The videotaped pictures suddenly grab Rudy Tomjanovich, pictures
that leap off the oversized television screen in his office. He
will be in the midst of dull work, trying to dissect the
tendencies and weaknesses of some Houston Rocket opponent in this
long playoff spring, when his attention will be drawn to his own
team. Stop, rewind. He will watch Hakeem Olajuwon in action with a
new and different eye.
Stop, rewind. Hakeem has the ball in that familiar spot, low, on
the left side, back to the basket. He is spinning left, going to
take that little eight-foot jump shot.
Stop, rewind. He is spinning right. The Dream Shake. He is going
to fall out of bounds as he takes that even more familiar
eight-footer that no one can handle. Stop, rewind. He has his
man up in the air, and he is driving, one step, two steps, jam.
Stop, rewind. He is being double-teamed and passes out to one of
his guards -- to Clyde Drexler or Kenny Smith or Sam Cassell --
for a carnival-easy three-point shot to win a Kewpie doll. Stop,
rewind. The pass will be to a cutter for an easy basket. Stop,
Tomjanovich simply will stare at the lethal menu. His good fortune
will overwhelm him. ``Sometimes -- often, really -- I just look at
the tape of Hakeem and say, `God, what are the other coaches
thinking?' '' Rudy T says. ``How do you stop that? What do you do?
We're around him so much that at times we take him for granted.
But to see some of the things he's doing now. . . .''
The time has arrived for everyone to stare in amazement at this
seven-foot gentleman from Lagos, Nigeria, to stare even harder
than last year when he was the MVP in the NBA and led the Rockets
to the NBA championship. That was the for-granted stuff. This is
the surreal. He is one step away from winning the title this time
pretty much by himself, taking an ordinary team to an
extraordinary finish. This is his moment. This is his show.
``He's had an unbelievable run,'' Rocket assistant coach Carroll
Dawson says. ``To go up against the type of competition we've had
and to do the things that he's done . . . he's never played
better. He's scoring, rebounding, blocking shots and -- this is
what he's doing better than he ever has -- making great passes. A
few years ago, he'd get the ball and you'd say, `All right, now
he'll try to score.' Now he waits that little extra bit. He sees
where everybody is.''
The Utah Jazz. The Phoenix Suns. The San Antonio Spurs. In each of
their Western Conference series against those teams, the
sixth-seeded Rockets were the underdogs. In each of the three
series, they faced desperate times. They could have been
eliminated in either of two decisive games against the Jazz, in
any of three against the Suns. They squandered a 2-0 advantage and
faced a best-of-three situation against the Spurs, with two of
those games on the road. Each time they pulled a wondrous escape.
Each time the reason for the escape essentially was their
``To my mind, he's the best player in the league, and he's been
the best as long as I've been in it,'' says forward Mario Elie, a
five-year veteran. ``He's so good that sometimes you get caught up
in just watching him.''
If the championship of last year sometimes looked as if it were
bought with inflated dollars -- Michael Jordan had retired, the
Rockets rolled down an easier path to the Finals when the No.
1-seeded Seattle SuperSonics were eliminated in the first round by
the Denver Nuggets -- this year's trip to the Finals against the
Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic did not come cheap.
Lacking a proven power forward (last season's starter at that
position, Otis Thorpe, was traded in February to the Portland
Trail Blazers for Drexler, and Thorpe's backup, Carl Herrera, is
out with a shoulder injury) and usually playing no more than nine
people, the Rockets have had to lean even more heavily on their
superstar. Take away Olajuwon and his playoff-leading 33.0
average, and the big basketball news in Houston would be the
interviews with potential lottery picks. Put him on the court, and
the city goes borderline wacky, certainly wackier even than last
year, people talking Rockets, Rockets, nothing but Rockets.
The credit that Olajuwon has never received, not even with a
championship and an MVP award last year, has begun to arrive in a
hurry. He is now doing the postseason stuff of Magic Johnson and
Larry Bird and Jordan and Bill Russell. Maybe, hard though it may
be to believe, he is doing even more. Did any of them have to
perform with such a nondescript cast? Perhaps the better
comparisons for his postseason transcendence come from other
sports: Olajuwon is more like Bob Gibson hurling the St. Louis
Cardinals to World Series championships, Reggie Jackson in various
October settings, Joe Montana in those Super Bowls, Wayne Gretzky
on one of those Stanley Cup runs in Edmonton, suddenly everywhere
all at once, controlling the entire drama.
``The series he just played against San Antonio is going to be
legendary,'' Tomjanovich says. ``People will be talking about that
series and how he played for many, many years.''
He took apart Spur center David Robinson in that series. That's
what Olajuwon did. Robinson, who before the series was named the
league MVP for this season (Olajuwon was fifth in the balloting),
is Olajuwon's closest counterpart at the position. Tall, fluid,
graceful, Robinson promised to be a mirror image, negating
whatever good Olajuwon could accomplish. Weren't the rest of the
Spurs far superior to the Rockets? Wasn't form easy to establish?
