The Defending Champ: Hakeem Olajuwon
You don’t need to be a basketball expert to know the story of Hakeem Olajuwon. We all know it and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to write in full detail of it. But, since this is a western story, I’ll go ahead and explain.
Born in the land known as Lagos, Nigeria, Hakeem (sometimes mispronounced as Akeem) Olajuwon started playing basketball at 16 as he had previously played soccer and handball. He became good enough to play the sport that when it college offers, he could’ve gone to St. John’s University to play basketball. Yet, he decided not to because the weather was too cold. Instead, he went to the University of Houston.
One summer after his freshman year, Olajuwon would spend time working out with NBA Legend Moses Malone to further his collegiate career. He struggled at first before he got better. That would lead to a great collegiate career in which he would guide the Cougars (aka Phi Slamma Jamma) to three straight final fours and two straight title appearances.
Yet, in the history of Houston sports, he came up empty. Despite this, he became a Houston legend and would stay that way as he was drafted number one overall in 1984 as the first pick under new commissioner David Stearn. Now, I wonder how we would’ve done if we added the third pick of that year’s draft.
After a strong rookie season, which he teamed up with fellow twin tower Ralph Sampson, Hakeem guided the Houston Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals, including an upset over the Los Angeles Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Yet, they ran into the talented team known as the Boston Celtics who dropped one game all season long at home led by a bird, a chief, and a man who once had his name as a title for a TV show.
The future seemed bright, but injuries and drug-related suspensions would hurt the Houston Rockets to where they would lose in the semifinals of next year’s playoffs. It got worse. Sampson was traded in 1988 and the Houston Rockets would begin a stretch where they didn’t get past the first round.
Things went from bad to worse in 1992 when the Houston Rockets made a coaching change and didn’t make the playoffs. After being accused of faking an injury, Hakeem decided that he had to leave elsewhere. Thanks to a local Houston mosque, a discovery of his faith, and a better peace within himself, Hakeem Olajuwon made the decision to stay, which would make the franchise what they would become. That doesn’t happen if Hakeem goes elsewhere.
The 1993 season would see a changed player and a team on the rise. Olajuwon won defensive player of the year and Houston would reach the semifinals where they lost to Seattle in seven games. Some have said the Houston Rockets could’ve made the NBA Finals against the Bulls and they would’ve won. We know the truth.
By 1994, the Houston Rockets were clearly set to have a magical season. 15-0 to begin the year, a then-franchise record 58 wins, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to the Suns in the second round and then, claiming their first title in franchise history with a seven-game victory over the Knicks led by former college rival Patrick Ewing. As for Hakeem, the awards were there. All-NBA First Team, Defensive Player, regular-season MVP, and NBA Finals MVP. The only man on this planet to achieve all four things in the same season.
Life seemed to be good for Hakeem and the Houston Rockets. They were the champs and they had the swagger. But, as they found out the hard way, they went from being the one’s seeking the prize to the most wanted where the prize is given to those who took them out of the playoffs. And in 1995, there seemed to be a new sheriff in town looking to take over Hakeem’s reign.