The pilgrimage to the post ends on a private road behind an iron gate in an east Texas town with a population of 824. The narrow path, lined with oak and pine trees, cuts through 412 grassy acres of manicured ranchland that includes a sprawling single-story brown residence and five tan barns. Inside one of the barns, past a sitting room and a lunch counter, is the most fashionable summer basketball court south of Rucker Park. Three balls sit in the corner, two coolers stocked with bottled water, a half-dozen folding chairs. Windows behind the baskets look out on a gazebo, a lake and horses grazing in the fields of Simonton. The key is painted Rockets red and the exposed pipes yellow. At midcourt is a stenciled number 34 above the word DREAM in cursive. "For a gym you need bright colors," says 50-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon, in his booming Nigerian baritone. "You need light!" Olajuwon bales hay at the ranch, 400 bundles per year, but besides that he does not do much with the land. Unlike his neighbors, he doesn't raise horses or breed cattle. He builds big men, the way God and Rudy Tomjanovich intended, right mitt in the air and size-18 hightop on the block. The city game is mastered deep in the country.
This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2013 issue
NBA stars talk about missions to the ranch, nearly an hour west of Houston, the way rappers might describe recording sessions at Dr. Dre's home studio. They report back that Olajuwon, despite the salt in his goatee, could still spin Tyson Chandler into a 7-foot pretzel. Spending a week under his tutelage is akin to hiring a personal chef or buying a hyperbaric chamber, one more way for a headliner to demonstrate his dedication. You can only imagine LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony rolling up in their rented Escalades, over Bessie's Creek, and pulling into the carport. "A lot of times you hear that somebody came down here for p.r.," Olajuwon intones. "It's not for p.r. It's to add real value."
Professorial by nature, Olajuwon used to instruct Rockets teammates after practices, but upon retiring from the league in 2002 he fashioned himself more of a student and businessman than coach. He moved part time to Jordan, where he studied Arabic and Islam, and returned to Houston so he could monitor his many real estate investments. Olajuwon opened a free big-man camp in '06, but he traces the birth of his second career to a call from Kobe Bryant two years later, which at the time he thought was a prank. "I told him, 'Kobe, come on, you're the master. You don't need me. You've got all the moves already,'" Olajuwon remembers. "But Kobe wanted to bring his moves inside. When he flew down the next summer, he thought we would work out at a private gym somewhere. He loved the ranch."
Olajuwon estimates that 15 NBA players followed Bryant to Simonton, including several repeat customers, paying thousands for the privilege. In April 2010, Olajuwon was in San Antonio to watch his daughter Abi play for Oklahoma in the Women's Final Four. While riding the elevator down to the lobby of his River Walk hotel, a middle-aged woman walked on board and looked up. "Oh, you are my favorite!" she gasped. "I'd love for you to work with my son." Olajuwon assumed her boy was some high school or college kid, and he only entertained queries from established pros.
"Who is your son?" he asked.
"Dwight Howard," the woman replied.
Of the many reasons Howard is in Houston and the Rockets are contenders again—they took a machete to their payroll, hoarded first-round draft picks, swindled the Thunder out of James Harden and nurtured second-round pick Chandler Parsons—the elevator encounter is a pivotal one. Howard visited the ranch each of the next two summers and saw in Olajuwon a refined version of himself. Both are affable centers who initially viewed themselves as guards. Although Olajuwon was listed at 7-feet and Howard 6'11", in person you can see that they are undersized for their position. They sprouted low-post games around blinding first steps and righthanded jump hooks. But while Olajuwon methodically expanded his repertoire through 17 seasons in Houston, showcasing his speed with a balletic array of spins and counters, Howard's routine remained fairly constant, forcing up those baby hooks.
"You can't have one move," Olajuwon says. "It's like having one outfit. I'm not going to wear the same thing to the party that I do to the gym." Moves, like clothes, must be selected according to occasion. You can't back down Zach Randolph, but you can shoot over him. You can't shoot over Roy Hibbert, but you can race around him. Olajuwon still spent half his time in Jordan but wondered what a star pupil like Howard, with the best raw material of any big man in the world, could accomplish if they had more than one week a year together.
