Dream Week: Toronto Was a Gas
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.
Today, Pasha Malla, author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011. His essay on YouTube and fandom appears in the Undisputed Guide.
At some point during the 2001-02 season my stepbrother and I found ourselves five rows up at a Raptors’ home game. (Can’t remember who they were playing or how we got tickets, though big pharma might have been involved…) That year with Toronto, of course, would prove to be Hakeem Olajuwon’s final season in the NBA.
While Glen Grumwald had signed him with initial talk of a starting spot, Hakeem’s scant minutes came off the bench and were mostly in relief of the bizarre/amazing/infuriating Keon Clark and Antonio Davis, arguably the worst player to start an All-Star game in any sport, at any level. In Houston Hakeem’s Hall of Fame numbers had been declining; in Toronto they tanked. Having signed him for $17 million over three seasons, the Raptors’ expectations might have been excessive, though Olajuwon’s didn’t seem to match them: “My role is to make the game much easier for [Vince Carter] to dunk on people,” he’d explained. But, creaky back and blood disorders aside, this was still The Dream, and every now and then he’d thrill fans with that old spark of genius.
I mean, probably. The only thing I remember from Hakeem’s year in Toronto happened at that game I attended, and wasn’t particularly genius at all. Here it is: at some point, Hakeem checked in. I don’t recall exactly what led up to the indelible moment, but let’s say that, in the course of an offensive possession, Hakeem falls—maybe it’s a blown or no-call, maybe his knees give out on a Dream Shake—and by the time he struggles to his feet, play has raced down to the opposite end of the court. As Hakeem starts to hobble back on D, the Raptors steal the ball and someone—Tracy Murray, maybe—bombs it court-length to the big man, all alone a few feet inside the free-throw line. Hakeem catches the pass, pivots, takes off and—this part is crystal clear—not only misses, but airballs the dunk. He lunges and stretches, but he’s not even close, and releases the ball a good six inches from the rim. Some opposing defender catches up and—what, steals? rebounds? blocks?—this tragic attempt off the floor, and the action scoots back the other way again.
Then, the best part: Hakeem seems dazed, and gazes up at the basket as though maybe it is at fault, somehow. After a second or two, he shakes his head, a smile breaks across his face, and he loses it. My stepbrother and I are close enough to hear his laughter: this huge, delighted booming that rolls up from the court into the stands. (Think, say, James Earl Jones voicing Sesame Street’s The Count let loose with the Hubble Telescope to tally the stars.) Anyway, Hakeem Olajuwon just missed a dunk, and now he’s doubled over in hysterics and slapping his kneepads. I don’t think I’ve ever, before or since, seen a grown man so amused by his own actions, certainly not live in front of 20,000 befuddled spectators. It was awesome and hilarious and great—but also, as coach Lenny Wilkens signaled for JYD to sub in, a little bit sad, too.
If Hakeem Olajuwon’s final NBA season was dreamlike, it was one of those sludgy semi-awake dreams you have nodding off on a long car trip, head doing the old droop-and-snap, radio insinuating scenarios into your half-asleep brain. The end of Hakeem’s career, like that of too many superstars, felt lethargic and anti-climactic, and went out with neither bang nor whimper. The season with the Raptors remains only a fling, forgettable not just for its brevity but also its impact on both team and player—barely an epilogue to The Dream, more some notes for a half-assed appendix, as easily ignored as forgotten. And to me that missed dunk—beyond statistics, and never the stuff of archive (it’s not even on YouTube)—is such a perfect articulation of Olajuwon’s Toronto swansong: misplaced, absurd, disoriented and disorienting. What else to do but laugh?
There are of course countless examples of disastrous late-career relocations in sport (and just as many successful ones to contradict this as a dominant narrative), but as per the theme of the week, let’s stay with Hakeem. That famous #34 in Raptors purple-and-red was less uniform than costume. It didn’t so much connect Olajuwon to his teammates as estrange him: on the court he looked only out of place and uncomfortable and strange. Watching Hakeem as Vince-liberator, a sort of 7-foot decoy for defences (and also considering how in Houston he’d had to make way for Steve Francis as the centre of the Rockets’ offence), felt a bit like seeing John Goodman cast in Waiting for Godot—as the tree. At least in Houston, as Hakeem’s body and import declined, it was in the colours
he’d worn for two championships; Toronto was at worst a sort of purgatory, at best the rest home where the old man idled out his final days.
I’m getting morbid and maudlin, I know, but it’s in service of trying to get at something.
When I was in ninth grade and at the peak of my hoops-madness, under Olajuwon the Rockets were just hitting their championship stride. At the same time, some lumbering 76er named Moses Malone became the brunt of jokes between me and my high school teammates. At practice, if you failed to drop down from the weakside on a shell drill or missed an easy put-back—if you were slow or dopey in any way—you got called “Moses Malone,” to us the epitome of unathleticism, immobility, and ineptitude.
Who was this balding, lurching old man, riding pine on Charles Barkley’s team; what was he even doing in the league? He couldn’t possibly be a former star, we thought, as the NBA had only begun to really exist when we’d started paying attention; it had no relevant past. This was due in equal parts to the history-negating presence of Michael Jordan, adolescent narcissism, and the simple fact of style: the dorky signifiers of the league pre-1987 (set shots, Daisy Dukes, sky-hooks, etc.) had no resonance in the lightning-paced, baggy shorts, above-the-rim game that was capturing our imaginations (and ruining our fundamentals).
It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned what an extraordinary player Moses Malone had been. I’d just missed it; the only Moses Malone I ever knew wasn’t the rebounding and scoring machine and NBA champion, but a washed up benchwarmer who looked like my friend Jeff’s weird truck-driving uncle. Thinking back to Hakeem missing that dunk, I’d like to project onto my 22 year-old self the realization that I have in retrospect, now: the NBA can be such a poignant gauge of how we, as fans, age alongside its players. There were kids and teenagers in the crowd with me at the ACC, too young to know any better, who likely saw Olajuwon only as an old man, failing hilariously. Picture them heading out onto the playground and parodying the airball, or taunting one another with “O-la-ju-won!” at every botched gimme or offensive blunder.
So many NBA careers, when they end, seem to do so pre-emptively. Stars, especially, too often end up shuttled off to some negligible market to quietly fade out—“twilight,” of course, being the euphemism for those last, few, hobbled seasons. Of course, many older players are brought into programs to help nurture the young’uns, but we don’t see that. What we do see is a public slide into irrelevance. It’s a phenomenon that only really exists in sports, though there’s a certain mortality to it that at least feels honest: watching athletes wear down and out is only natural—a bit depressing, maybe, but, if you have a sense of humour about it, the slow, tired spectacle of fading youth can sometimes be pretty funny, too.