It was so much easier the first time they met. With nothing to be won or lost, they quickly found common ground. The time was the summer of 1983, the place a Phoenix hotel, and University of Houston senior Akeem Olajuwon was listening to a tape of reggae musician Peter Tosh on his cassette deck when the fellow staying in the room next door stopped by. Georgetown junior Patrick Ewing introduced himself and declared his fondness for reggae, which reminded him of his childhood days in Jamaica. The Nigerian-born Olajuwon invited Ewing in, and together they listened and talked about music, not basketball, as the Caribbean sounds filled the room.
They were teammates of a sort at the time, traveling on an NCAA-sponsored antidrug campaign, and it would be the last time they would meet with so little at stake. The next year they would play for the NCAA championship; Ewing would score 10 points, Olajuwon 15, but the Hoyas would get the better of the Cougars, 84-75.
Thus began a decade in which they have been noble adversaries. The years have given them more in common than just taste in music, and much of what links them has to do with championships—or the absence of them. They both lost what appeared to be certain college titles in stunning upsets, Olajuwon to North Carolina State in 1983 and Ewing to Villanova in '85. They both had brief periods of discontent in the NBA, during which each wanted to leave his team for one with a better chance of winning a championship.
And although both are perennial All-Stars and have accumulated their share of honors—that NCAA championship and two Olympic gold medals for Ewing, this season's MVP honors and two Defensive Player of the Year awards for Olajuwon—their strongest bond is not what they have but what they lack. After years of hard NBA labor, 10 for Olajuwon (who since 1991 has been known as Hakeem) with the Houston Rockets and nine for Ewing with the New York Knicks, the two are meeting again, in the NBA Finals, which began Wednesday at the Summit in Houston. This is Ewing's first Finals appearance, Olajuwon's second. There is an NBA championship trophy to be had, but unlike that reggae tape, Ewing and Olajuwon cannot share it.
"And that is the shame of it," says Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets, who was born in Zaire and followed Ewing as a Hoya center. "I pull for Patrick because we share Georgetown, but I pull for Hakeem because we share Africa. They both deserve it so much. They have both waited so long. It is as if two men have been in the desert and they come upon one glass of water. There is only enough for one of them to drink. When you watch them, do you not wish there could be two glasses of water?"
Of course, both had hoped to sip from the glass by now. Ewing, the first pick of the 1985 draft, was supposed to return the Knicks to glory long ago, but instead of championships there was only instability, with five coaches and a constantly changing cast of teammates in his first six seasons. He eventually became so frustrated that he tried to use a loophole in his contract to become a free agent in '91 before agreeing to a two-year contract extension with New York. Olajuwon, the top choice in '84, did get that earlier visit to the NBA Finals, in '86, but Houston lost to the Boston Celtics. By '92 the Rockets were floundering, and Olajuwon was feuding with management and seeking a trade. New coach Rudy Tomjanovich discouraged a deal; the next year Olajuwon resolved his differences with the front office and signed a contract that will keep him in Houston through the 1998-99 season.
But all that unhappiness seems like ancient history now that Ewing and Olajuwon are only a step away from a championship. What makes their confrontation fascinating is that only one of them will finally quench his thirst, and to do so he will have to snatch the glass from the other's lips.
Ewing and Olajuwon, both 31, both listed as 7'0" (though Olajuwon may in fact be closer to 6'10"), have even more in common than their age and height. They are both foreign-born big men who came to the game relatively late in life, Olajuwon at 15, Ewing at 13. And they both are members of that group of stars in their 30's—Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Dominique Wilkins—still searching for their first NBA title. "When I look at Hakeem I see the same need to win that I have," Ewing says. "He's a great player, and I'm a great player. We've both done just about everything there is to do in this league but win a championship, and we've got that same look in our eye now. All we want to do is win."
The Olajuwon-Ewing battle is unlike the marquee matchups from NBA Finals of the recent past, such as the confrontations between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the one in '91 that pitted Magic against Michael Jordan. This time the two combatants play the same position and will spend most of the series matched against each other. Thus those head-to-head statistics that NBC is sure to flash throughout the series will provide a fairer comparison than they usually do.
There is something especially glamorous about a duel of elite centers. Olajuwon against Ewing may not be quite the equivalent of the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain wars of the 1960s, but it's as close as the NBA Finals, dominated lately by forwards and guards, have come in years. Not since the Knicks' Willis Reed faced the Lakers' Chamberlain in 1970 has there been such a compelling main-event duel of traditional centers for the championship. Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers did battle in '83 with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the presence of Magic and the 76ers' Julius Erving in that series diverted attention from the center matchup.
As in those years, there will be other confrontations to be monitored between the Rockets and the Knicks. Will Houston guards Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith get as many open jump shots against New York's stingy defense as they did against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals? How long will it be before rugged Knick forwards Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason take it upon themselves to send spindly Houston forward Robert Horry (page 30) crashing to the floor when he tries to go to the basket for one of his head-wagging dunks?
But it is the battle in the pivot that will probably swing the series. That's bad news for the Knicks, if recent history is any indication. Olajuwon, the best player in the league, is at the top of his game, and recently he has owned Ewing. In their two regular-season matchups—both decisive Houston victories—Olajuwon averaged 33.0 points and 16.5 rebounds to Ewing's 12.0 and 9.5. The Rockets' 94-85 win in New York in December, in which Olajuwon scored 37 points and held Ewing to 12 (on 4-of-20 shooting), was one of the low points of the season for the Knicks. "He causes me problems with his quickness," Ewing admits in an understatement.
