…While The Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity
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.
Jack Hamilton would like to dedicate this post to the memory of Solomon Burke but given the subject matter fears that would be in poor taste. He’s previously weighed in on white folks in Boston and writes about music and other things elsewhere. You can find him @jack_hamilton
(Or, The Dream and the Juice)
Hakeem is rich with associations. At Houston he played alongside Clyde Drexler on the Phi Slamma Jamma teams; after his senior year he was selected first in the NBA draft, two spots ahead of Michael Jordan; upon joining the Houston Rockets he was paired with a creaky 7-foot-4 enigma named Ralph Sampson to form the “Twin Towers;” in the autumn of his Rockets career he was reunited with Drexler, then Charles Barkley. Along the way Hakeem forged rivalries against—and often bested—the finest centers of his day: Ewing, Robinson, O’Neal. It’s hard to think of Hakeem without thinking of any of the names mentioned in this paragraph.
And I’m not here to write about any of them. I’m here to write about what is the strangest and, for me, most indelible Hakeem association of them all, when for one not-so-shining moment the Dream’s legacy crossed paths with a man who was once the most compelling sports figure of our time. I’m here to write about O.J. Simpson.
June of 1994 had a confusing and darkly unsettled feel. Kurt Cobain had recently committed suicide, the GOP was gearing up to crush the mid-terms, and Major League Baseball was hurtling towards a strike that would take years of creative pharmaceutical consumption to undo.
The NBA was in a particularly strange moment. The Rockets and Knicks had clawed their way into the first Finals of the Jordan interregnum, and like Dan Devine I was rooting hard for the Knicks, albeit for different reasons than Dan, reasons I can’t even particularly remember. I wasn’t from New York, but rather suburban Boston; perhaps as a Celtics fan I felt some Atlantic Division solidarity, perhaps I was drawn to the fact that there was something distasteful about them, or maybe they were just a little more interesting than rooting for the Rockets. The Rockets were Hakeem’s team, period, and even though the Knicks were nominally Ewing’s team they had guys like Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and John Starks keeping each game teetering on the brink of violent, Yeatsian chaos.
The first three games of the 1994 Finals unfolded as a defensive stalemate. Houston won Game 1 at home, lost Game 2, and won Game 3 at MSG. It was shaping up as a solid series, though one that would appeal far more to the hardcore fan than the casual enthusiast, marred as it was by a galling dearth of offense and the stark absence of anything resembling Jordan-esque star power.
Attention was further scrambled by an increasingly bizarre distraction from elsewhere in the world of sports. On June 13 (one day after Houston had taken their 2-1 series lead), the partially-decapitated bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered in Brentwood. Simpson, of course, was the estranged wife of football HOFer and NBC Sports personality O.J. Simpson.
The first few days of all this were disorienting, even more so than everything that followed. O.J. as a public figure was a weird case, a guy who’d parlayed a brilliant NFL career into a social position best described as “famous-for-being-famous.” He’d shilled for Hertz in a vaguely memorable series of commercials, played a supporting role in the Naked Gun movies (an underrated trilogy whose rewatchability he has effectively destroyed), and pioneered the dubious practice of ex-jock reporters presenting “inside information” that was neither particularly inside nor particularly informative. Still, most Americans felt cheerfully neutral towards him, and certainly weren’t inclined to think him capable of double murder.
Things quickly got murkier. Tales surfaced of domestic violence, the tone of reportage began to shift, and suddenly O.J. started to seem less like a genial grieving husband and a more like a shadowy and troubled guy. Amidst all of this New York won Game 4—Hakeem scored 32 but got little help from his teammates, while the Knicks had all five starters in double figures and double-doubles from Ewing (16 pts, 15 boards) and Oak (16 and 20).
Game 5 was to take place on June 17, and by this point the shit had hit the fan, O.J.-wise. Confident that he was now the prime suspect in a double homicide, the LAPD made an arrangement with O.J.’s lawyers that he’d turn himself in that morning. Over a thousand reporters waited for him at the courthouse. O.J. never showed. A few hours later the LAPD officially declared O.J. a fugitive from justice; at the same press conference Robert Kardashian read a supremely fucked-up letter from O.J. that came off like a mixture of self-pitying diary entry, confession of guilt, and suicide note. Living on the east coast, news of all this reached us around dinnertime. I remember hearing it on the radio and my father, who’s a lawyer, saying something that can be profanely summarized as “holy fucking shit.” That was the moment I realized that things had gotten real for O.J.
And then things got surreal. My father isn’t a basketball fan and hadn’t been watching Game 5, but at some point he came into the TV room and told me that the LAPD were involved in a car chase with O.J. Simpson. A few minutes later NBC switched to a split screen, the basketball game on one side while Tom Brokaw anchored coverage of the low-speed white Bronco chase on the other.
What’s easy to forget about the now-iconic Bronco “chase” was that the stakes weren’t whether or not the cops were going to catch O.J., like most car chases that we see in movies or on TV (especially if you live in L.A., where they’re kind of a thing). The stakes were whether O.J., riding in the back of the Bronco with a gun to his head while his friend Al Cowlings clumsily negotiated with the LAPD, was going to surrender to police or blow his brains out on national television. Ninety-five million Americans were glued to their television in anticipation of the public suicide of a football icon and rental car pitchman; there’s really no other way to say it.
Of course, a small handful just wanted to watch basketball, and I was one of those. My dad wanted me to switch to ABC but I stuck to my guns and we kept it on NBC, which was more than a little awkward since O.J. was an NBC employee. The Knicks won 91-84, Ewing put up 25 and 12 and Starks added 19 points, 7 boards and 6 assists; Hakeem had 27 and 8 for the Rockets. The Knicks’ win would not be the lead story on SportsCenter the next day.
The epilogue seems almost unnecessary, but the Rockets won the next two games at home, breaking the hearts of championship-starved Knicks fans and giving Hakeem the first of his two rings. He’d win the next one the following year, sweeping an Orlando Magic team best described as “happy to be there.” The Simpson Trial was still ongoing, and wouldn’t wrap until October of 1995.
I was fourteen when Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, and I was sixteen when O.J. walked. I could throw some cute Wonder Years-style tag onto that fact—“during that time I discovered true love/lost my virginity/saw my brother return from Vietnam a man”—but I can’t, because none of those things are true, and even if they were, who cares. I’m sure if I’d been a little older I’d have gleaned more significance from the polarizing racial dynamics and myriad outrages on both sides of the case, but I had black friends who thought O.J. was guilty and white friends who swore he’d been framed, and while I knew the trial was a big deal, it really just seemed like a sad state of affairs that became a lot more momentous than it ever should have. It seems that way now more than ever.
But for better or for worse, when I think of Hakeem Olajuwon I think of O.J. Simpson and that night in June when I watched a basketball game while occasionally checking out of the corner of my eye for a glimpse of the first televised celebrity suicide in American history. Or maybe it was vice versa; I honestly don’t remember, which shows how profoundly the two events have since intertwined. I don’t feel good about this, and it bothers me that Hakeem, one of the greatest players of his generation, a big man blessed with such incredible skill, grace, and athletic intelligence, is linked in my imagination to a murderous sociopath, but these things are hard to undo, and in a strange sense Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals may well be the most memorable basketball game I’ve ever watched. I don’t know what any of it means.
I do know one last thing, and I swear this is true. At some point shortly after the trial, a friend of mine happened upon Hakeem having lunch in Cambridge, MA. He went over and asked for his autograph, which Hakeem graciously provided.
Hakeem’s dining partner?
Commence conspiracy theories.