Dream Week: Good King of Maybe

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.

Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for weei.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He also occasionally writes for the Boston Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @pflanns.

“Faze jhob,” Olajuwon says as he shakes his head and stares at the floor in his Houston apartment while recalling Whittenburg's shot that fell short of the rim and the subsequent dunk at the buzzer by the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles that clinched the 1983 national title. “The man give me severe faze jhob.” —Hakeem Olajuwon as quoted in “The Liege Lord of Noxzema” by Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, Nov. 28, 1983

Nestled roughly between Louisville’s Doctors of Dunk and Hoya Paranoia, the Phi Slamma Jamma-era Houston Cougars were a living, breathing highlight film of audacious jams and massive rejections. Their style of play could be described as ‘violent,’ but not in the Anthony Mason test-your-manhood sense of the word. Rather, PSJ combined sheer power with grace and charisma, and more than a little bit of crazy kamikaze, to create a basketball whirlwind that was beyond wonderful and even slightly dangerous.

Despite never winning a championship, this team has had a fairly sizeable impact on those from my generation. Chuck Klosterman devoted part of an essay in his book Eating the Dinosaur to the life and times of Benny Anders, who was probably the sixth-best player on the team. The others included: Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Alvin Franklin, Larry Micheaux and, of course, Akeem Abdul Olajuwon.

This was a team for its time. They were above the rim when the dunk was reaching its artistic crescendo. They were an outlaw program when that still seemed charming, and for all of Clyde the Glyde’s greatness, Akeem was their signature player. It seems strange, then, that Olajuwon’s college career has been mostly relegated to the backpages of his history.

For all of their success—they went to three straight Final Fours with Akeem—Phi Slamma Jamma is better known for their losses, or more accurately, one loss to North Carolina State in the 1983 national championship game.

Jim Valvano’s Wolf Pack were the team that made the NCAA Tournament what it is, and the final game served as their touchstone. There are those who say that Bird and Magic made the national championship game a must-watch event, and that’s probably true, but it was Valvano’s Pack that made the attainable-miracle aspect of the tournament into an institution.

A brief recap: NC State qualified as a six seed after a decent but hardly great year, and then beat Pepperdine by two, UNLV by one and Virginia (in Ralph Sampson’s final college game) by one to get to the Final Four. Houston, meanwhile, rolled in to Albuquerque as a No. 1 seed and then beat Louisville in a game everyone assumed was the game of the tournament. The set-up was beyond perfect and even my unformed little brain grasped the narrative. The Cougars were an unstoppable force with future pros lined up at every position, while the gritty, undermanned and undersized Pack were there on guts and Valvano’s coaching acumen.

We have seen this formula play out year after year in the college game, and it serves as proof to both NBA snobs and college romanticists alike that their version is vastly superior. NCAA basketball is, and always will be, a coach’s game. From Phog Allen to John Wooden to Dean Smith to Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewksi. They are the stars in that world, and in Valvano and Guy V. Lewis, there was a 1980’s coaching-matchup equivalent of Coach K versus John Calipari, if Cal was a rumpled sideline raver instead of a dapper don stomping his designer loafers.

As it happened, Valvano’s genius has far outlived any of his player’s contributions to that championship squad. His decision to relentlessly foul the Cougars and slow the pace hit them right in their Achilles heels. The brothers from PSJ couldn’t dunk if they couldn’t run and they couldn’t run when they were constantly clanging free throws. Further, it must be said that Lewis played directly into Valvano’s hands with a set of curious decisions that undercut his team’s obvious talent advantage, such as leaving Micheaux, a power forward dubbed Mr. Mean, on the bench during the final play.

So it was that Akeem, which was the name that appeared on the back of his jersey, found himself all alone in the lane on defense with the game tied at the preposterously low score of 52-all and time ticking away. The next few seconds have been shown over and over, with Derrick Whittenburg lofting a 35-foot prayer while a land-locked Olajuwon watched helplessly as Lorenzo Charles stuffed home the final points.

Phi Slamma Jamma was beaten on a dunk, and a crude one at that. Charles’ slam was nothing like their artful aerial ballets and far more about luck than inspired brilliance.

Despite the loss, Olajuwon was named the MVP of that Final Four--the last player from a losing side to win the honor--but that is merely a trivial footnote compared to the iconic image of a wild Valvano running around the court hugging everyone in sight. On the opposite end, Lewis could only weep into his signature red-and-white checkered towel.

Good triumphs over evil. Fundamentals beat playground and superior coaching always prevails. Those are the fundamental selling points of March Madness.

That Olajuwon served as an unwitting foil in this hagiography is, of course, unfortunate. Here was a kid who arrived from Lagos, Nigeria with little to no knowledge of the game or the culture, yet he left college an erudite and purposeful man and transformed as a player from raw material to fine, if not fully polished, gem. From such humble beginnings, Olajuwon not only met the lofty ideals of athletics and academia, he surpassed them.

No matter. From the beginning, Akeem was viewed as a curiosity. There was his background, obviously, and his love of soccer, both of which struck early '80s America as vaguely sinister, or at least exotic. He bowed upon meeting his teammates, which made them laugh, and favored a rhinestone dashiki that he claimed was actually diamonds. He also roomed with Anders, the streetwise baller, who told SI's Kirkpatrick, “Dude be talking weird from jump street.” The two became fast friends.

In basketball terms, Olajuwon gave the Cougars an inside presence and a destructive shot-blocking force. In societal terms, he gave them slight refuge from their bandit image, as personified by Anders’ jheri-curl.

Perhaps if they had won that night, things would have been remembered differently, but Akeem’s contribution to college basketball as a foreign ambassador is mostly forgotten now. Maybe it’s because he was too good and didn’t leave much of an evolutionary curve for others to build upon. Possibly it was because he played at a school that didn’t stick around for the college basketball explosion that followed. Whatever the reason, whenever the replay from that fateful night at the Pit is shown, there’s a part of me that will always wonder what would have happened if Akeem had jumped.

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At 10/20/2010 11:18 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Awesome stuff.

At 10/20/2010 8:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Def enjoyed this one because the Jimmy V, for good reason, tends to run wild over this moment in bball history. It was good to think about the what ifs on the other side of the mirror.

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