At 9:45 p.m. local time on June 30, 45 minutes after the NBA's free-agent signing period tipped off, a Rockets contingent met Howard for dinner at a Beverly Hills hotel. All the predictable luminaries were present: the club's owner, president, general manager, coach and a couple of current players. Also at the table was the league's beloved gentleman farmer. When Tomjanovich was coaching him with the Rockets in the 1990s, Olajuwon used to watch Rudy T diagram sets on the bench and then summon his teammates before they took the court. "Make it simple," he'd say. "Get it to me." At some point in nearly three hours of dinner discussion, Howard reciting questions he'd scrawled on a notepad and execs answering in detail about everything from future picks to cap holds, Olajuwon simplified the message. "It was very sincere, very honest," he recalls. "I just told Dwight, 'This is the best thing for you.'" The center whisperer had spoken. Sometimes, and especially in the NBA, what's said is less important than who says it.
Houston has always believed in the big man, from Elvin Hayes to Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson to Yao Ming, and this summer the city became a national landmark of length. Shortly after Howard signed his four-year maximum contract that will pay him $88 million, he asked the Rockets to hire Olajuwon as a full-time development assistant under head coach Kevin McHale, and now the franchise employs arguably the best post player of this era, the one before, and the one before that. "They're a big part of why I'm here," Howard says. "They believe in me more than anybody. They see things that can take me to greater heights." As he speaks, from a sofa inside a lounge at Toyota Center, an oil painting of Olajuwon hangs above his left shoulder.
At the first practice of training camp, Howard found himself bracketed in the paint by Olajuwon and McHale, a piano prodigy flanked on the bench by Beethoven and Chopin. "These players," says lead assistant Kelvin Sampson, "don't know how good they've got it." In the past 15 months, Howard forced his way out of Orlando and Los Angeles, via trade and then free agency. If he can't find contentment in Houston, with twin towers of support, he won't find it anywhere.
"How can we get Dwight better?" McHale says. "That's what we talk about. If we did nothing, and he played the way he has his entire career, he'd still be the best big guy in the NBA. But if Hakeem and I can give him a couple more tools, and he can master those, what a complement that would be."
McHale and Olajuwon flew last month to Aspen, Colo., where Howard was spending three weeks on a self-imposed "blackout," flying in a hot-air balloon, biking up the Maroon Bells and riding a white horse named Duke that he befriended. "Next time, the South of France," Olajuwon cracked. During workouts at a local high school gym, and at dinners afterward, McHale and Olajuwon explained that Howard had grown too reliant on a power game. Because his upper body is so strong, he is able to manhandle many centers, though he is often two inches shorter.
"He's not 7'4"," McHale says. "He's not Yao Ming. Size is not a huge advantage for him. Just like Hakeem, his biggest advantage is speed. But he has to use it. It's like having a car that goes 150 miles per hour and you always drive 35."
Howard has heard such critiques before, but it sounded different coming from McHale, with Olajuwon nodding next to him. "I could always just catch the ball, crab in the paint, take two dribbles, turn either way and finish with the hook," Howard says. "It was easy, so that's what I did." It's also what coaches advised him to do, the deliberate dribbles allowing him to identify double teams and pass out for three-pointers, the preferred shot in today's NBA—especially with the Rockets, who were second in three-point attempts last year. Olajuwon watched Howard on television, baffled why he didn't apply what they worked on in the summers. "You have the tools," Olajuwon said. "You choose to go to what you know."
It is a Sunday afternoon in the first week of camp, practice is over, and the arena is empty except for Olajuwon holding the ball on the right block against a 5'9" reporter. "I'm going to post you up here," he announces, then takes one long stride away from the basket and faces up. He swings the ball to his right hip with an exaggerated sound effect: Psheww! "Now I've got space," he says. "Now I've got separation. The separation scares you. It's like I've brought a fish out of water. When I face up, there's tension, and I want to keep that tension. Everything is real now: the jumper, the drive, you have to respect it all."
