Truth Crushed to the Earth Is Truth Still
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.
Dan Devine is a contributing writer for Ball Don't Lie, Yahoo! Sports' NBA blog. He Tweets, he Tumbls and he stows away neatly under your seat.
I was 11 years old when Hakeem Olajuwon changed the way I understood basketball. And God, do I hate him for it.
It was the summer of 1994 and my synapses were on overload. The Rangers were slaying the Canucks and Jordan was shagging flies in Birmingham. As I sat in my parents' basement in Staten Island mastering "Shinobi III," it felt like the New York Knicks were really going to do it.
The Knicks stomped the Atlantic that year, rolling up 57 wins with that bruising Pat Riley steez that still invokes screw faces. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they finally slid past the hated (and yes, Jordan-less) Chicago Bulls, thanks to a Hue Hollins whistle that will echo forever and ever, amen. Then they beat the somehow-even-more-hated Indiana Pacers, satisfyingly clipping the string on that miserable Chatty Cathy they had playing the 2, and graduated out of the East into the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.
"Graduated" works pretty well here; with all due respect to the Dunking Dutchman, going from Rik Smits to Hakeem Olajuwon represents a pretty steep elevation. For Patrick Ewing, Master's-level work lay ahead.
In the memories seared into my gray matter, the 1994 NBA Finals consisted of Ewing having a seven-game nightmare against a bully he couldn't drop, throwing punch after feckless punch that landed flush on Hakeem's jaw but had no effect. In my memory, watching Ewing play Hakeem feels like watching my father try to get around on crutches after breaking his kneecap, seeing a giant laid low by a force beyond his control.
In my memory, this happened over and over and over:
Of course, as is often the case, memory doesn't quite nail the facts. Ewing wasn't exactly a scared little kid in that series -- he was a 31-year-old eight-time All-Star, the best player on a team that contested a Game 7 for the O'Brien, a linchpin who played 44 minutes and averaged 18.9 points per game in the Finals.
That said, Ewing did get destroyed in that series, bested in just about every facet of the sport. Hakeem was faster, sharper and more athletic. His hands slipped more smoothly into the passing lanes and his feet moved more quickly on the help-side rotation. He had a better handle, a defter touch and a more rapid reaction after receiving the rock. He had moves, and moves, and moves. Ewing set a then-Finals record for rejections with 4.3 blocks per game (Hakeem posted 3.7) and got the better of the boards, snaring 12.4 rebounds per game to Hakeem's 9.1. But just about everywhere else? Anything he could do, Hakeem could do better.
Olajuwon outscored Ewing all seven nights, averaging 26.9 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor. At the other end of the court, he forced Ewing, himself a 49.6 percent shooter during the '93-'94 regular season, into a dismal 36.3 percent mark. The Dream also more than doubled Ewing's dimes (4.1 assists per game to 1.7) and topped him in thefts (1.6 steals per game to 1.3).
Everywhere my 11-year-old self looked, there was proof. Seven games' worth of indisputable evidence, collected on the purest proving ground possible. Hakeem's team won, and they won because he flat-out beat Ewing. I hated it, I raged against it, but he was better. He just was.
And because he was, Ewing couldn't be what I'd come to believe he was: The best player in the game who wasn't Michael Jordan. (I know, I know. I was 11 and grew up in New York. Cut me some slack.)
Ewing losing to Jordan was one thing; Michael was another animal entirely, and everybody knew it. But losing to -- and being considerably less than -- Hakeem? Someone who played the same position as Patrick, who came from the West, who we never saw? (Again, kid memory falls short here -- they'd actually squared off in the regular season 15 times prior to the '93-'94 Finals, with the Rockets going 9-6 against the Knicks, including two white-washes that season in which Olajuwon outscored Ewing by a combined total of 66 to 24.)
Seeing Ewing so obviously outgunned by this tight-mustached cat who, as our esteemed curator notes, had "never seemed inhumanly perfect," who had "something approachable about him even when he was bringing the roof down on somebody's head," forced me to reevaluate him. And I wasn't the only one, either.
Hakeem's brilliance in the '94 Finals -- his victory in the first post-Jordan run for the roses, his seizing of the wide-open opportunity for anyone else in the game to stake their claim -- changed the popular understanding of Ewing and indelible-inked his story. No one could argue Ewing's heart or desire, but going into the 1994-95 season at 32 years old, with nearly 28,000 minutes of NBA ball on those knees, having just been summarily vanquished by Olajuwon, himself 32 -- and it wasn't just that he was better than Ewing, it's that he didn't seem worn down in the same way -- it was becoming harder to believe that Patrick could be a serious factor at the championship level.
