The release is bizarre, the trajectory flat, and the sideways spin has earned it comparisons to an orbiting satellite. Point guard Kenny Smith's shot is an endless source of yuks to his Houston Rocket teammates, even if it hasn't changed much in either form or formidability since Smith was an 11-year-old New Yorker putting on a free throw exhibition during a Harlem Globetrotters game. On Sunday, though, the Rockets were laughing with Smith, not at him. With the Utah Jazz committed to doubling down on center Hakeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, Smith's court presence and Sputnikian jump shot—he went 8 for 15 from the field and scored 25 points—propelled Houston to an 80-78 victory in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals and a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the series.
As the Rockets closed in on a berth in the NBA Finals, the emerging book on them was this: Given that Olajuwon is a monster in the middle, if Houston's outside shots fall, so will the opposition. The unabridged version, however, also makes note of the Rockets' aggressive, adhesive defense; their, ahem, demonstrative way with officials; and their clever offensive scheme that allows different players each night to spot up and deliver. In Game 4 at Salt Lake City not only did the Rockets go by the book, but this volatile team also held together in the final moments when a brain-locked timekeeper gave the Jazz an extra nine seconds in which to try to tie the game. "Championship teams go with all kinds of different weapons," Olajuwon says. "When they concentrate a lot of their energy on me, they should pay from the other guys."
One could forgive the Jazz for focusing a lot of their attention on Olajuwon. After a 100-88 Rocket runaway in the opener at Houston's Summit on May 23, the Dream lived a night of wide-awake fantasy there two days later when Game 2 was played. It began before the tipoff, when NBA commissioner David Stern, praising the 7-foot Olajuwon's "grace and elegance," presented him with his first MVP trophy. It ended 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists later, shortly after his whirling, falling-down fadeaway in the lane against a triple team sealed a 104-99 victory. "Just because I win the award, I do not play to prove myself," Olajuwon said afterward in his raspy lilt. "If you play to win, everything comes naturally."
In all, it was a 46-minute star turn that combined ferocity and magic and conjured up memories of, yes, a current outfielder for the Birmingham Barons. Olajuwon has been linked to Michael Jordan since 1984, when he was chosen first in the draft and Jordan went third; even the title of a recent movie that was a knockoff of Olajuwon's hoops odyssey out of Africa, The Air Up There, seemed to suggest that they were neighbors in the same stratosphere. With his Defensive Player of the Year award now bookended with the MVP, Olajuwon joined Jordan as the only players to pull off that double in the same season. And like Mike, Hakeem is capable of constant invention on the fly. "When I started playing, I only liked to dunk," Olajuwon says. "Now I enjoy creating."
During Game 2, in which he went 14 for 22 from the field, Olajuwon's nimble repertoire comprised spinning finger rolls, a one-footed step-back, jump hooks, half hooks, a 15-foot runner, a bunny-hop bank shot, two stumbling one-handers and the ever-reliable baseline turnaround. (He also converted all 13 of his free throws.)
Down the stretch he guarded Karl Malone, the Jazz's All-Star forward, and the two swapped baskets over a 15-point, two-minute span that was the most stimulating mano a mano since Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins traded fire for the entire fourth quarter in Game 7 of their 1988 Eastern Conference playoff series.
But while Jordan won three championships, which cemented his reputation as a superstar who made those around him better, the titleless Olajuwon is only now getting similar acclaim. His elevated on-court stature follows a period of off-the-court growth. Born a Muslim in Nigeria, Olajuwon rededicated himself to Islam three years ago and has found greater serenity and a more spiritual perspective. "Basketball is not just a job now," he says. "It's an obligation, an act of worship." These days he is quicker to seek help—and to provide it. "When things are going wrong, he steps in and says, 'Relax, everything is going to be all right,' " says Houston swingman Mario Elie.
At the same time, Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich has devised an offense populated with penetrators like rookie Sam Cassell and hair-trigger three-point shooters like Smith and Vernon Maxwell to complement Olajuwon's interior dominance. Catching the ball on the left block, Olajuwon usually has two frothing teammates poised on the arc facing him—what Tomjanovich calls "the money spot"—and a third at the top of the key. With the trio in easy view, Olajuwon can dish the ball quickly before the inevitable double team arrives. The result: With the attack running through him, Olajuwon has increased both his shot attempts and assists since Rudy T replaced Don Chaney during the 1991-92 season. "I love a big man who finds the open man for a pure jump shot," Olajuwon says. "It's beautiful to watch. It is fulfilling to me."
