As I interviewed Hakeem Olajuwon back in February inside West Mansion, home of his DR34M clothing line’s flagship store, it was clear why the word “focus” (often lovingly pronounced foh-KAHS by fans in Olajuwon’s Nigerian accent) was such a predominant part of Olajuwon’s vernacular during those magical seasons when the Rockets won back-to-back championships. Even today at 50 years old, he is almost singularly interested in the game of basketball.
Yes, he loves design and is tremendously proud of his clothing line. In the back room of the mansion, we sat surrounded by oversized handbags on glass racks next to furnishings and antiques Olajuwon hand-picked for the store. But, you can only get him so far from the topic of basketball before he steers it back that direction.
Given that I spent nearly two hours with him, it seems fitting to share some of the observations and quotes that didn’t make it into the story “Dream Machine” that appeared in the first issue of Houstonia. Most are from Olajuwon, but there are a couple of priceless stories from Matt Bullard, the current Rockets color commentator who was his teammate.
On the block
Olajuwon is the NBA’s all-time leader in shot blocking, so it came as no surprise to find out that was the first thing he did when playing basketball in Nigeria: "Stay in the middle and block every shot that comes in. That was my first assignment in basketball."
The first coin flip
Christopher Pond, an American basketball coach who worked for the U.S. State Department in Africa, helped Olajuwon get his visa and lined up workouts with various college teams, calling University of Houston coach Guy V. Lewis first. The decision to call Lewis was the result of a coin flip between calling Lewis or NC State coach Jim Valvano, the team that beat UH in an NCAA title game a few years later. (It was the first of two fateful coin flips, both of which kept Olajuwon in Houston.) But Pond seemed to be keen on our city anyway. “You will like Houston,’” Olajuwon remembers Pond telling him.
When Olajuwon first got to Houston, he arrived three days early because he didn’t like the cold weather and frenetic activity in New York, where he had gone first, to visit St. John. When he called Coach Lewis from the airport, Lewis didn’t know who he was. “[I said] ‘Coach, this is Hakeem.’ He said, ‘Hakeem who?’”
If the shoe fits…
One of the more shocking moments for the young Nigerian came when he got fitted for shoes. Olajuwon was used to not having the right shoes in Africa, where size 16 was in short supply. But, when he was asked to play a pickup game at UH, he was surprised to find that the trainer had his size. "In Nigeria, you can't just find your [shoe] size," he said. "I didn't think they were going to have my size."
"[I thought] forget 16. They won't have that. They might have 15. I can just break it loose after a while,” he said, and he even insisted the size 15 shoes were fine until the trainer told him to take them off because they were too small. "He came back with 16s,” Olajuwon recalled. “I was speechless. I was wearing a shoe for the first time with no pain."
Learning from the best
Basketball fans know Olajuwon honed his skills at Fonde Rec Center, going against pro players while still in college, particularly then Rockets center Moses Malone, who took it to the young center. “Tough guys, experienced pros [played] at Fonde. Getting a chance to play against the pros was a big deal,” he said. "The King was Moses. He was not taking it easy on me."
The second important coin flip in Olajuwon’s life gave the Rockets the opportunity to draft him with the first pick in the 1984 draft, which made Olajuwon happy if for no other reason than the commute. "I just had to drive from Hofheinz to the Summit,” he said.
Early pressure to win
Olajuwon admits there was a lot of pressure on the “Twin Towers” (Hakeem and Ralph Sampson) to win and win big. He said that after his first season, teams really began gunning for him, and it was a challenge. "After you become a veteran, now they come and challenge you. That I don't like,” he laughed. "Anything you do [at that point], you're supposed to. Anything they do against you is a big deal."
"The shot blocker is like the police,” Olajuwon explained. “When you're driving on the freeway and all of a sudden everyone drives the speed limit, what happened? They [saw] a police car. When you don't see [the police officer or the shot blocker], that is when he is most dangerous."
When the Rockets blew two big leads against the Phoenix Suns in the 1994 Western Conference playoffs, the Houston Chronicle banner headline read “Choke City.” This might bother a lot of players in his position, but not Olajuwon. Why not? “They were right,” he said.
Center of attention
If you think, in this new NBA where most centers are converted power forwards, that Olajuwon regards the center position as less important than before, think again. "The center position is the primary position, the foundation for the team,” he said.
Hakeem Olajuwon, fashionista
In the search for nice clothes, Olajuwon was often frustrated by the fact that they didn’t have what he liked in his size, so he improvised. "When they don't have your size, you have to be creative, meaning you have to go to the fabric store,” he said.
Of all the words of wisdom Olajuwon can dole out, and there are a lot of them, perhaps his best is also the simplest. “Be yourself,” he said.
Can you hear me now?
Matt Bullard spent nine seasons playing with Olajuwon and credits his former teammate with teaching him to be a pro. But Bullard was able to teach Olajuwon a few things too: “We were on a bus around the year 2000, and I was talking to my wife on my cell phone,” Bullard explained. “He looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking into?’ I said, ‘It’s my cell phone.’ He goes, ‘Really? How does it work?’ And I said, ‘Hakeem, seriously, you don’t know how a cell phone works?’ And he said, ‘No, I must have one of these. Can you get me one?’ And I said ‘Hakeem, there’s a cell phone store on every corner. You just walk right in and get one.’”
“What is Moun-TAN Dew?”
In yet another tale of Olajuwon’s innocence when it comes to popular culture, Bullard recalled Olajuwon’s discovery of Mountain Dew complete with Nigerian accent: “In the locker room in Detroit, back in those days, there was always a cooler of sodas and cooler of beer. It was right after Hakeem quit drinking. So, he pulled a Mountain Dew out of the soda cooler and he said, ‘Hey, Bull, what is Moun-TAN Dew?’ And I said, ‘Dream, it’s a soda. You can drink it. It’s got a lot of caffeine in it. It will keep you up, but you can drink it.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, no no no. I will not drink Moun-TAN Dew. You are trying to trick me.’ He thought it was beer, and I said, ‘Dream, you don’t know what Mountain Dew is?’”