At 60 years old, Hakeem Olajuwon has this physical status:
Olajuwon emigrated from Nigeria to play basketball at the University of Houston under Cougars coach Guy Lewis. Olajuwon was not highly recruited and was merely offered a visit to the university to work out for the coaching staff, based on a recommendation from a friend of Lewis who had seen Olajuwon play. He later recalled that when he originally arrived at the airport in 1980 for the visit, no representative of the school was there to greet him. When he called the staff, they told him to take a taxi out to the university.
After redshirting his freshman year in 1980–81 because he could not yet get clearance from the NCAA to play, Olajuwon came mostly off the bench and served as the Cougars' sixth man as a redshirt freshman in 1981–82, averaging 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, shooting 60% from the field in 18 minutes per game as Houston was eliminated in the Final Four by the eventual NCAA champion, North Carolina. Olajuwon sought advice from the coaching staff about how to increase his playing time, and they advised him to work out with local Houston resident and multiple NBA MVP winner, Moses Malone. Malone, who was then a center on the NBA's Houston Rockets, played games every off-season with several NBA players at the Fonde Recreation Center. Olajuwon joined the workouts and went head to head with Malone in several games throughout the summer. Olajuwon credited this experience with rapidly improving his game: "The way Moses helped me is by being out there playing and allowing me to go against that level of competition. He was the best center in the NBA at the time, so I was trying to improve my game against the best."
Olajuwon returned from that summer a different player. He was nicknamed "the Dream" during his basketball career after he dunked so effortlessly that his college coach said it "looked like a dream." He and his teammates (including Clyde Drexler) formed what was dubbed "Phi Slama Jama", the first slam-dunking "fraternity", so named because of its above-the-rim prowess. In his sophomore and junior years he helped the Cougars advance to consecutive NCAA championship games, where they lost to North Carolina State on a last-second tip-in in 1983 and a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team in 1984. He averaged 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 5.1 blocks in 1982–83 and 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 5.6 blocks in 1983–84. Olajuwon won the 1983 NCAA Tournament Player of the Year award, even though he played for the losing team in the final game. To date, he is the last player from a losing side to be granted this honor. Drexler departed for the NBA in 1983, leaving Olajuwon the lone star on the team.
After the 1983–84 season, Olajuwon debated whether to stay in college or declare early for the NBA draft. At that time, before the NBA Draft Lottery was introduced in 1985, the first pick was awarded by coin flip. Olajuwon recalled: "I really believed that Houston was going to win the coin flip and pick the first draft choice, and I really wanted to play in Houston so I had to make that decision (to leave early)." His intuition proved correct, and a lucky toss placed Houston ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. Olajuwon was considered the top amateur prospect in the summer of 1984 over fellow collegians and future NBA stars Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, and was selected first overall by the Rockets in the 1984 NBA draft.
In his autobiography Living the Dream, Olajuwon mentions an intriguing draft trade offered to the Rockets that would have sent Clyde Drexler and the number two pick in the 1984 NBA draft from Portland in exchange for Ralph Sampson. Had the Rockets made the deal, Olajuwon states the Rockets could have selected Jordan with the number two pick to play alongside Olajuwon and Drexler, who had established chemistry playing together during their Phi Slama Jama days in college. Sportswriter Sam Smith speculates that such a trade "would have changed league history and maybe the entire Michael Jordan legend." From 1991 to 1998, every NBA championship team included either Jordan or Olajuwon; furthermore, at least one of Drexler, Jordan, and Olajuwon was involved in every NBA Finals from 1990 to 1998.
The Rockets had immediate success during Olajuwon's rookie season, as their win–loss record improved from 29 to 53 in 1983–84 to 48–34 in 1984–85. He teamed with the 1984 Rookie of the Year, 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m) Ralph Sampson to form the original NBA "Twin Towers" duo. Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.68 blocks in his rookie season. He finished as runner-up to Michael Jordan in the 1985 Rookie of the Year voting, and was the only other rookie to receive any votes.
Olajuwon averaged 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game during his second pro season (1985–86). The Rockets finished 51–31, and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they faced the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. The Rockets won the series fairly easily, four games to one, shocking the sports world and landing Olajuwon on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Olajuwon scored 75 points in victories in games three and four, and after the series Lakers coach Pat Riley remarked "We tried everything. We put four bodies on him. We helped from different angles. He's just a great player." The Rockets advanced to the 1986 NBA Finals where they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics, whose 1986 team is often considered one of the best teams in NBA history.
During the 1987–88 season, Sampson (who was struggling with knee injuries that would eventually end his career prematurely) was traded to the Golden State Warriors. The 1988–89 season was Olajuwon's first full season as the Rockets' undisputed leader. This change also coincided with the hiring of new coach Don Chaney. The Rockets ended the regular season with a record of 45–37, and Olajuwon finished the season as the league leader in rebounds (13.5 per game) by a full rebound per game over Charles Barkley. This performance was consistent with his averages of 24.8 points and 3.4 blocks. Olajuwon posted exceptional playoff numbers of 37.5 ppg and 16.8 rpg, plus a record for points in a four-game playoff series (150). Nevertheless, the Rockets were eliminated in the first round by the Seattle SuperSonics, 3 games to 1.
