Hakeem Olajuwon stretches his graceful 6'10" frame skyward, takes in a large gulp of warm afternoon air and listens to the song of a hundred invisible birds. "They are all around," says Olajuwon as he stands on his spacious property in a quiet Houston suburb. "The best time to see them is in the early morning." He smiles. "It is very nice here, yes?"
Yes. Olajuwon has plans to build a large L-shaped house on what he calls "the compound," but for now he occupies a Mediterranean-style "guest house," an airy, one-story dwelling with high ceilings and arched windows. He lives alone but is not lonely, he says. His five-year-old daughter, Alon, and her mother, Lita Spencer, live in Los Angeles and visit only occasionally.
Over the last few years Olajuwon has become increasingly devoted to Islam, and he often stops at a mosque near the Summit, the home arena of his team, the Rockets, for a group prayer in the afternoon. His baggage on the road includes a prayer rug and a special compass that points him in the direction of Mecca. Today he excuses himself and adjourns to the front porch of the guest house, where he removes his shoes, stretches out the rug, sinks to his knees and recites his noonday prayer, called the zuhr. "I am," Olajuwon says upon completion of the prayer, "a man at peace."
A year ago "at peace" would not describe cither Olajuwon or the Rockets, as the franchise center and the franchise engaged in an ugly version of Dysfunctional Family Feud. Olajuwon was suspended for three games last March by general manager Steve Patterson because Olajuwon, who claimed to have a hamstring injury, was believed by the Rockets to be dogging it. By that time Olajuwon had made it clear he was disenchanted with his contract, his teammates and his owner, Charlie Thomas, whose efforts to sell the Rockets had become infuriating to Olajuwon, who felt Thomas was bailing out on the team when it was down.
Even with Olajuwon back in the lineup for the stretch run last season, the Rockets lost four of their final five games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1983-84, the season before Olajuwon joined them. Some observers thought that Houston might have tanked the games in order to qualify for the draft lottery; but, in fact, the Rockets were probably as bad as their pitiful record indicated. "We went through more in one year than most teams go through in three," says Patterson, who then smiles the smile of the redeemed. "But turnarounds like ours, well, I guess that's what makes sports so interesting."
And right now Houston is the most interesting team in the NBA. Its 104-95 victory over the Utah Jazz Saturday night was a franchise-record-tying 13 in a row. The San Antonio Spurs have been the rebirth story of the year, but as of Sunday the Rockets, picked to finish out of the playoffs by more than one NBA observer, were one game ahead of the second-place Spurs in the Midwest Division. The Phoenix Suns, 46-14 to Houston's 40-21 at week's end, may be uncatchable for the NBA's best record, but the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs would be more than the Rockets dared hope for just five weeks ago, when, after embarrassing back-to-back home losses to the wretched Minnesota Timberwolves and the woeful Washington Bullets, their record stood at 26-20.
As for the peaceful man in the pivot, well, he's simply having a career season: Through Sunday he was averaging 25.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and a league-leading 4.2 blocked shots a game. Phoenix's Charles Barkley may keep Olajuwon from winning his first MVP award, but Olajuwon will most assuredly receive, for the first time in his eight-season career, strong consideration for the honor. Over the years he has received only four first-place MVP votes, with his highest finish coming at the end of the 1985-86 season—in which the Rockets reached the Finals—when he was fourth behind Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins and Magic Johnson.
At the very least Houston's ascendance has put a spotlight on the NBA's most overlooked superstar. A number of factors have contributed to Olajuwon's relative obscurity: the Rockets' numbing mediocrity since losing the 1985-86 championship series to the Boston Celtics in six games, the presence in the pivot of more camera-ready figures, like David Robinson of the Spurs and now Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic, a dearth of endorsements and perhaps even his Nigerian heritage. If Olajuwon has not exactly been ignored, he certainly has been taken for granted.
Not anymore. "Nobody in the league dominates the game on both ends of the floor like Hakeem," says Sacramento King center-forward Wayman Tisdale. After Olajuwon had 27 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 104-91 win over the Portland Trail Blazers last Thursday, Blazer coach Rick Adelman said, "You can compare these great centers all you want and not figure out who's best. All I know is, there's no one better than Hakeem."
The Dream is the lone MVP contender without a best supporting actor. Barkley has Dan Majerle; Robinson has Sean Elliott; Michael Jordan has Scottie Pippen with him on the Chicago Bulls; and Mark Price has Brad Daugherty with him on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hakeem has...Otis Thorpe? Kenny Smith? Vernon Max-well? Peruse the list of the NBA's leading scorers and rebounders and, after seeing Olajuwon in sixth and third, respectively, you'll find no other Rocket in the Top 40 in either category. "Night in and night out," says Houston guard Scott Brooks, "Dream just picks us up and carries us."
But he is at least—and at last—letting his fellow Rockets carry some of the load. Much of the criticism leveled at Olajuwon throughout his career centered on his inability or unwillingness to pass out of the double and triple teams that he invariably draws. Olajuwon distrusted the men around him and felt that Houston's best chance to win was for him to duck and spin and sometimes just machete his way through the human jungle. Now he's surrounded by players with whom he is, to use his own word, "comfortable." And as of Sunday he was averaging a career high in assists—3.4 per game—and stood second in that department among the league's centers.
Three teammates in particular—Smith, rookie forward Robert Horry and backup forward Matt Bullard—have given Olajuwon more room to operate. Smith is not a penetrating point guard along the lines of, say, Tim Hardaway of the Golden State Warriors, but at week's end he was making 46.3% of his three-pointers (second in the league) and 52.8% of his shots overall, despite a bizarre release ("I keep my left thumb on the ball a little too long," Smith says) that produces a forkball-like rotation. When Smith and Danny Ainge, now of the Suns, were teammates in Sacramento, Ainge called Smith's twisting shot "the tornado."
