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Olajuwon Keeping Dream Alive

November 13, 2000|MARK HEISLER

Pat Riley is coaching the Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has hair. Maurice Lucas is on the team. . . .

Ninety minutes before the Rockets are to face the Lakers, they're sitting in their dressing room, watching an TV replay of Game 5 of the 1986 playoff series, in which the Rockets up-ended the Lakers, who were then defending NBA champions, led by a relentless, high-bounding, indefatigable, 23-year-old center named Akeem Olajuwon.

Fourteen years later, Akeem has become Hakeem, 37 years old. His current teammates, most of whom he could have baby-sat for in 1986, think that's pretty funny.

"Everybody in that game, they don't play basketball any more!" crows Carlos Rogers, who is actually a Rocket elder statesman at 29, just to make sure Olajuwon knows what a relic he is.

"What year were you born, Jason?" Rogers asks rookie Jason Collier.

"Nineteen seventy-seven," says Collier.

"Jason!" announces Rogers. "You were seven when Dream got drafted in the NBA!"

On the tape, Ralph Sampson is roughed up throwing down a dunk and wheels around to retaliate, before Olajuwon grabs him from behind. The young Rockets break up, Rogers mimicking Olajuwon's clipped British Colonial accent: "That is nawt necessary!"

It's not just everyone in that game who's gone, it's just everyone in the NBA.

Olajuwon now wends his way around the circuit with this Rocket kindergarten that regards him as a fossil, but he doesn't mind.

"No man, that's a compliment," he says. "That game, these guys were eight, nine years old, 10 years old--and I'm still playing! That's a compliment."

It's not that the young Hakeem didn't have his outbursts but mostly, he was looking at it from a good point of view since he arrived as the No. 1 pick in 1984, in the Michael Jordan draft. Jordan went third, Charles Barkley fifth. They're gone too, of course.

Not only did Olajuwon become the NBA centers' answer to Nureyev, he was sunny and fun to be around. Teammates through the ages kidded him, no one more than Barkley, who'd scoff at Hakeem's listed age, declaring the only way to determine how old he really was would be to count his rings, as if he was a tree.

At 32 (listed), Olajuwon led the Rockets to their first title, and at 33, to their improbable repeat.

At 34, Olajuwon began to slow down. Last season, at 36, he began having asthmatic problems and the Dream Shake was as a memory.

This season, Olajuwon's last under contract, the Rockets weren't counting on much.

"We didn't know," says Coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He didn't know and we didn't know, with the asthma, coming in. I know from our first conversation, right before the first practice, he just said, 'I'm going to give it a try, see what happens.' And he's been doing better and better. He really has."

In the first six games, Olajuwon scored a total of 34 points, before breaking out for 17 at Portland on Saturday.

Not that the Rockets look to him for much but elder statesmanship. Sunday, nine offensive plays had passed before he had even touched the ball. He wound up with 13 points, a big day for him, relatively speaking.

Olajuwon had been saying this would be his final season, but now, he says, he feels so much better, "I'm just leaving my options open.

"Before, like last year, I was ready to go. I couldn't breathe. It wasn't fun. But my medication is right, I'm healthy, I'm playing well. I can play much better."

"Once you're healthy, you get plenty of opportunities. The game is there. I mean, of course, you don't play like you were but at least you're still effective.

"When you look at the league, after Shaq [O'Neal], there's no real big men out there."

There's certainly no one who is what Olajuwon was, and unfortunately that includes Hakeem. Dreams end, however sweet.

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