Friday, September 05, 2008

Hakeem and Ewing Enter the Hall

Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Adrian Dantley, Pat Riley, William Davidson, and Cathy Rush will be granted basketball's ultimate honor - enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as the Class of 2008 - on Friday in Springfield, Mass.

The headliners are of course Hakeem Olajuwon, nothing short of the best basketball player in the world for two seasons (1993-94 and 1994-95), and Patrick Ewing, Olajuwon's rival in the pivot throughout the era, including in the 1984 NCAA Championship and the 1994 NBA Finals.

Inspired by the collection of Julius Erving stories unearthed by 20 Second Timeout, here's a brief selection of stories on the two great centers through the years from the SI Vault:

June 13, 1994: Together Again, by Phil Taylor
Two old rivals, Knick Patrick Ewing and Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon, meet in the Finals to duel for the title both have longed to win.

This preview of the 1994 Finals includes a look back at when Ewing and Olajuwon first met:
    It was so much easier the first time they met. With nothing to be won or lost, they quickly found common ground. The time was the summer of 1983, the place a Phoenix hotel, and University of Houston senior Akeem Olajuwon was listening to a tape of reggae musician Peter Tosh on his cassette deck when the fellow staying in the room next door stopped by. Georgetown junior Patrick Ewing introduced himself and declared his fondness for reggae, which reminded him of his childhood days in Jamaica. The Nigerian-born Olajuwon invited Ewing in, and together they listened and talked about music, not basketball, as the Caribbean sounds filled the room.

    They were teammates of a sort at the time, traveling on an NCAA -sponsored antidrug campaign, and it would be the last time they would meet with so little at stake. The next year they would play for the NCAA championship; Ewing would score 10 points, Olajuwon 15, but the Hoyas would get the better of the Cougars, 84-75.

    After years of hard NBA labor, 10 for Olajuwon (who since 1991 has been known as Hakeem) with the Houston Rockets and nine for Ewing with the New York Knicks, the two are meeting again, in the NBA Finals, which began Wednesday at the Summit in Houston. This is Ewing's first Finals appearance, Olajuwon's second. There is an NBA championship trophy to be had, but unlike that reggae tape, Ewing and Olajuwon cannot share it.

    "And that is the shame of it," says Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets, who was born in Zaire and followed Ewing as a Hoya center. "I pull for Patrick because we share Georgetown, but I pull for Hakeem because we share Africa. They both deserve it so much. They have both waited so long. It is as if two men have been in the desert and they come upon one glass of water. There is only enough for one of them to drink. When you watch them, do you not wish there could be two glasses of water?"

Nov. 28, 1983: The Liege Lord Of Noxzema, by Curry Kirkpatrick
Houston's Akeem Olajuwon came out of Nigeria to give a new meaning to the term "faze jhob"

This story profiled Olajuwon as he was about to enter his final college season at Houston as the best player in the country, and noted how Hakeem had developed his game through summertime battles against Moses Malone, who had just won his third NBA MVP award. Our man Hubie was on it as always:
    Hubie Brown, coach of the New York Knicks, had only to watch Olajuwon on television once last season before recognizing, Brown says, "a massive strength and intimidation coming off the screen. The explosive jump - a lot of guys have that once, but this kid keeps jumping and jumping, blocking and blocking. And now we know he can score. No wonder Moses Malone practices against Akeem all the time. After Akeem, all our NBA guys are chopped liver."

    Ah, Moses. Gruff, tough, indomitable. Big Mo. The preeminent center. The pro's pro. The champion. Mr. T minus the earrings. One day in September in Houston, Olajuwon and Malone were engaged in one of their daily crash and gore tete-a-tetes under the "rack" when Malone called a foul on his young protege, who immediately took exception. "Aww, no!" Olajuwon roared. "Dammit, Mo. Be a MON!"

    "Against Moses, Akeem was freer, looser, more assertive, going to his killer move on instinct," says McCoy McLemore, an old NBA forward. "It was like he was no longer a foreigner but a cocky, hip, black schoolyard dude. Confident. A hustler. He also worked the weights and got his weight up to 255. Moses couldn't take a day off against him anymore. They were two titans. The beauty of it was both were laughing - Moses was so proud and tickled. They recognized they could stop each other while nobody else could. It was a dead standoff."
There was also a bunch of trademark Curry Kirkpatrick schtick as he yukked it up about Olajuwon's adjustment to American culture:
    Olajuwon's teammates claim, however, that once he gets hold of a new slang expression, he beats it to death. Getting down. Rock your world. Faze jhob. "After the brothers taught Akeem 'rock your world' he must have used it 100 times in practice one day," says Reid Gettys, Houston 's white-hope guard. "Of course, they use it as a kind of angry pseudo threat. You know, 'I'mgonnaslapyostuffoutahere, bro. I'mgonnarockyourworld.' But when Akeem tried it, he came out with that clipped British accent. Very precise, polite. He said, 'Now I am going to rock your world.' All afternoon. 'Now I am going to rock your world.' It cracked everybody up."