Admittedly, the Knicks' subsequent clashes (and stumbles) against an ascendant '95 Pacers team, the MJ-revitalized Bulls and the late-decade Riley/Mourning/Hardaway Heat show that Olajuwon didn't completely cut Ewing off at the knees or end his tenure as a competitive player. But the team's best, brightest shot at the brass ring has passed and Ewing, try as he might to stay in the conversation, had settled into a lower tier (The Knicks did make one more trip to the Finals during Ewing's tenure, but their improbable title-round run in the strike-shortened 1999 season was fueled by the guard play of Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. While Ewing showed some of the fire of old in series-clinching games against Miami and Atlanta, he bowed out two games into the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers with a torn Achilles.)
Everyone was happy to call Ewing a "warrior." He would be revered as a tireless fighter, but never be viewed as an ultimate victor. Any Knick fan would gladly claim him as our proudest standard-bearer, but we all had to realize he'd never be the gold standard. Everything about Patrick Ewing's essence as a basketball player was thick with the sweat of labor, literally and metaphorically, and monarchs never perspire.
In a way that Jordan's off-guard ominpotence never could, Hakeem's brilliance laid bare the flaws in Ewing's game and determined his fate: When the game got immortal, he'd forever be second-class.
At least Patrick wasn't the only one.
The other best pivot of the era came out of the Naval Academy with the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. David Robinson was a rippling marvel who ran the floor like a 5-foot-9 scatback. He could use outmaneuver plodding defenders on the block to get to the basket, elevate above traffic down low to clear the glass, erase teammates' defensive mistakes at the rim, and do it all with matter-of-fact ease. On top of that, he cut a warm, compelling figure, forever flashing a smile that swelled like a symphony. He was intelligent, accountable and phenomenal. Superman in high tops. Your grandma's favorite basketball player.
And after leading his San Antonio Spurs to an NBA-best 62 wins and the top seed in the Western Conference during the 1994-95 season, he was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, a well-deserved reward for a race well run.
Except, y'know, not really.
To his credit, Robinson fared better in the 1995 Western Conference Finals than Ewing had one year earlier, averaging 23.8 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting to go with 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals in 41.7 minutes of nightly work. Thing is, Olajuwon was an utterly insolvable equation, a different animal than even the one the Knicks saw -- the legend attributes this to Olajuwon seeing red after watching Robinson receive his MVP award before the start of the series -- and he made Robinson look flat-out stumped. In 43.5 minutes per game, Olajuwon torched the Admiral for 35.3 points (shooting 56 percent from the floor and 80.6 percent from the line), 12.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4.2 blocks and 1.3 steals.
More than that, Hakeem showcased the kind of iron will that could independently decide outcomes. With the series knotted at two games apiece and a slot in the Finals hanging in the balance, the Dream took the onus on himself and straight-up beasted, posting 81 total points, 26 rebounds, 11 assists and 10 blocks in Games 5 and 6. It was complete, borderline ridiculous domination, the kind of thing that just doesn't happen to players of Robinson's stature -- at least, until they meet their mismatch.
I'd never deign to fall back on the basketball/jazz canard, especially not here, but there was an elemental stylistic difference between Olajuwon and Robinson revealed in that series that evokes at least the spirit of that too-easy comparison. Watch the way Hakeem attacks Robinson in that video -- the fluidity of his movement, the way his offensive approach straddles the line between fundamental and freestyle. He initiates, Robinson works to make the proper prescribed play to take away the Dream's best option, Olajuwon calmly responds with an evil array of counters and pivots, and by the time Robinson can calculate the altered trajectory, the ball's already in the net.
Robinson always appeared to be the perfect specimen, the test-tube All-Star, programmed for greatness. But in the heat of the moment, he had no answers to combat the relentlessness, improvisation and immediacy of Hakeem's offensive attack. Call it instinct vs. education, nature vs. nurture, art vs. math, whatever -- while Robinson's greatness felt bound by a very precise machine logic, Hakeem could color outside the lines. That made the difference. Rockets in six.
Robinson's performance in the series' final two games? Forty-one total points, 22 rebounds, seven blocks and five assists. Respectable numbers -- real good against anybody else, and good enough to win against most of the league's other centers. But not good enough here, and not good enough to lift his team by himself, especially when his counterpart was finding daylight every time the Rockets fed the post.
Fairly or unfairly, that's how we remember Robinson in the context of all-timers. Very nice player, very nice skills, very nice career -- especially that late part, after the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan, the best power forward of all time, when they won two titles (lest we forget, the only two that Robinson won). I mean, sure, he didn't get the job done as the top dog in the year he got the MVP and had the best team with the best record and home court advantage. And sure, faced with a coin-flip opportunity to take control of a 2-2 series with Game 5 at home after clawing back to even-par on the road, put his squad on his back and push the Spurs into the Finals, he got destroyed in back-to-back games. But yeah. What a nice player.
Two seasons, two legendary rivals, two decisive victories, three legacies set in stone: Ewing as wounded warrior, Robinson as secondary specimen, Olajuwon as conquering crucible. Olajuwon's performances against his era's two greatest counterparts defined the way a generation viewed the basketball hierarchy. They also made a convincing argument that for a time, however fleeting, he was the most dominant basketball power on the planet, Birmingham included.