Dream Week: Over the Mansion of Knowledge

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.

Bomani Jones is the host of "The Morning Jones" on The Score on Sirius Channel 98, a contributor to ESPN.com's Page 2, and occasional talking head. After years of writing on sports, music, culture and politics, Bomani has served as an on-air personality since January 2008 and joined The Score in 2010. You can follow him on Twitter.

Before I start, let me stipulate that Michael Jordan is the best. Any time you talk about '80s and '90s basketball, you've got to say that first, like saying you're saved in front of a church. Otherwise, they'll think you're a heathen.

Especially when you plan to say something that maybe, just maybe, will come across as blasphemous.

Here it goes: forgive me, but can we please stop saying the Bulls would have won eight championships in a row had Jordan not retired in 1993?

For one, it discounts the tenuous nature of the basketball universe, how one change can throw everything out of whack. And, how after three full postseasons in a row and an Olympic run, even a superhero might get hurt.

Then there's the big part--have you ever heard of Hakeem Olajuwon?

It was he that was drafted No. 1 in the 1984 Draft and, unlike Sam Bowie, he didn't come with the lingering regret of passing on Jordan. It was Olajuwon that got his team to the NBA Finals in his second season, five seasons before Jordan finally conquered the Pistons.

And more importantly, he was the dominant center of his era, the best in an era that featured five Hall of Fame (or soon-to-be Hall of Fame) centers in or entering their primes. Of of them, he was the most singular. He was a power forward with quickness wings would kill for and a presence traditional pivots couldn't match. He controlled the lane at a shade under 6-10, and his repertoire of post moves made him just as unstoppable as Jordan (either you're unstoppable or you're not; there are no degrees).

Jordan vs. Olajuwon is the forgotten “what if.” What if the Bulls had to deal with a top notch center in the NBA Finals, which they never had to do in their six runs? What if Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant had to deal with a dynamic center, rather than a top-notch yeoman like Patrick Ewing? What if Olajuwon, as prideful and vindictive as Jordan, had a chance to exact a series worth of revenge against the team that broke his orbital bone three years prior?

We don't ask those because Michael Jordan would never lose a series. Maybe he wouldn't, but if any team could have slain the juggernaut, it was the nondescript outfit that won the '94 championship in Jordan's absence. I could point to the Rockets' record against the Bulls in the '90s, better than any other team's. Or I could point to the mercurial insanity of Vernon Maxwell, which assured that at least one person in the building wasn't scared, a stark contrast to the perpetual echo of Dan Majerle calling for help in the '93 Finals while Jordan put up over 40 points per game.

But the real answer stood in the middle. Olajuwon was just as averse to losing as Jordan and, more importantly, just as intense and singular on the floor. Undersized centers don't lead the NBA in rebounding twice or put up 12 consecutive 20-10 seasons without those qualities. The same fuel that pushed Jordan to carry the Bulls to immortality helped turn Dream from the league's biggest hothead--notorious for telling referees to “suck his d*ck” when he didn't like a call in his early days--to an unstoppable force. As no team had an answer for Jordan, the Bulls had none for Dream, other than the point of Cartwright's elbows.

For all his greatness, the only thing Jordan could do to help stop Olajuwon would be to leave a shooter wide open for 3. That was the trade team after team made against the Rockets, and it didn't work out well enough for any of them. What could a 6-6 guard do to counteract the Dream Shake? What could he do to bring out the man in Grant, who was too scared to consider shooting on the Bulls' last possession in the '93 Finals (he threw that hot potato to John Paxson)?

Is this convincing? It probably won't be. I could break out a computer simulation, and you wouldn't believe that, either, and that's the difficulty of playing the “what if” game on something like this. However, considering no one has won four straight NBA titles since 1966, the presumption of another ring for Chicago doesn't make sense. The '93 title team wasn't as good as the previous two, and it couldn't win home-court advantage in the East, let alone the NBA Finals (which they did not have in the '98 NBA Finals, either). The wear and tear of playing over 100 basketball games per season was enough to creep up on any team.

The end result of that conclusion, however, is a devaluation of Olajuwon. He was the second-best player of his time, behind Jordan. But Jordan sucks so much air out of the room that few even bother to think about who comes behind him. There's His Airness, then there's everything else, and those things that happened without Jordan in the house didn't matter.

Including two championships.