Though he may be a tad shorter, the agile Olajuwon is clearly the better shot blocker. At 255 pounds, he is actually listed as 15 pounds heavier than Ewing, which hardly seems possible. Ewing definitely has more bulk, and he will have to use it in an attempt to wear Olajuwon down. "Not many people are going to stop Olajuwon," says Georgetown coach John Thompson, who has frequently been at courtside for Knick games during this postseason, trying to shepherd his former star to the championship. "The best bet against him is probably to make him work on defense and try to create foul problems for him. If you let him stand around on defense, he'll have more energy to hurt you on offense. So Patrick will need to take it at him aggressively."
The problem for New York is that Olajuwon, with his quickness, is more likely to get Ewing in foul trouble. One key to the matchup will probably be the Knicks' effectiveness should they choose to double-team Olajuwon. New York coach Pat Riley doesn't like to double, but defending against Olajuwon may call for desperate measures.
The Rockets and the Knicks both depended on their centers to carry them to the Finals, and both men bore the burden in ways that symbolized the essential difference in their styles: Olajuwon glided through his opponents with hardly a misstep, while Ewing muscled his way through his foes, stumbling often but never falling. Olajuwon was uniformly brilliant throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs, averaging 29.8 points and 11.9 rebounds. In the Western Conference finals he sliced through Utah with his characteristic dexterity and finesse to lead the Rockets to a relatively easy 4-1 victory in the best-of-seven series.
It has been a decidedly rougher road for Ewing, who lacks Olajuwon's grace and artistry but, like his Houston rival, possesses an indomitable will. Ewing, who averaged 23.1 points and 11.4 rebounds in the first three rounds, has had rocky times in the postseason, including a one-point performance and a two-rebound game—both career lows—in losses to Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals. But his relentlessness, his "heart of a warrior," as Riley calls it, eventually ensured triumph. In Game 7 of the second round against Chicago, after going scoreless in the first half, Ewing came back with 18 points and 11 rebounds in the second to lead New York to an 87-77 win. And in Game 7 against the Pacers on Sunday, he had 24 points and 22 rebounds and was dominant down the stretch in a 94-90 Knick victory. His dunk on a rebound of a John Starks miss with 26.9 seconds left provided the winning points.
"Patrick is like me," says Olajuwon. "We're aggressive, and we play to win. He gets criticized, and it's not fair, because he is a winner. That is his character."
It was character that enabled the Knicks to narrowly avoid an upset at the hands of the pesky Pacers in a series that was a yawner until Spike Lee and New York tabloid headline writers got into the act. After four games so ugly that the tapes of them should be destroyed for the good of the sport, Indiana vs. New York finally hit its stride in Game 5, the fourth quarter of which featured one of the great playoff performances in league history, by 6'7" Indiana guard Reggie Miller. In that period Miller scorched the net from every angle as he scored 25 points, including five three-pointers, to carry the Pacers to a 93-86 victory, which gave them a 3-2 lead in the series. While Miller was torching the Knicks, he was taunting film director and die-hard Knick fan Lee, who was sitting in his customary courtside seat and returning the verbal fire.
Lee was castigated by New York radio talk-show callers and by the tabloids, who claimed that Lee had angered Miller so much that Miller took it out on the Knicks. Lee responded by correctly pointing out that he wasn't one of the Knick guards who had failed so miserably to get the ball to Ewing down the stretch. But by that time New Yorkers had been thrown into such a panic by the loss that many—including headline writers who blistered the Knicks with GAG CITY and CHOKERS in huge type—were no longer interested in rational thought. The Knicks may be ham-handed at times, but chokers they are not. "We may not be the prettiest team around or the most skilled," said Riley, "but the one thing I can't understand is the questioning of our heart. This team is all about heart."
Pushed to the precipice, the Knicks refused to fall off. Starks called a team meeting in Ewing's Indianapolis hotel room the day before Game 6. The New Yorkers watched their wretched fourth quarter of Game 5, and they responded the next night with their best performance of the postseason, a 98-91 victory. That set the stage for the Game 7 win in New York in which the Knicks trailed by as many as 12 points in the third quarter before Ewing led them back. When it was over, Ewing climbed on top of the scorer's table, threw his arms into the air and let out a mighty roar of delight. "Patrick tends to hide his feelings, so I was happy to see that," said Thompson. "When he got up on that table, I was hoping he'd jump up and touch the scoreboard."
Ewing does tend to cloak his emotions, but not nearly so much as he once did. He steadfastly declines to reveal much about his personal life, sometimes pulling back at seemingly arbitrary points. He told reporters that his wife, Rita, had cooked something for him in the wee hours of the morning when he couldn't sleep before one of the postseason games against the Bulls; but when asked what she cooked, he refused to say. But his desire for this championship is too strong for him to conceal. He predicted before the playoffs that the Knicks would win it all, and when they left for Indiana for Game 6, his only statement to the media was a defiant "See you Sunday"—for Game 7.
"I just want my teammates to know I believe that this is our year and that I believe in them," he says. "Sometimes you have to make some statements, you have to go out on a limb a little bit to show how much you are committed to winning."
After all these years no one can question Ewing's or Olajuwon's commitment to winning. Mutombo is right. The shame of it is that there are not two glasses of water for these two parched throats. But the joy of it is that one of them will get to take a long, sweet drink.