The 1989–90 season was a disappointment for the Rockets. They finished the season with a 41–41 record, and though they made the playoffs, were eliminated in four games by Los Angeles. Olajuwon put up one of the most productive defensive seasons by an interior player in the history of the NBA. He won the NBA rebounding crown (14.0 per game) again, this time by an even larger margin; a full two rebounds per game over David Robinson, and led the league in blocks by averaging 4.6 per game. He is the only player since the NBA started recording blocked shots in 1973–74 to average 14+ rebounds and 4.5+ blocked shots per game in the same season. In doing so he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton as the only players in NBA history (at that point) to lead the league in rebounding and shot-blocking in the same season. Olajuwon also recorded a quadruple-double during the season, becoming only the third player in NBA history to do so.
The Rockets finished the 1990–91 season with a record of 52–30 under NBA Coach of the Year Chaney. Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points per game in 1990–91, but due to an injury to his eyesocket caused by an elbow from Bill Cartwright, did not play in enough games (56) to qualify for the rebounding title. Otherwise, he would have won it for a third consecutive year, averaging 13.8 a game (league leader Robinson averaged 13.0 rpg). He also averaged a league-leading 3.95 blocks per game. However, the Rockets were swept in the playoffs by the LA Lakers.
The following season was a low point for the Rockets during Olajuwon's tenure. They finished 42–40, and missed the playoffs for the first time in Olajuwon's career. He missed two weeks early in the season due to an accelerated heartbeat. Despite his usual strong numbers, he could not lift his team out of mediocrity. Since making the Finals in 1986, the Rockets had made the playoffs five times, but their record in those playoff series was 1–5 and they were eliminated in the first round four times. Following the season, Olajuwon requested a trade in part because of his bad contract; his salary was considerably low for a top center, and his contract specifically forbade re-negotiation. He also expressed displeasure with the organization's efforts to surround him with quality players. He felt the Rockets had cut corners at every turn, and were more concerned with the bottom line than winning. Management had also infuriated Olajuwon during the season when they accused of him of faking a hamstring injury because of his unhappiness over his contract situation. His agent cited his differences with the organization as being "irreconcilable", and Olajuwon publicly insulted owner Charlie Thomas and the team's front office. With the 1992–93 season approaching, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle said that Olajuwon being dealt was "as close to a sure thing as there is."
Nonetheless, he was not traded and the Rockets began the season with a new coach, Rudy Tomjanovich. Olajuwon improved his passing in 1992–93, setting a new career-high of 3.5 assists per game. This willingness to pass the ball increased his scoring, making it more difficult for opposing teams to double and triple-team him. Olajuwon set a new career-high with 26.1 points per game. The Rockets set a new franchise record with 55 wins, and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, pushing the Seattle SuperSonics to a seventh game before losing in overtime, 103–100. He finished second in the MVP race to Charles Barkley with 22 votes to Barkley's 59. The team rewarded him with a four-year contract extension toward the end of the regular season. In stark contrast to the previous year, the Rockets entered the 1993–94 season as a team on the rise. They had a solid core of young players and veterans, with a leader in Olajuwon who was entering his prime.
Olajuwon gained a reputation as a clutch performer and as one of the top centers in history based on his performances in the 1993–94 and 1994–95 seasons. He outplayed centers such as Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Dikembe Mutombo, and other defensive stalwarts such as Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone. Many of his battles were with his fellow Texas-based rival David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. In the 30 head–to–head match-ups during the seven seasons from the 1989 to 1996, when both Olajuwon and Robinson were in their prime, Olajuwon averaged 26.3 points per game, shooting 47.6% from the field, while Robinson averaged 22.1 and 46.8%.
Olajuwon led the Rockets to a championship in the 1994 NBA Finals in a seven-game series against the New York Knicks, the team of one of Olajuwon's perennial rivals since his collegiate days, Patrick Ewing. After being down 2–1, the Knicks took a 3–2 lead into Game 6. The Rockets were defending an 86–84 lead when in the last second, Knicks guard John Starks (who had already scored 27 points) went up for what would have been a Finals-winning three. Olajuwon pulled off a clutch play by blocking the shot as time expired. In Game 7, Olajuwon posted a game–high 25 points and 10 rebounds, which helped defeat the Knicks, bringing the first professional sports championship to Houston since the Houston Oilers won the American Football League championship in 1961. Olajuwon dominated Ewing in their head–to–head match-up, outscoring him in every game of the series and averaging 26.9 points per game on 50% shooting, compared to Ewing's 18.9 and 36.3%. For his efforts Olajuwon was named NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.
Olajuwon was at the pinnacle of his career. In 1994, he became the only player in NBA history to win the MVP, the Championship, the Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season. He was also the first foreign-born player to win the league's MVP award.
