Hakeem Olajuwon entered the NBA as a physically dominant center who used his strength and athleticism to overpower opponents. He exited the game as one of the most skilled and versatile big men to ever wear an NBA uniform.
On offense, the Houston Rockets Hall of Famer used an array of spin moves and fadeaway jumpers to frustrate defenders. His ball and head fakes became known as the “Dream Shake,” a nod to his nickname “Hakeem the Dream.”
On defense, the 7’0,” 255-pound Olajuwon was a star from the start. He was not only a prolific shot blocker, he was also one of the game’s best off-ball defenders, using his quickness to disrupt passing lanes.
While most pro players are groomed to be stars from early childhood, Olajuwon didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 15, when he was discovered while playing handball in his native Nigeria. Two years later, the raw but intriguing prospect was at the University of Houston.
After redshirting his freshman year, Olajuwon helped lead Houston to three straight Final Four appearances from 1982-84. In 1983, he was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, despite Houston losing to North Carolina State in the NCAA Championship Game.
In 1984, the First Team All-American led the NCAA in rebounding (13.5), blocked shots (5.6) and field goal percentage (.675), but for the second year in a row, Olajuwon and the Cougars lost in the NCAA title game, this time to Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.
On June 19, 1984, the Rockets chose Olajuwon with the first overall pick of the NBA Draft. It was the second straight year a coin flip gave Houston the top pick. In 1983, they drafted 7’4” Virginia center Ralph Sampson. With the addition of Olajuwon, the Rockets now had the most promising pair of young big men in the NBA. The duo became known as “The Twin Towers.”
Olajuwon’s impact was immediate, as Houston improved from 29-53 in 1984 to 48-34 in his rookie year. The first-time All-Star averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team.
Olajuwon and the Rockets took it to the next level in 1986, beating the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals to advance to the NBA Finals. Olajuwon averaged 31.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.0 blocks against the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Conference Finals, marking his arrival as one of the game’s premier big men.
Houston lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, but Olajuwon once again held his own, averaging 24.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks against the Hall of Fame front line of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
The Rockets could not replicate the success of the 1986 season, due partly to Sampson’s persistent injury issues, but Olajuwon continued to grow as a player. From 1987-90, “The Dream” was the starting center for the West in the All-Star Game, and was named First Team All-NBA from 1988-90.
In 1990, Olajuwon led the NBA in both rebounding (14.0) and blocks (4.6) while averaging 24.3 points and 2.1 steals. He also accomplished the ultra-rare quadruple-double not once but twice when he had 29 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists and 11 blocks against the Golden State Warriors on March 3, and 18 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists and 11 blocks versus the Milwaukee Bucks on March 29.
Olajuwon led the league in rebounding (13.8) and blocks (3.9) again in 1991, but the Rockets failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
Houston’s fortunes changed in Rudy Tomjanovich’s first full season as head coach in 1993. The Rockets won 55 games, their first division title since 1986, and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. Olajuwon also took his game to another level.
While he was already a perennial All-Star and All-NBA selection, Olajuwon became a more complete player in 1993. By working on his moves and increasing his range, Olajuwon went from averaging 21.6 points in 1992 to 26.1 points in 93. He also averaged 13.0 rebounds, a career-high 3.5 assists, and led the league in blocks for the third time at 4.2. Olajuwon was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
The 1994 season was a historic one for both Olajuwon and the Rockets. The 31-year-old center averaged 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.7 blocks for the Rockets, who won a franchise record 58 games and a second straight division title. More importantly, Houston advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in eight years.
After defeating the Utah Jazz in the West Finals, the Rockets beat Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in a grueling seven-game series in the NBA Finals. Olajuwon was outstanding, averaging 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks. After being named Finals MVP, Olajuwon became the only player in history to win NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, an NBA championship and Finals MVP in the same season.
Olajuwon was reunited with his University of Houston teammate Clyde Drexler in 1995 when the Rockets traded for the future Hall of Fame guard mid-season. The defending MVP responded by averaging a career-high 27.8 points while adding 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.4 blocks.
Despite the addition of Drexler and another monster year from Olajuwon, the Rockets entered the postseason as a sixth seed in the West. The new-look lineup peaked at the right time, though, as Houston advanced to its second straight NBA Finals.
Olajuwon left no doubt about his status as the NBA’s top center after dominating all opposition in the Rockets’ run to a second straight NBA title. He averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 4.2 blocks in Houston’s Western Conference Finals win over David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. In the NBA Finals, he averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks in a four-game sweep of Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic to win his second straight Finals MVP.
The Rockets remained a title contender the next two seasons, but fell short of the Finals each year. Olajuwon was an All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive selection in both 1996 and 97. He averaged a double-double for the 12th straight season in 96 with 26.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, and averaged 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in his last All-Star season in 97.
Olajuwon continued to be a strong presence in the middle in his last four seasons in Houston, including averaging 18.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 1999. The now 39-year-old center played one last season with the Toronto Raptors before retiring in 2002.
Olajuwon finished his career with 26,946 points, 13,748 rebounds, 3,058 assists, 2,162 steals and 3,830 blocks in 1,238 games. He ranks first in NBA history in blocks, ninth in steals, 12th in points and 14th in rebounds. “The Dream” was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2008.