Horry, the No. 11 pick in the 1992 draft (Houston's prize for last year's foldaroo), is also not a pure shooter—not yet, anyway. But after one week of training camp, he knew more about proper floor spacing and feeding the pivot than any Rocket small forward since Rodney McCray, who was traded away in 1988.
Bullard has a power forward's size (6'10"), but it is his shooting guard's game—he's most comfortable firing from beyond 20 feet—that demands he be closely watched on the perimeter.
The unexpected contributions of Brooks have been a big reason for the Rockets' success, too. Just as Barkley "adopted" Brooks, a 5'11" guard who has been mistaken for a ballboy, during their two seasons together with the Philadelphia 76ers, in 1988-89 and 1989-90, so has Olajuwon grown fond of him. "Scotty is wonderful," says Olajuwon. "So kind, so good." Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich also appreciates Brooks's kindness but likes even more his on-the-court knack for, as Tomjanovich says, "agitating the crap out of anyone."
The Rockets, to be sure, have their weaknesses: Inexperience in critical games, the most serious, might be exposed in the postseason. Their emotional barometer is not the consistent Olajuwon but mecurial guard Maxwell, he of the 39.3% shooting. "Max is the key to our team, the guy we must keep in focus," says Olajuwon, a sentiment echoed by Tomjanovich and most of the other Rockets.
What's more, Houston suffers from a leadership vacuum that worries Tomjanovich. "Frankly," he says, "no one has stepped forward." Olajuwon is the obvious choice, but he recoils from the responsibility of constructively criticizing his teammates when necessary. So do veterans Thorpe and Smith, the other logical possibilities. Right now, in fact, the Rockets' leader is 37-year-old Wayne (Tree) Rollins, a tower of wisdom and maturity now in his 16th pro season but a nonfactor between the lines.
Despite the leadership void, Houston has been able to generate positive chemistry over the past month for the first time in several seasons. In the front office Thomas's talk of selling the team has abated, temporarily at least. And on Monday, Olajuwon signed a four-year contract extension that will pay him about $26 million—as much as $30 million with incentives—and that includes a buyout provision that would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent after the 1996-97 season.
On the court the Rockets are playing with a new enthusiasm and intensity. After Brooks was knocked to the floor during the fourth quarter of Houston's 104-94 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday, backup point guard Winston Garland came tearing off the bench to help Brooks to his feet. Heck, there were times in the past when a Rocket wouldn't have helped a teammate who had been hit by a bus.
So what happened? Well, for one thing, Houston held more team meetings than Hillary Rodham Clinton's health reformers. And by all accounts, during their meetings the Rockets have faced up to the fact that their intensity and their professionalism, both in games and in practices, were below par. "There was a great habit on this team of being late for meetings, practices, buses, whatever," says Rollins. "We had a lot of conversation about it." And, gradually, the no-nonsense, let's-just-play style that Tomjanovich had been preaching since he took over for the fired Don Chancy 52 games into last season began to take hold. "Now they're a blue-collar, rough-and-tumble Rudy Tomjanovich bunch," says Patterson.
And one with a certified, gold-plated superstar. The splay-legged hook, the high-arching baseline jumper, the seemingly impossible spin moves during which he has to locate the basket in midflight, all of these are Olajuwon staples, as is his nonpareil nimble-footed defensive play. "He protects the basket," says Tisdale, "like it's his own little cubbyhole," Says Brooks, "It amazes me that people continue to take it to the basket against him. They must not watch TV." (Actually, the Rockets were so lightly regarded that they were scheduled for only one national TV appearance during the regular season, a TNT game against the Seattle SuperSonics from Japan during the first week of the season.) And Olajuwon is getting it done while in pain. The middle finger of his right hand, his shooting hand, swells grotesquely at the joint because of a ligament injury suffered last month; it will probably require surgery after the season.
"I see my game as something creative, maybe something new," Olajuwon says while relaxing on his porch. "More moves, more fakes, more of the unexpected." He smiles widely. "I get great joy from losing my man completely." Indeed, his fakes, dips, fadeaways and long strides are so pronounced these days that the scene sometimes takes on a cartoonish aspect as opposing centers try to cover him. There he is. Wait a minute, there he is! Oh, no, he's burrowing up toward the basket from that underground tunnel!
"Most guys you want to fade away from the basket," says Heat center Rony Seikaly. "But with Dream, when you see him fading, you know you are in trouble."
The big change for Olajuwon, though, has been the rebuilding of his relationship with the Rocket hierarchy, as well as improving his rapport with his teammates. And to think that if either the Heat or the Los Angeles Clippers had bitten on Houston's trade offerings for the disenchanted Olajuwon last summer—the Rockets wanted Seikaly, Harold Miner and Grant Long from Miami or Danny Manning and Stanley Roberts from L.A.—Olajuwon would now be only a memory in Houston, rather than a recurring Dream. The Rockets' recent success has even caused Olajuwon to reminisce about those short-lived glory days in 1986 when Houston reached the Finals.
"I'm the last guy from that group, and it makes me feel old in a way," says Olajuwon, who turned 30 in January. "Think of all that has happened to that team. Ralph. [That's Sampson, out of the league because of injuries.] Mitch. [Wiggins, out of the league in part because drug problems deteriorated his skills.] Lewis Lloyd. [Same as Wiggins.] Rodney. [McCray, on the downside of his career with the Bulls.] But I am still here. I may have wanted to leave last year, but I never really had a direction, so maybe I was meant to stay. I am strong. My team is strong. I thank God I am here."
To which the Rockets can only say, amen.