The face-up allows a mobile giant like Howard to deploy his speed. "Now I'm not a center," Olajuwon continues. "Now I'm a forward. Now I'm a scorer!" He takes one hard dribble to the baseline—"One is enough," he says. It's a quick, explosive move, a whoop!—and pulls up for the righty jump hook. "But what happens when you come over and cut me off?" he asks. "Now I need a counter. I need another move. What can I do? I have to spin." He pivots off his right foot and pirouettes back toward the center of the key, a middle-aged gymnast who lifts weights and does lunges every day so these demonstrations remain realistic. He finishes with a buttery left hook. It looks like 1994.
"I'm facing a 7-footer who's agile and blocks shots," Olajuwon explains at the end of the tutorial. "How am I going to shoot over him? I can't. How am I going to freeze him? I need moves and counters off those moves to get my shot off. The spin is the key. Everything I teach is based off the spin."
The whirligig is the chief export of Olajuwon Farms. "Do it for 30 minutes," Howard says, "and you'll be dizzy." Drive right, spin back left. Drive left, spin back right. Spin twice if need be, whatever it takes to lose the defender, and release in the clear. "Your creativity takes over," Olajuwon crows, "and the options are unlimited—moves on top of moves." Kobe Bryant is nimble enough to perform Olajuwon's intricate dance steps. So are LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But can any contemporary center execute what he's asking? "Yes!" Olajuwon answers. "Dwight Howard can do it."
Olajuwon had the Dream Shake and McHale the Torture Chamber, the term Celtics broadcaster and Hall of Fame big man Tommy Heinsohn coined to describe his punishing post work. "A lot of guys down there make moves too quickly and forget where they are," Heinsohn says. "Kevin knew what he was doing every second he had the ball, where his man was, where the basket was. He had all those little fakes and the patience to use them." McHale didn't gain his expertise at a ranch but at Greenhaven Park and Hibbing High School and any other court in northeast Minnesota that wasn't frozen. "We just played, one-on-one, two-on-two, against little guys, against big guys," he remembers. "People think [I was] 12 years old and 6'10". I was 5'5". If you play for four hours, you wind up in a lot of different spots against a lot of different people. I learned that if I'm playing a smaller guy, I want to go over the top of him. If I'm playing a bigger guy, I want to drive him hard in one direction and make a move. You find the moves that are comfortable. For me, there were two basic ones: going over my right shoulder and my left shoulder, with a counter off each, and a pump fake at the end of the counter depending on the defender. Big guys today are different, though. The AAU teams want to win all the time, so if they've got a big who can defend and rebound, they never give him the ball."
Growing up in Nigeria, Olajuwon rarely had a basketball, but soccer provided a foundation of footwork. In the summer before his freshman year at Houston, he heard that Moses Malone was joining pickup games at Fonde Rec Center, and he went to match up against him. Malone didn't teach post skills, but Olajuwon picked them up anyhow, as Malone bulldozered him through the basket stanchion. By 1986—when the Rockets and the Celtics met in the Finals—you couldn't have fit all the NBA's iconic big men into one barn: Olajuwon, McHale, Kareem, Barkley, Ewing, Malone, Laimbeer, the Chief, for starters.
"Now name the top five low-post players in the league today," says Sampson. "It's hard to even get to five. It's an epidemic. All the big guys want to get on the perimeter, put the ball between their legs and shoot threes, because they don't show low-post moves on SportsCenter. They don't show you Al Jefferson back, back, backing somebody down and putting up a jump hook." Only when stars reach the later stages and need more tricks, do they grudgingly retreat inside. That's when they call the ranch. "At first you play on athletic ability," says 39-year-old Rockets center Marcus Camby, another Olajuwon disciple. "Then the game slows down, and you need to polish the fundamentals."