Hadn't the Spurs beaten the Rockets five of six in the regular
season? Advantage, big advantage, Spurs. The problem was the basic
premise: The reflection in the mirror was not nearly as sharp as
the real object. Robinson never could handle Olajuwon. Olajuwon
more than handled Robinson.
From the first-game upset in San Antonio -- when Olajuwon scored
27 points, collected eight rebounds and made his sixth and final
assist to a carnival-open Robert Horry for the 17-foot jump shot
that won the game 94-93 with 6.4 seconds left -- the Dream
established his superiority. By clinching Game 6, a 100-95 Rocket
win last Thursday in Houston, he had Robinson completely baffled.
Olajuwon had scored 42 points, with nine rebounds and eight
assists, in the breakaway fifth game in San Antonio, a 111-90
rout. In the final game he had 39 points, on 16-for-25 shooting,
and 17 rebounds. Seventeen rebounds! Robinson was tentative,
off-balance, hitting only six of 17 shots for 19 points, grabbing
but 10 boards, missing important foul shots. Lost. David Robinson
was lost. ``I've never felt this way before,'' he said afterward.
``For the first time in my life, I felt I let my teammates down.''
``When you play a center of David's caliber, that makes it more
competitive,'' Olajuwon replied in his humble yet confident way.
``It was a great victory for us.''
What are you going to do? The question Tomjanovich asked while
viewing videotape was Robinson's nightly puzzle. Robinson thought
he was playing pretty good defense. He said he knew that sounded
odd, but he meant it. The Spurs thought they were playing pretty
good team defense too, running people toward Olajuwon every time
he had the ball. He still would roll left and right and jump and
hit those eight-footers, those in-between shots that no one else
can hit with such consistency. And he still would look at his
options and pass away to other people for jumpers. Other people
would hit the jumpers. The process was so repetitive, so
effective, it looked easy. Throw the ball to Hakeem. Go from
``His shooting touch is what is amazing,'' Dawson says. ``I don't
think anybody thought he had that when he came here. I thought we
were getting a guy who could rebound, block shots and run the
floor. What'd he average, 13 points in college? He was just
learning the game. He has developed this touch and added an
arsenal of moves that no one in this game ever has had. Every year
he adds something new. The latest thing is a face-to-the-basket
jumper from about 22 feet. We run him off some pick-and-rolls now
to shoot that shot. How do you guard that if you're the other
His teammates think that the MVP voting should be reopened.
(``What do you think?'' Drexler asked. ``Is there any doubt?'')
The instant analysts rush to ponder the question, Where does he
fit in the history of the game? (``Right up there,'' is
Tomjanovich's reply. ``With Wilt and all of them.'') The
forecasters wonder whether he can run this string the rest of the
way in the Finals. Can he take this curious team of defending
champs and heavy underdogs to a curious repeat championship?
Olajuwon mostly smiles at the sudden commotion. There is a
serenity to him, a grace, that removes him from the laser lights
and the noise even as he dominates. He says proper things in his
proper English school accent.
``The MVP voting is closed,'' he says. ``Basketball is a team game
anyway. The goal is to win the championship. That is the team
goal. That is my goal.''
His best individual award this year might have arrived at a few
minutes before midnight on Thursday. The door to the Rocket locker
room opened. David Robinson entered. He was dressed in a bright
and tailored blue suit, heading home and to summer vacation. He
wanted, as losers traditionally do, to extend congratulations to
the winners. He shook a few hands. He looked for Olajuwon.
``Where's Hakeem?'' he asked Drexler.
``He's in the shower,'' Drexler replied.
``Well, tell him good luck.''
``He really wants to see you. He's right there. In the shower.''
``I don't know about that,'' Robinson said. ``I don't know if I
want to climb in the shower with the man.''
``He really wants to see you,'' Drexler repeated.
The MVP of the NBA for 1995 shrugged mightily and went to the
shower-room door in his bright blue suit. What could he do? He
went inside to extend his congratulations. The man of the moment
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Hakeem Olajuwon laying ball in]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Olajuwon faded away against Robinson, but his postseason heroics will endure with those of Montana, Gretzky and Jackson. [Hakeem Olajuwon shooting fadeaway jumper against David Robinson]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER[see caption above--Joe Montana running with football]
COLOR PHOTO:PAUL BERESWILL [see caption above--Wayne Gretzky during hockey game]
COLOR PHOTO:NEIL LEIFER [see caption above--Reggie Jackson at bat]COLOR PHOTO:JOHN W. MCDONOUGHWhen covered outside, Olajuwon nimbly spun and slammed his way to a 35.3-point series average. [Hakeem Olajuwon dunking basketball]