"He's been such a great player that he had a tendency at times to take the shot himself rather than pass," Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. "The game is a lot easier for him now." Olajuwon's comfort with the rest of the Rockets—the Dreamaires?—was apparent in a pair of scenes bracketing Game 2. First, when the MVP award was announced, he asked that his teammates and coaches come onto the floor and share the ovation. "One of the classiest things I've ever seen," said Houston assistant coach Carroll Dawson.
Then, at the timeout that followed Olajuwon's clinching shot, backup forward Earl Cureton ran from the Rocket bench to midcourt to embrace the man of the moment. Cureton, a 36-year-old late-season call-up from the CBA who was a teammate of center Moses Malone's on the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers' championship team, believes he is now playing with the best big man in the history of the game. "All Dream's energy was gone, but he knew we needed him to take that shot," Cureton said. "And when he made it, I came out to get him, because I knew it had come straight from his heart."
After the game, 7-foot Jazz center Felton Spencer put out a public plea for advice on how to handle Olajuwon. He received no suggestions. "I guess people didn't want to be responsible if what they said didn't work," Spencer said with a smile. The No. 6 pick in the draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1990, Spencer was acquired last June for forward Mike Brown. In the playoffs he has jousted consecutively with the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson and the Denver Nuggets' Dikembe Mutombo, but Olajuwon, not surprisingly, was proving to be the most unmanageable of these 7-foot handfuls. "Sometimes I get dizzy if I try to look at how he moves his feet on the floor," Spencer said.
But Spencer is as game as he is affable; over the years he has taken stabs at ballet, boxing, putting the shot and throwing the discus in order to improve his own agility. Before Game 3, in Salt Lake City, he said he would try to force Olajuwon to the baseline, where the Dream has fewer options than when he turns to the middle. He succeeded, at least in the early going, when Olajuwon missed his first eight shots, including two turnaround jumpers that clanged the side of the backboard. Spencer made his 265-pound presence felt with seven rebounds and two blocks before fouling out in the fourth quarter of Utah's 95-86 win. "It was funny," Spencer said the next day. "Olajuwon has 29 points and everyone is telling me, 'You did a great job of stopping him.' "
The emotional Rockets, meanwhile, helped stop themselves, picking up four technical fouls for bickering with the refs in the first half, a total nearly equaled by the number of mixed metaphors used by forward Robert Horry while explaining the outbursts. "The tiger was wild; we weren't able to tame it," Horry said. "With us it can be like a volcano; it just erupts. Usually when that happens we channel it and play tougher basketball. But tonight it overflowed, and we got drowned."
Throughout the 1990s the Jazz have been essentially a two-man band, with virtuoso displays in the post by Malone and peerless orchestration by point guard John Stockton. But the Feb. 24 acquisition of Jeff Hornacek from Philadelphia finally expanded Utah's versatility and talent significantly. Hornacek calls his game "rounded," and he provided his usual measure of everything in Game 3: 17 points, seven assists, six rebounds. The rounded Horn was all the more vital for Game 3 because Malone spent the day in bed with the flu. When he showed up at the Delta Center, said Sloan, "he looked dead." Like the Dream, the Mailman was moribund at the outset, but he played 45 minutes, winding up with 22 points and 16 rebounds.
By Sunday morning Malone had recovered enough to eat pancakes, his first solid food in four days. Still, that afternoon in Game 4 he struggled from the floor (nine of 23) and from the line (seven of 11). Meanwhile, Spencer's ponderous presence limited the Dream to 16 points. But Olajuwon did contribute five blocks, and he exacerbated the Mailman's condition by playing a solid second half of D on him.
Olajuwon also found Smith. "I told Kenny, 'If they leave you wide open and guard me, that's an insult,' " said Olajuwon. But five Houston turnovers in the fourth quarter nearly undid Smith's handiwork. With 13.5 seconds left and Utah trailing 80-78, the Jazz inbounded the ball. Only about two seconds had run off the clock when Tom Chambers tried a wild floater a good nine ticks after the play began, but the Rockets rebounded and killed off the extra seconds.
Olajuwon viewed the snafu with a mixture of righteousness and amusement. "Whoever is the clock man should be fired immediately," he said. "The only thing we have is time, and he is holding the time." As of Sunday the Jazz were running out of it.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
In Houston's Game 1 blowout, Olajuwon scored 31 points and, here, threw stiff D at David Benoit.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
The Mailman was able to deliver to a cutting teammate but was later slowed down by a case of the flu.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
In a face-off of point guards, Utah's wily Stockton (12) looked to outfox Rocket rookie Cassell.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Though Horry (25) outshone him here, Spencer was a hefty force in Game 3.