Dream Week: The Prisms of Our Tears
FD's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball Historywill 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.
Jon Weinbach writes about sports business and West Coast news and hosts a video interview series for FanHouse. He recently completed producing and writing Straight Outta L.A. for ESPN's 30 for 30. Jon was previously a longtime staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
I’m no Dick Vermeil, but it doesn’t take much for me to shed a tear. Political speeches, soccer highlight videos and even (shudder) the first Sex and the City movie—they’ve all made me well up in recent years. It’s a little embarrassing.
But for all my apparent mushiness, I don’t cry over pro sports. Anymore, that is. The last time it happened was May 21, 1986. It was a Wednesday night, I wasn’t quite 10, and Ralph Sampson was responsible. The sinewy, 7-foot-4 Virginian torpedoed my beloved Lakers that evening. From our second-level seats of aisle 16 in the corner of The Forum, I had a clear view as Sampson, all socks and ’stache and Pumas, feathered a reverse set-pass into the basket as time expired to give the Rockets a 114-112 win. It was a spasm of volleyball-rific athleticism that would have made Karch Kiraly proud. And it was perfect in its awfulness: The shot beat the buzzer, it bounced tauntingly off the rim before going in, and, of course, it eliminated the Lakers—the defending champs—from the NBA playoffs on their home floor (see 4:35 mark).
Somewhere between the Forum massive men’s room (1) and my Dad’s car, the trauma overwhelmed me after the game. The order of my universe had been turned upside-down. For the past four years—or roughly half my life, at that point—the Lakers had annually advanced to the Finals, twice winning titles. It was one thing to lose to the goddamn Celtics or the Moses/Dr. J Sixers—but the Rockets? (2) All the doubts about the Lakers’ toughness, about Kareem’s age, about Worthy’s mediocre rebounding, about Scott’s shaky confidence, about Magic’s value vis-à-vis Bird (3), they all came rushing back at once. And all I could envision was Bird, his ’86 mullet, McHale, frigging Jerry Sichting, unbearable Ainge and the rest of the goddamn Celtics beating Houston in the Finals and making life miserable again. (4) (Which is exactly what happened, of course.)
Worse yet, to my fourth-grade eyes it seemed like the Lakers might never get back to the top, even in their own conference. Houston was young, they were fearless, and, of course, they had Sampson and Olajuwon, the Twin Towers who made Kareem look decidedly feeble. Even their backup center, the knee-padded and hyper-active Jim Petersen, seemed tougher than Abdul-Jabbar, and the Rockets had made the Lakers look instantly old, soft and stale.
And so I bawled. More accurately, I probably sniffled through a few tears after stammering some passionate and totally sophisticated observation like “Byron just sucks!” I’m sure my older brother was whining even louder about the Lakers in the parking lot, which only made me more depressed and my dad more irritated. All I know is, we got to the car, I was definitely crying a little, my Dad said something along the lines of “Magic doesn’t cry when he loses, you never know if he’s ten points up or ten points down, so don’t be a poor sport." (5)
Then he probably put in Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I and II—or maybe a tape from the classic rock collection Cruisin’, which my brother had ordered off of TV and which remained in my dad’s car for YEARS—and I went to sleep.
What does any of this have to do with Hakeem, or as he was known then, Akeem? One of the oft-forgotten details about the Sampson game—like Robert Reid’s game-tying three with 12 seconds left and Granville Waiters’ sideline cheering—was that Akeem was actually ejected from the game. He got tossed through the fourth quarter, at a critical juncture when the game was tight and Akeem had already scored 30 points and was obliterating the Lakers. On an otherwise innocuous play, Olajuwon squared off in a brief but memorable fight with Lakers backup center Mitch Kupchak, whiffing repeatedly before being headlocked by the Lakers’ Maurice Lucas in the ensuing skirmish.
When we think of Olajuwon, we generally envision the even-keeled, shaking-and-baking, Ramadan-observing Hakeem of the Rockets’ championship years. But I will always recall—and with some fondness—the earlier, more predatory iteration of Akeem, the untamed soccer goalie who leapt at the slightest provocation, dunked with ferocity, and swung wildly at one-legged Kupchak that night in ’86.
“I’ll never forget [Akeem] coming out of the locker room after the game, half-naked, happy like his life had been saved,” says Bill Fitch, the Rockets’ former head coach, who’s still spry at 76. “I’m sure his whole life passed before him because he probably thought I was going to kill him for getting thrown out.”