Howard jokes about launching threes—if he makes 7 of 10 in practice, McHale will let him uncork one in a game—but he is among the few young centers who never aspired to be Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett. He likes running the floor, sealing his man and shouldering him in the chest. He savors the sensation of a defender losing his resolve. Howard is in many ways old-fashioned, at peace with his back to the basket, while peers prefer to catch lobs off pick-and-rolls. He appreciates Olajuwon's elaborate choreography but questions how effective it can be in the point guard era, with help defenders cluttering the key and coaches pleading for kick-outs. "Hakeem and I have this battle," Howard says. "Going one way, back the other way, the pump fake, then the shot—there's no time anymore. You can't do all that." Howard and Olajuwon disagree, but at least they're having the conversation about a craft often ignored. Howard isn't trying to perfect Olajuwon's waltz, just build an efficient face-up game with an occasional spin, leading to a left or right hook.
Olajuwon and McHale are sharpening Howard's mind as much as his moves. "You're the best big man in the game, and somebody comes to play against you," Olajuwon says. "First you test his conditioning, and if he can't keep up, run him all day. Then you test his strength, and if he can't get physical, power him all day. But if he can keep up and he can get physical, then you have to beat him with the lateral movement we've been working on." McHale used to formulate a mental book on opponents—who they sent to double team, where they went for strips. McHale has watched nearly every game Howard has played, to help him author his own manual. "The first question is, Who's guarding you?" McHale says. "Is the guy 6'8" or 7'2"? If I was playing Hakeem, I wasn't going to turn around and shoot in his face, because he was too good a shot blocker. I'd make a hard move, pump-fake, step through, move the ball around. But if I was playing Bill Laimbeer, I would turn and shoot in his face. I always decided what I was going to do with the ball long before I got it."
On the day Howard arrived in July, 10,000 fans flocked to the 102° blast furnace that is downtown Houston and gathered under a poster covering the seven-story parking garage at the corner of La Branch and Bell. The collage, entitled "Legacy of Bigs," features a picture of Howard flexing his biceps over snapshots of Moses, Yao, Ralph, Dream and Big E. Sampson flew in from Virginia and Yao from Shanghai for the festival of fives. "It's a long legacy of really intelligent big men," Hall of Fame Houstonian Clyde Drexler said on a made-for-TV roundtable with the Rockets leviathans. "That's what makes the franchise so successful."
Houston, as much as any place on the NBA map, has witnessed, in sharp relief, the league's evolution, from dump downs to ball screens. The Rockets, like most current Western Conference contenders, were constructed outside-in, with an international phenomenon at point guard (Jeremy Lin), a bearded dervish beside him (Harden) and snipers galore. Their front office, a pioneer in the analytics movement, preaches the value of the layup and the three. Even their new locker room is tricked out with high-definition screens above each station, where players are confronted by advanced stats, including field goal percentages on what the Rockets define as good shots versus bad ones. A lefthanded jump hook, off a spin move, may challenge the club's definition of a good shot. It will not, however, test Olajuwon's. "People tell me basketball is moving away from the big man," he says. "They don't know what they're talking about. How can it move away from the big man? That's the foundation. When he has position, it overrides everything. It overrides the play. You need to find that guy."
Oddly, the scheme Howard is learning in Houston does not appear all that different than the one he spurned in Los Angeles, with the emphasis on threes, pick-and-rolls and a ball-dominant shooting guard. The Rockets, like the Lakers, are pairing Howard with another center, Omer Asik instead of Pau Gasol. They won't slow the pace for Howard, but they envision him posting up on rim runs and at the end of pick-and-rolls, sealing his man underneath. The Rockets will attempt to blend their present style with their historical one, forming the ultimate torture chamber. "We're all going to have to sacrifice," Howard said during a team dinner at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse the week camp opened. Coaches expect Harden to still lead the Rockets in scoring, but Howard won't be logging 40 minutes to put up four shots, the way he did in L.A. "We'll go as far as you take us," McHale told him recently, and Olajuwon beamed.
"Isn't that refreshing to hear?" the gentleman farmer asked. "That's basketball—real basketball."