    Even [Benny] Anders, Olajuwon's roommate at the time, was mystified at first. "The dude be talkin' weird from jump street," says Anders, who can be somewhat incomprehensible himself. And what do the friends talk about? Says Anders, "We just lay up and rap about what's coming down."
Mar. 22, 1993: A Dream Come True, by Jack McCallum
A year ago he was angry and discontented. Now the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon is happily leading Houston on a torrid run and devotedly following the tenets of Islam. The Dream is, he says, a man at peace

This piece from SI's dean of NBA reporters reminds us how close Hakeem came to leaving the Rockets in the early '90s:
    Hakeem Olajuwon stretches his graceful 6'10" frame skyward, takes in a large gulp of warm afternoon air and listens to the song of a hundred invisible birds. "They are all around," says Olajuwon as he stands on his spacious property in a quiet Houston suburb. "The best time to see them is in the early morning." He smiles. "It is very nice here, yes?"

    Yes. Olajuwon has plans to build a large L-shaped house on what he calls "the compound," but for now he occupies a Mediterranean-style "guest house," an airy, one-story dwelling with high ceilings and arched windows. He lives alone but is not lonely, he says. His five-year-old daughter, Alon, and her mother, Lita Spencer, live in Los Angeles and visit only occasionally.

    Over the last few years Olajuwon has become increasingly devoted to Islam, and he often stops at a mosque near the Summit, the home arena of his team, the Rockets, for a group prayer in the afternoon. His baggage on the road includes a prayer rug and a special compass that points him in the direction of Mecca. Today he excuses himself and adjourns to the front porch of the guest house, where he removes his shoes, stretches out the rug, sinks to his knees and recites his noonday prayer, called the zuhr. "I am," Olajuwon says upon completion of the prayer, "a man at peace."

    A year ago "at peace" would not describe either Olajuwon or the Rockets, as the franchise center and the franchise engaged in an ugly version of Dysfunctional Family Feud. Olajuwon was suspended for three games last March by general manager Steve Patterson because Olajuwon, who claimed to have a hamstring injury, was believed by the Rockets to be dogging it. By that time Olajuwon had made it clear he was disenchanted with his contract, his teammates and his owner, Charlie Thomas, whose efforts to sell the Rockets had become infuriating to Olajuwon, who felt Thomas was bailing out on the team when it was down.
Jun. 12, 1995: The Stuff Of Dreams, by Leigh Montville
With a performance for the ages, Hakeem Olajuwon lifted his Rockets back into the Finals

This story from Leigh Montville is from the very pinnacle of Hakeem's individual career, just after he had demolished 1994-95 NBA MVP David Robinson in the Western Conference Finals, and was about to claim his second straight NBA Finals MVP award:
    The videotaped pictures suddenly grab Rudy Tomjanovich, pictures that leap off the oversized television screen in his office. He will be in the midst of dull work, trying to dissect the tendencies and weaknesses of some Houston Rocket opponent in this long playoff spring, when his attention will be drawn to his own team. Stop, rewind. He will watch Hakeem Olajuwon in action with a new and different eye.

    Stop, rewind. Hakeem has the ball in that familiar spot, low, on the left side, back to the basket. He is spinning left, going to take that little eight-foot jump shot.

    Stop, rewind. He is spinning right. The Dream Shake. He is going to fall out of bounds as he takes that even more familiar eight-footer that no one can handle. Stop, rewind. He has his man up in the air, and he is driving, one step, two steps, jam.