It’s easy to forget, but Akeem was by far the less-heralded Tower, and was a fairly crude player—offensively and defensively—coming out of college. As Fitch reminded me and countless reporters over the years, Olajuwon had a limited grasp of basketball terminology and fundamentals when he debuted with the Rockets in ’84.
“If I said, ‘run the backdoor,’ he’d sprint toward the exit sign,” recalls Fitch, who still lives in the Houston area and has incredible recall of individual games. “Every time someone faked, he’d go for it. He’d get two to three silly fouls a ballgame.” After one particularly frustrating practice, Fitch scolded Olajuwon and implored him to stop getting baited on defense. “I told him, ‘goddamit, if you’d just stay out of the damn popcorn machine and stay down, you could became a pretty good defensive player.’ And of all the things I said to him, that stuck.”
When Olajuwon was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008, Fitch came full circle with his critique. He bought Hakeem a full-sized, old-fashioned popcorn machine emblazoned with the Rockets logo. “People forget how much these guys can improve,” says Fitch.
Sadly, that night was Sampson’s one shining moment. At the time, that game felt like the tipping point for Sampson and Olajuwon, the launch date for a new NBA era defined by “Twin Towers” lineups that would alter the course of basketball history. In November of ’86, in Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue, the magazine ran a photo spread entitled “Twin Towers on the Rise,” spotlighting the trend toward double-center frontcourts across the Association. (Who can forget Joe Barry Carroll and Chris Washburn in Golden State? Or William Bedford and Buddha Edwards in Phoenix?) The feature opened with this unforgettable image, which I particularly love for the Etonic high tops worn by Akeem:
But it was never to be. Sampson's balky left knee, which had been problematic during his college career, gave out in early 1987, and he and Fitch feuded off-the-court. “Ralph would have been a much better player had he had two good legs,” says Fitch. “When he did have ‘em, he was great.” In December of ‘87, Sampson was traded to Golden State, where he endured more injuries and disappointment. He had brief stints with Sacramento, Washington and a team in Spain before retiring before retiring in 1992.
Akeem, of course, continued to improve, found Islam, added an H to his first name, and after several middling years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, became the NBA’s most valuable player after Michael Jordan retired for the first time.
For what it’s worth, the fight in ’86 was the last moment of Kupchak’s playing career. It was a feisty end for the former North Carolina star, who unluckily shredded his knee in the days before ACL operations and “micro-fracture” surgeries became routine procedures. Kupchak, who came to the Lakers as a controversial and high-priced free agent from the Washington Bullets, insists he didn’t try to agitate Akeem in an attempt to get Olajuwon ejected. “Did I go into the game looking for trouble? No. It was a skirmish like many others.”
Kupchak, who now has presided over four titles since taking over as the Lakers’ GM in 2000, says it occurred to him on the drive home from the Forum that the tussle with Akeem would be his final NBA play. But he was more bitter about the way the season ended. “We did not have the chemistry, something was amiss, we were not firing on all cylinders, and I’m not sure there was anything that could have changed the outcome of that series—we were going to lose,” says Kupchak. “Then again, I retired and [the Lakers] won back-to-back titles, so maybe the problem was me.”
(1) It’s unthinkable now, but the Forum had ONE men’s room on each side of the arena to accommodate the urinary/defecatory needs of most of the fans. And you had to trek down a scarily steep set of stairs to get to the stalls and urinals. It’s amazing there weren’t more accidents/fights/chaos.
(2) I’m not sure if I knew then that the ’81 Rockets, led by Moses, beat the Lakers in one of the bizarre three-game “mini-series” the NBA used to have. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I don’t think the memory of that loss would have made the ’86 defeat any easier to take.
(3) This was before Magic’s first MVP in the ’86-’87 season, when the prevailing wisdom among most NBA observers—and the few really fucking annoying Celtics fans at my Jewish summer camp in SoCal—was that Bird was by far the more valuable and clutch player.
(4) It really is incredible, and more than a little disturbing, to realize in retrospect how ALL of my venom of the Celtics was focused on their white guys. I think the white-on-white hatred of the ’80s Celtics by Caucasian NBA fans laid the groundwork for the Duke phenomenon in college hoops during the ’90s and 2000s.
(5) Contrary to my Dad’s assumed wisdom, Magic did cry after big defeats. After the Lakers lost Game 7 of the ’84 Finals against the Celtics, he cried in the shower alongside Michael Cooper and spent the night being consoled in his Boston hotel room by Mark Aguire and Isiah Thomas.