On December 1, 1994, Olajuwon recorded a triple-double 37 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in a 113–109 win over the Golden State Warriors. But despite a slow start by the team, and Olajuwon missing eight games toward the end of the season with anemia, the Rockets repeated as champions in 1995. They were bolstered in part by the acquisition of Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon's former University of Houston "Phi Slama Jama" teammate, in a mid-season trade from the Portland Trail Blazers. Olajuwon averaged 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game during the regular season. Olajuwon displayed perhaps the most impressive moments of his career during the playoffs. San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, recently crowned league MVP, was outplayed by Olajuwon in the Conference Finals: Olajuwon averaged 35.3 points on .560 shooting (Robinson's numbers were 23.8 and .449) and outscored Robinson 81–41 in the final two games. In the series-clinching game, Olajuwon recorded 39 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks. When asked later what a team could do to "solve" Olajuwon, Robinson told LIFE magazine: "Hakeem? You don't solve Hakeem." The Rockets won every road game that series. In the NBA Finals, the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic, who were led by a young Shaquille O'Neal. Olajuwon outscored O'Neal in every game, scoring more than 30 points in each and raising his regular-season rate by five while O'Neal's production dropped by one. Olajuwon was again named Finals MVP. He averaged 33.0 points on .531 shooting, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.81 blocks in the 1995 Playoffs. As in 1994, Olajuwon was the only Rockets All-Star.
The Rockets' two-year championship run ended when they were eliminated in the second round of the 1996 NBA Playoffs by the eventual Western Conference Champion Seattle SuperSonics. Michael Jordan had returned from an 18-month hiatus in March 1995, and his Chicago Bulls dominated the league for the next three years (1996–98). The Bulls and Rockets never met in the NBA Playoffs. The Rockets posted a 57–win season in 1996–97 season when they added Charles Barkley to their roster. They started the season 21–2, but lost the Western Conference Finals in six games to the Utah Jazz. After averaging 26.9 and 23.2 points in 1995–96 and 1996–97 respectively, Olajuwon's point production dipped to 16.4 in 1997–98. After the Rockets lost in the first round in five games to the Jazz in 1998, Drexler retired. In 1998–99 the Rockets acquired veteran All-Star Scottie Pippen and finished 31–19 in the lockout-shortened regular season. Olajuwon's scoring production rose to 18.9 points per game, and he made his twelfth and final All-NBA Team. However, they lost in the first round again, this time to the Lakers. After the season, Pippen was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Houston began to rebuild, bringing in young guards Cuttino Mobley and 2000 NBA co-Rookie of the Year Steve Francis. On August 2, 2001, after refusing a $13 million deal with the Rockets, Olajuwon was traded to the Toronto Raptors for draft picks (the highest of which was used by Houston to draft Boštjan Nachbar at #15 in the 2002 NBA draft), with the player having a three-year contract that would give him $18 million. In his first game with the Raptors, he scored 11 points in just 22 minutes of playing time against the Magic. Olajuwon averaged career lows of 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in what would be his final season in the NBA, as he decided to retire in the fall of 2002, due to a back injury. Olajuwon retired as the all–time league leader in total blocked shots with 3,830, although shot-blocking did not become an official statistic until the 1973–74 NBA season.
Shortly after his retirement, his No. 34 jersey was retired by the Rockets. For his NBA career, Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points on 51% shooting, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 3.1 blocks in 1,238 career games.
National team career
In 1980, before arriving in the US, Olajuwon played for a Nigerian junior team in the All-Africa Games. This created some problems when he tried to play for the United States men's national basketball team initially. FIBA rules prohibit players from representing more than one country in international competition, and players must go through a three-year waiting period for any nationality change. Olajuwon was ineligible for selection to the "Dream Team" as he hadn't become a US citizen.
Olajuwon became a naturalized American citizen on April 2, 1993. For the 1996 Olympics, he received a FIBA exemption and was eligible to play for Dream Team II. The team went on to win the gold medal in Atlanta. During the tournament, he shared his minutes with Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. He played 7 out of the 8 games and started 2. He averaged 5 points and 3.1 rebounds and had 8 assists and 6 steals in seven games.
- 2× NBA champion (1994, 1995)
- 2× NBA Finals MVP (1994, 1995)
- 1× NBA MVP (1994)
- 2× NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1993, 1994)
- 6× All-NBA First Team (1987, 1988, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1997)
- 3× All-NBA Second Team (1986, 1990, 1996)
- 3× All-NBA Third Team (1991, 1995, 1999)
- 5× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1987, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1994)
- 4× NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1985, 1991, 1996, 1997)
- 12× NBA All-Star
- Olympic gold medalist (1996)
- Named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996).
- Named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team
- Olajuwon ended his career in the top eleven all-time in blocks, scoring, rebounding, and steals. He is the only player in NBA history to retire in the top eleven for all four categories (he is now 13th all-time in rebounding).
- Olajuwon was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2008, as well as to the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2016.
- Ranked #10 in ESPN's All-Time #NBArank: Counting down the greatest players ever (published in 2016)
- Ranked #12 in SLAM Magazine's 2018 revision of the top 100 greatest players of all time (published in the January 2018 issue)