I've never been able to figure out exactly how that works. Does the Sixers' fo-fo-fo title count because Jordan was still in Chapel Hill? Do Tim Duncan's first and the first two Shaq/Kobe titles count since Jordan was taking a break? Hell, what about Kobe's fifth?

From what I can tell, only Dream's rings lack that luster. Only they come with an asterisk, even more so than the Spurs' lockout league title. As a result, Dream loses luster. Who gets less credit for back-to-back titles with matching Finals MVPs? What other center was the best of his time and somehow gets forgotten when listing the best of the best of his time, let alone all-time? And what player ever had that damn Shake, a junkballer's arsenal coming at 95 miles per hour?

But just as Jordan never won a title over a great big man, the great big man never even got a chance against the greatest on the biggest stage. Had he, perhaps these questions go away. Maybe a weary Bulls team would fall to the Rockets (or maybe even the Knicks), leaving Dream to give high-fives under confetti as Jordan walked off with his head down for the first time since 1990.

But as long as these questions linger, Olajuwon remains underrated. His accomplishments look great on his resume, but mean nothing in our memories. The title is the holy grail, and his are the only ones widely believed to not count because that other guy was Michael Jordan.

Well, this guy was Hakeem Olajuwon, and that meant more than any foe Jordan faced. And no matter what your memory says, that counted for a helluva lot.

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At 10/12/2010 1:12 PM, Blogger Ed The Sports Fan said...

The '94 Rockets would have been insanely intriguing to watch face the Bulls, but my instincts tell me that for whatever reason the '95 Rockets wouldn't have had a chance. Jordan took Drexler's soul in '92 and I think Dream game him his soul back with the '95 title. I've made similar arguments to say that MJ and the Bulls got off easy (http://www.edthesportsfan.com/2009/09/michael-jordan-and-he-bulls-got-off.html) for where he played in chronologically.

Great post, retweet coming up.

At 10/12/2010 3:24 PM, Blogger Wesley said...

Great post, but the 1995 Championship deserves no asterisk. The Bulls, with the returned Michael Jordan (just as great grounded as he had been airborne previously) lost to the Penny/Shaq Magic because they couldn't handle a big man in the middle or a penetrator who could get to the lane at will. The Rockets dispatched the same team in 4 games.

Michael Jordan needed Dennis Rodman at this point in his career, not unlike Hakeem needing the lift from Drexler, Horry, and Cassell.

At 10/12/2010 7:32 PM, Blogger Andy said...

I remember reading somewhere that the Rockets were the only team in the league during Jordan's career with a winning record against the Bulls. After one game in which the then-mediocre Rockets beat the Bulls again, Jordan said "Thank God that team isn't a contender because I don't how we'd do against them in the finals."

Might have been this game, actually: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BLjWjc_eII

At 10/12/2010 11:43 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Wesley already mentioned it, but Jordan's Bulls did lose to Shaq's Magic in '95.

And yes, if Jordan stays in '94-95, who knows what happens to the Bulls. Maybe the sequence of events that had them land Dennis Rodman doesn't happen, and Karl Malone wins back to back Finals MVPs. You just don't know.

At 10/13/2010 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not certain what would have happened against Olajuwon if the Bulls had matched up in 1994 or 1995. The argument that the Bulls lost to Orlando with O'Neal in 1995 is without merit because Jordan was not in playing shape and the team had not played together for long. And what about the Rockets in 1996? The Sonics swept the Rockets in the Western Conference Semis and the Sonics had Ervin Johnson at the 5. The Rockets did not have Vernon Maxwell and Drexler was almost finished, but it was a very good team. Although I would take Gary Payton in a double-down situation in 1996 over Jordan.

At 10/14/2010 5:53 PM, Blogger Xiane said...

This scenario is the ashen taste in the mouths of Rockets fans. No one believes us, but we had no fear of the Bulls, no fear of Jordan. A healthy respect? Of course. Fear? Never.

@BCole - You can't have it both ways. Jordan did show up in 1995. His team lost. He gets to happily say his team never lost a finals, because it didn't make it to those finals. If he was out of shape, unfit to play, whose fault is that? None other than Michael Jordan's.

No one is making the claim for the 1996 Rockets.

As I've said many, many times, the Rockets beat who showed up, twice. If MJ failed to show either year that's hardly our fault. I contend he's lucky to have dodged the Rockets.

At 3/22/2013 5:30 PM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

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