    Stop, rewind. He is being double-teamed and passes out to one of his guards—to Clyde Drexler or Kenny Smith or Sam Cassell—for a carnival-easy three-point shot to win a Kewpie doll. Stop, rewind. The pass will be to a cutter for an easy basket. Stop, rewind.
    From the first-game upset in San Antonio—when Olajuwon scored 27 points, collected eight rebounds and made his sixth and final assist to a carnival-open Robert Horry for the 17-foot jump shot that won the game 94-93 with 6.4 seconds left—the Dream established his superiority. By clinching Game 6, a 100-95 Rocket win last Thursday in Houston, he had Robinson completely baffled. Olajuwon had scored 42 points, with nine rebounds and eight assists, in the breakaway fifth game in San Antonio, a 111-90 rout. In the final game he had 39 points, on 16-for-25 shooting, and 17 rebounds. Seventeen rebounds! Robinson was tentative, off-balance, hitting only six of 17 shots for 19 points, grabbing but 10 boards, missing important foul shots. Lost. David Robinson was lost. "I've never felt this way before," he said afterward. "For the first time in my life, I felt I let my teammates down."
July 2, 2007: American Dream, by Alexander Wolff
Infused with a passion for architecture and guided by his Islamic faith, the Hall of Fame center has scored big as Houston's most distinctive real estate magnate

Wolff goes Where Are They Now? with Dream from 2007:
    In 1994, when 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon was leading the Houston Rockets to the first of two straight NBA titles and becoming the league's MVP, it seemed the world wanted nothing so much as his autograph. That very year the man nicknamed the Dream had his own autograph seeker's thrill. He landed the signature of someone quite different from himself--or perhaps not so different, for the noted architect Philip Johnson dedicated a copy of his book Glass House, "From the artist to an even greater artist."

    Today Olajuwon, 44, proudly shows off that book in the living room of his home in Sugar Land, Texas, outside of Houston, a house inspired by Johnson and such modernist contemporaries as Richard Meier, Hugh Newell Jacobsen and Luis Barragan, as well as the Venetian Palladian style and the traditions of Olajuwon's Islamic faith. NBA big men are a lot like architects: Their first loyalties are to the functional--score, rebound, block shots--but the best synthesize existing modes with an artistic flourish or two. Like the architecture of his house, Olajuwon's aesthetic in the low post blended the old and the new. "To make the center position fun--that was my vision," he says. "To add shakes and bakes and moves. If you're a center, you're thought to be mechanical. But when I faced up on a guy, I was no longer a center. I was a small forward."

    Defenders never knew which of the diverse skills, learned during his multisport upbringing in Nigeria, the Dream would call upon: light feet from soccer, power and craftiness from team handball, hand-eye coordination from table tennis, sudden levitation from high jumping and volleyball. "My game was to play the same as a little guy, a cat's game--but with big cats," says Olajuwon, who averaged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds over 18 seasons, and won a gold medal with the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1993.) "One or two hard dribbles in traffic. Quickness. And timing."

Jan. 7, 1985: The Master of The Key, by Ralph Wiley
After years of relying on others to unlock doors for him, Georgetown's center Patrick Ewing will soon go off on his own

Nice to read some words from the late, great Wiley, in a piece from Ewing's senior season at Georgetown. Here's an excerpt:
    By ones and twos, the Ewing children began arriving in the U.S., with 12-year-old Patrick, who bears the strongest resemblance to his mother, arriving on Jan. 11, 1975. Carl, who had come in 1973, had mixed feelings about moving to the U.S. "I had a good job in Jamaica, in heavy-duty mechanics," he says. "I didn't want to give it up. But [Patrick's mother] Dorothy had come, and so I felt I had to come. But my wife did not have to work." She did work, if for no other reason than to make life better for her children. Not that raising those seven was any easy chore in itself. Dorothy still somehow found the means to save toward her next dream—a house where there would be more room for the family. As her children (Patrick is fifth eldest after Lastina, 37, Carl Jr., 36, Pauline, 34 and Rosemarie, 27; Barbara and Karlene are 19 and 18, respectively) grew older, she wanted something more for them than jobs in Jamaica 's bauxite mines or Massachusetts' hospital kitchens. "Education," says Connie Jarvis. "She believed in it because she didn't have it." As a girl, Dorothy had attended St. Anne's School in Kingston. She knew the value of learning, though she'd left school to work. As an adult she'd sometimes speak of taking classes, but free time was an unrealized luxury. "She preached the value of education to Patrick and all her children," says Connie. "And Patrick trusted her completely." Carl Sr., meanwhile, came to grips with his new life and found work making fire hoses at a rubber company. He now works at Mass General.

    Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge, Patrick passed a playground near Hoyt Park. For some days, from a distance, he studied the game the boys were playing. Then one day he walked more slowly than usual past the playground. "Hey, do you want to play?" one of the kids called. Ewing had never touched a basketball. "Sure," he said.

