Friday, 8 July 2011

Top 10 NBA Players: #8, Hakeem Olajuwon

"The Dream" makes his appearance at number eight in the all-time top 10 list. Hakeem Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995, the teams' only titles to date.

Hakeem was born in Nigeria, and did not pick up a basketball until the age of 15. Since then, he has gone on to become the most well-known player to come from the country.Olajuwon came to America in 1980, arriving as 17 year old keen to prove his talent in a strange new land. He had a tough start to his college career, ineligible to play the first year and rarely used in his second, he eventually led Houston University to consecutive championship games. Both would end in losses to North Carolina in '83 and Patrick Ewing's Georgetown the year after.

Hakeem Olajuwon at the peak of his powers
- An unstoppable force
Olajuwon declared himself for the 1984 draft and was taken first by the Houston Rockets ahead of Michael Jordan (#3) in one of the most talented draft classes of all-time. The Rockets' performance improved massively with Olajuwon teaming up with team leader Ralph Sampson, as the team added an extra 19 wins in Olajuwon's rookie season. Although it would take time and a few changes before Hakeem matured into the star he was, he was a dangerous player from day one.

After a number of disappointing Playoff exits and even missing them altogether in 1992, Hakeem and the Rockets took off in 1994. Olajuwon turned in big performances every other night, marking himself out as one of the games' greatest Centers, he routinely outperformed the other stars of the time such as David Robinson and Patrick Ewing. The 1994 Rockets progressed to a Finals series against the NY Knicks, beating them in a thrilling 7 game series. Hakeem cemented his place in Houston folklore with a championship-winning block on  John Starks' title-winning shot attempt.

The Rockets came back in 1995 and ran the rule over the league. Olajuwon missed 8 games near the end of the season with Anemia, yet still came back to beat Utah in 5 games in the opening round. Hakeem was again instrumental as the Rockets progressed to another Texan duel with the San Antonio Spurs led by a prime David Robinson. Hakeem put him in his pocket, outscoring him by some 6 points in the series and shooting 50% to Robinson's 36%. The Finals were as straightforward as possible, a 4-0 sweep over the Orlando Magic led by an emerging Shaquille O'Neal - the next man to inherit Olajuwon's "best Center" title.

This would be the end of the Rocket's run, as they were eliminated at the second round the next year, a year which saw Michael Jordan return to the sport after two years out.

Olajuwon earns his spot thanks to his dominant displays throughout his career. In the '85-'86 Playoffs, a young Olajuwon scored 75-points over games three and four against the LA Lakers in a series-win that shocked the sports world. The show of strength prompted Lakers' coach Pat Riley to say that "We tried everything. We tried four bodies on him. He's just a great player." Hakeem would have won at least another title, his 1986 Finals series defeat was to arguably the most talented lineup of all time, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, a group that produced FIVE Hall of Fame players.