By William Bixby
Hakeem Olajuwon is the most skilled, graceful, and impacting center to ever play basketball. He played the game of basketball with the power and athleticism of a center, the shooting touch of a forward, and the quickness and dexterity of a guard. Olajuwon finished his basketball career 1st all-time in shot-blocking, 8th in scoring, and 8th in steals, and 11th in rebounding. It is incredible that a man that played the position of center is 8th all-time in steals. The other nine players on the list were all guards, smaller, supposedly quicker players. Olajuwon had career averages of 21.8 ppg., 11.1 rpg., 1.7 spg., and 3.1 bpg. He is one of four people to record a quadruple double. That is, he achieved double digits in 4 statistical categories in the course of a single game. He is one of two people to record at least one 5×5, which is having at least 5 points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and assists in a single game. In 1989, he became the first person to make the top 10 in four statistical categories in two consecutive years. Hakeem became the first person in NBA history to win the NBA Most Valuable Player award, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in the same year. The statistics and the outliers of his career are mind-boggling.
But, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon’s value could not be found only in his numbers. His true worth is found in the aesthetics. Olajuwon spun, faked, and countered his way into the Hall of Fame. His moves looked choreographed when facing opponents in the paint. Olajuwon’s footwork was so spectacular that he often made defenders look and feel foolish on the basketball court. As if in a living, on-court chess game, he seemed to be three steps ahead of any other player. Ask David Robinson, whom Olajuwon embarrassed in the Western Conference Finals in 1994 after Robinson robbed Olajuwon of his second MVP award. He left Robinson spinning dizzily and mis-stepping the entire series. Post-series, after Olajuwon had put an average of 35 ppg. on Robinson’s to his own 24 ppg., Robinson said that he thought he did a pretty good job of guarding the Dream. He was wrong. Olajuwon’s extreme offensive versatility gave all his opposition nightmares. If the defender was smaller than him, Olajuwon would overpower him and finish with a short hook over either shoulder or a vicious dunk. If a defender was larger, he would take him to the top of the key and dribble past him, or post at the baseline for his patented “Dream Shake.” Hakeem Olajuwon was unstoppable.
Hakeem was also one of the best defensive stoppers of his generation. The Houston Rockets had mostly mediocre defenders surrounding him at best. Vernon Maxwell was the only other good defender on the team, but Olajuwon fortified the team with his quick hands, quick feet, and electrifying leaping ability. At 6’10, he was slightly shorter than a typical center, but he compensated for that by using his quickness to deny and/or steal the ball from bigger centers. He was known to occasionally pick the ball away from a guard too, and sprint down the court for a breakaway dunk. Once the basketball got past him on an entry pass, he converted into one of the best shot-blockers that ever lived. He is the most prolific shot-blocker since the statistics for blocks started being recorded in the 1973-74 NBA season. Because he could block the shot of the man he was guarding or help weak-side, the Houston Rockets were told to siphon penetrators into Olajuwon. That practice was just as effective as stopping the penetration altogether. He blocked everything. He blocked layups, dunks, and short jumpers. If an offensive player actually faked and got Olajuwon off his feet, he often recovered quickly enough and jumped high enough to block the shot anyway. Olajuwon was one of the last pure shot-blockers.
Olajuwon, shined despite playing during the best era for big men in NBA history. Olajuwon faced 6 of the 10 best centers of the NBA’s 50 greatest players. He played against the best talent level at his position and won 2 championships with a team of fairly average players. His career completely overlapped with both Patrick Ewing’s and David Robinson’s careers and none of those centers could match Olajuwon in his prime. His NBA peers knew how dominant Olajuwon was during the nineties. Robinson said that you don’t really guard Olajuwon, you just try to stay between him and the goal, stay on your feet, and hope he misses. Hakeem sent Shaquille O’Neal, one of the best and biggest men in NBA history, home in tears after being swept in the 1995 NBA Finals. Shaq post-game said that Hakeem was the greatest center of all-time. Though his statement was forged in frustration, Olajuwon was easily the best center in that series and in the NBA at that time. Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of all-time, said the center that he most would like to play with was Hakeem Olajuwon.
Even today, Olajuwon’s unique skills are being called upon by the younger generation despite his retirement. The best players in today’s NBA are persuading Olajuwon to share his wisdom and unparalled footwork with them. In 2008, he worked with shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the best closer in the league on his spin move. Bryant went on to when his fifth ring and second consecutive NBA championship. The next year Hakeem worked with the league’s best big man, Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard. With only a little coaching, Howard pushed the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals as the centerpiece of the offense. If Howard was an apt pupil, he may push his hometown Atlanta Hawks past teams more heavily favored to win the NBA championship this year.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s greatness cannot be measured in numbers. To appreciate all that he could do, honestly, you had to see him. In the 90′s, he was simply better than everyone around him and he proved it by dominating all his peers on the basketball court. No center has ever played with the grace or visually stunning and appealing style that Hakeem Olajuwon did. He did not just physically outplay opponents, he embarrassed them. And in complete contrast to his mercilessly assault of the centers in the 90′s, he was genuinely humble and almost regal when asked about freshly defeated victims. Hakeem was unyielding on the court, but gracious off of it. Most importantly though, he won basketball games. He did it through a complete, expansive offensive arsenal, a smothering defensive game, and one of the most beautiful styles of play in basketball.