    "I'd watched and seen the object was to put the ball in the basket," Ewing recalls. But did it turn out to be as easy as it looked? His laughter resonates. "It was more difficult than I could have imagined," he says. Ewing had been a soccer goalie in Jamaica. But he had had little appetite and, it seems, no aptitude for that sport. "He was young," explains his father. "He grew so fast."
Jan. 17, 1994: The Unknown Player, by Rick Reilly
Of all the stars in the NBA, none is a bigger mystery than Patrick Ewing, the aloof Center for the New York Knicks

In 1994, Rick Reilly had not yet entirely transitioned his career to Borscht Belt schtick, and penned this profile at the height of Ewing's career. Given Ewing's reclusiveness with the media, Reilly took the approach of interviewing confidants and colleagues from Ewing's life, and it worked. Here's something from Ewing's 8th-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass.:
    "I met him a few months after he arrived in the U.S.," says the eighth-grade teacher. "He was right off the boat. He was very quiet at first, very reserved. He had that Jamaican accent, so it was hard to understand him at first. He and his friends, I just liked them. My wife and I used to take them up in the woods for a week, play football, go to movies, fun stuff. Patrick showed me how to fish with my hands, like they do in Jamaica. He'd just get in the water and snap 'em up with his hands. Me? Nah, I couldn't catch 'em. I was too slow.

    "When he went to Rindge & Latin High School, I was an assistant for Mike Jarvis, his coach. We had some not-so-nice things happen to us in those days. They called him the N-word. Patrick just learned to say nothing and point at the scoreboard. But I think what those insulting people did was create a monster, an athletic monster.

    "I remember once—this is funny—I saw somebody holding up a sign that said EWING CAN'T READ. And Patrick looked at it, and then he looked at me and he said, 'But I sure can count. And someday I'm going to be in the pros and counting my money all the way to the bank.' That was Patrick. All that stuff never really got to him.
Induction ceremony will be televised at 7:30 ET on ESPN Classic and NBA TV on Friday, rebroadcast throughout the weekend on NBA TV.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Basketball Is Still Alive in Seattle

Probably the biggest irony about the demise of pro basketball here in Seattle is that the region is proving to be increasingly fruitful in terms producing NBA players.

As Ted Miller noted in his piece on Seattle for the "City High" series on, "[The Seattle metropolitan area] ranks 15th in population among U.S. cities, but its eight NBA players in 2007-08 ranked the city fifth."

Now, as kids head back to school after a summer full of hoops, a new milestone has been reached: the Seattle-Tacoma area is home to players rated no. 1 in the country in the high-school classes of both 2010 and 2011.

Just last week, moved Josh Smith, a 6-10/270 big man from Kentwood High School in Kent, WA, to the top of its Rivals150 rankings for the class of 2010.

Meanwhile, Tony Wroten of Garfield High School in Seattle, alma mater of Brandon Roy, is a 6-4 guard rated no. 1 by for the class of 2011.

Prospect rankings are notoriously volatile this early in the game. A vignette in the movie Gunnin' for That #1 Spot illustrated how rankings are often changed for the sake of change, to maintain interest.

Indeed, there's not a lot of consensus regarding the class of 2010 right now - I've seen Smith bounced around from 1 to 5, with several different players at 1.

Wroten, however, is universally thought to be a sensational prospect - one of just two rising sophomores who participated in the Elite 24 game at Rucker Park last month.

All in all, it's yet another remarkable basketball achievement for a region not commonly thought of as a hoop hotbed.

Miller's ESPN story rightly focused on how the quality of coaching on the summer-league circuit was a key ingredient in the success and development of Seattle-area players. AAU coaches - who are so often in the game for themselves and to latch onto the coattails of a top recruit - are focused on the good of the kid up here in the NW. Daryll Hennings, Dan Finkley and Adam Sedlik were not names mentioned in Miller's story, but all deserved to be. They developed the Seattle Rotary Style program, whose summer-league team features both Smith and Wroten - not a team that I'd want to run into next summer!

So while pro basketball is officially dead now that Howard the Coward Schultz slinked off into the sunset by dropping his suit on Friday afternoon PT before Labor Day - i.e. about the quietest time possible - Seattle hoop junkies can try to take solace in the fact that we can still watch the future of the NBA on local hardwood, even if we can't watch the present.