But now that the offense is spread out, the game is suddenly easy. Easy! It's like in college. I get a few rebounds and get my points, or the guards—and they are criminally quick—dish off for a few dunks. Easy points! Same points, and I do less work. It reminds me of Phi Slamma Jamma [the nickname for his University of Houston team], so much fun. When the game is over now, I'm not even tired. I could play another game." He is almost grateful to unburden himself of the pressure of Team Akeem: "I've been looking for this freedom."
Larry Smith has been an Olajuwon observer for years and recognizes the pressure his teammate has played under. "He felt he had to score 30 to 40 points and get 20 to 25 rebounds to win," Smith says. "Now, for the first time, he realizes he doesn't have to do that. We don't need to depend on the Dream for everything. On the other hand, it's more relaxing for the rest of us to have him back. I always knew if I got the minutes, I could contribute. But I also knew if I got the minutes, I still wouldn't grow to seven feet."
The Rockets these days are at once contentious and relaxed. Contentious in that they take nothing from anybody. Relaxed in that they have discovered the certainty of winning.
A basketball season is long, the playoffs are treacherous. And nobody expects Houston to win an NBA championship. But what if the Rockets really are a changed team? What if it's just as simple as Olajuwon's waking up one day and deciding that he wants to change his name? That from now on he wants to be called a winner? Better late than never.