Dream Week: The Nail in the Coffin
FD's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be officially released on October 26, but the celebration is beginning early. Inspired, and curated, by Brian Phillips of Run of Play, DREAM WEEK features some of your fastest and most favorite writers trying to crack the mystery of Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets.
Eric Freeman is an FD regular and one of the authors of The Undisputed Guide. Read more of him at Early Termination Option and follow him on Twitter.
For a repeat champion, the ‘93-’95 Rockets have had relatively little impact on the broader national culture. Teams like the ‘90s Bulls, ‘80s Lakers, and ‘60s and ‘80s Celtics remain paragons of NBA success as they were at the time of their championships. Yet, despite playing in America’s fifth-largest city, the Rockets have remained fairly anonymous, a few lines in the history books rather than legends. In nondescript Houston, they can’t even lay claim to the same sort of municipal representation as the Bad Boy Pistons, who have remained historically relevant if only for the fact that they became synonymous with Detroit’s grit and toughness. If ‘93-’94 and ‘94-’95 were the NBA’s lost seasons without Jordan, then the Rockets have played their role wonderfully as forgotten champions.
The Rockets weren’t even a cultural force at the time of their own championships. Apart from a few ads for Taco Bell in which he argued for the superiority of soft shells over hard ones, Hakeem was a national star for his game rather than his personality, and the team’s role players -- with the exception of Clyde Drexler in ‘95 -- only gained greater relevance in later years. Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, and Kenny Smith eventually became notable figures for casual fans down the road, but their time with Houston was part of their overall narrative rather than the climax.
But while they won little regard as real-life champions, they still stand out as virtual ones. The Rockets had the good fortune of having their reign coincide with the release of the two SNES and Genesis incarnations of NBA Jam, the most memorable basketball game franchise of all time. As these versions of the game are remembered -- and played via emulators -- so are the Rockets. In that 16-bit world, they stay supreme.
Throughout college, my roommates and I engaged in wall-projected NBA Jam death battles. We kept tallies of our wins, based nicknames off our successes and failures, and over the course of several years isolated the best strategies for victory. Due to a ridiculous oversight from the bright minds at Midway, a player could catch fire -- bursting into literal flames and becoming nearly impossible to defend -- with three consecutive baskets as long as the other team only scored by goaltending. With this in mind, strength (both the abilities to push and not fall) and shot-blocking became the most valuable commodities in the game. Outside shooting and top-level speed would come with fire and its bounty of improved marksmanship and unlimited turbo. NBA Jam is remembered for its high-flying dunks, but it was really a game of power.
Under these condidtions, the Rockets were rivaled only by the Spurs trio of David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, and Sean Elliot in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. For the most part, that’s because Hakepem Olajuwon was far and away the best player in the game, a shockingly versatile talent with excellent ratings in all the most important facets of the game. He blocked shots, scored without needing any high-rising, blockable dunks (the dirty secret of NBA Jam: the coolest dunks weren’t effective while playing against a human), pushed anyone necessary, and had enough speed to do everything in a reasonable amount of time. He was as complete a player as you could have within the parameters of the video game universe: someone who excelled where he was needed without being a liability in any other aspects.
His teammates weren’t bad either. In the original cartridge, Vernon Maxwell was Hakeem’s Robin, creating a classic big/small combo. Maxwell’s strengths lay in scoring with speed, so in many ways he played the role of primary ballhandler and scorer. That meant that Hakeem, the best player in the game, was often more effective as a Ben Wallace-style enforcer. He was still the focus of everything the Rockets did, but only in the sense that he made Maxwell’s scoring prowess possible.
In Tournament Edition, Maxwell was replaced by Otis Thorpe and Robert Horry to create the best trio in the game. (They were so awesome, in fact, that my roommates and I considered it poor form to pick them.) Thorpe was a limited player, a plodding big man with enough pushing ability to stay on the court. Horry, on the other hand, was a burgeoning star, a quality shooter with impressive-enough strength and speed attributes to be a serviceable ballhandler and secondary defender.
Both players freed Olajuwon to contribute even more than he had with Maxwell as a teammate. Alongside Thorpe, Hakeem was more of a scorer while still proving quite capable of controlling proceedings at the other end. Thorpe matched some of Hakeem’s strengths to make the Rockets an imposing, tough squad. With Horry, though, Olajuwon took on a role more similar to the one he played with Maxwell in the first version of the game, just with more chances to show off his full range of skills due to Horry’s solid all-around play. With two relatively big players to play next to him, Hakeem could show just how versatile he was instead of playing a more narrowly defined big-man role.
It may seem ridiculous to discuss a collection of 0’s and 1’s in a register usually reserved for actual living breathing basketball greats, but surprisingly, the virtual Hakeem was a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. In a game where ridiculous plays were commonplace, the NBA Jam Olajuwon was versatile in realistic ways. Whereas Shawn Kemp jumping 30 feet in the air for a reverse jam didn’t accurately depict what made him such a ferocious dunker, Hakeem’s shot-blocking and amazing all-around play actually led to greater appreciation of his on-court artistry. He could do pretty much anything, and the game reflected those abilities quite well. It didn’t matter if his virtual Rockets were in the midst of a shootout or a relative rockfight with a team like the Spurs.
NBA Jam also displayed how Hakeem’s versatility meshed with his teammates. He controlled the court equally well with Maxwell, Thorpe, or Horry, just in different ways. Likewise, Olajuwon took on different roles within Rudy Tomjanovich’s system depending on which lineup was on the court at any particular time. In each five-man team, he defined his duties based on what was needed within the group. Yet it was a symbiotic relationship with his teammates, not a case of one player lording over all others. He was both the locus of systemic meaning and a part of the whole. Each player contributed something to the greater team, with Hakeem taking on duties when needed and also providing order for the other four men on the floor. Only two players suit up for a team in NBA Jam, but the video game Hakeem managed to evince the same chameleonic greatness.
There’s a new version of NBA Jam coming out for the Wii in a few weeks. Hakeem Olajuwon is a playable legend character, and while I don’t know what his attributes will be, here’s hoping they’re close enough to those of the old versions that he appears somewhat like his real self. If that’s the case, a new generation of fans can get their own taste of his prowess and realize what they’ve been missing as the Rockets rest in relative anonymity. NBA Jam might not be a realistic game, but it can still uncover the reality of Hakeem and the Rockets’ greatness.