Tuesday night ESPN will debut the newest feature in its “30 for 30” series, with the focus being the Houston Cougars college basketball teams of the early 1980’s. Coached by 2013 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Guy V. Lewis, the Cougars made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 1982-84 and began a fraternity known as “Phi Slama Jama.” One of the stars for the Cougars during that era was 7-foot center Hakeem Olajuwon, but he wasn’t an immediate star at UH.
Here are five facts you need to know about Olajuwon, who developed into one of the sport’s all-time great big men over the course of his career.
1. Olajuwon first played soccer in his native Nigeria before picking up basketball
The third of six children raised by Salim and Abike Olajuwon, Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon was born in Lagos, Nigeria on January 21, 1963. Soccer was the nation’s most popular sport, and Hakeem got his start in the sport as a goalkeeper. It was that experience that would in time benefit Olajuwon on the basketball court. Olajuwon’s footwork on the court came as a result of his soccer experience, with the 7-footer eventually putting together moves such as his famous “Dream Shake.”
“The Dream Shake was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball,” Olajuwon told Darryl Howerton of NBA.com in 2007. “It would accomplish one of three things: one, to misdirect the opponent and make him go the opposite way; two, to freeze the opponent and leave him devastated in his tracks; three, to shake off the opponent and giving him no chance to contest the shot.”
2. Olajuwon sat out the 1980-81 season and played sparingly the following year
Olajuwon, who didn’t begin to play basketball until he was 15 years old, arrived in Houston in 1980 as a raw 18-year old recruited to the University of Houston by head coach Guy V. Lewis on a friend’s recommendation. In a development that may have helped Olajuwon in the long run, he was forced to redshirt during the 1980-81 season after the NCAA did not clear him for competition. Yet while some athletes can use the redshirt season as an immediate springboard to major minutes the following year, Olajuwon’s late start in basketball resulted in the process being a bit slower for him.
As a redshirt freshman in 1981-82 Olajuwon averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in just over 18 minutes of action per contest. Good numbers for playing less than half a game on the average, Olajuwon took the advice of his coach who suggested that he work out with then-Houston Rocket Moses Malone during the offseason. Those pickup games and workouts with Malone and other pros at the famed Fonde Rec Center paid off, as Olajuwon would emerge as one of college basketball’s most dominant players.
3. Olajuwon was a major contributor on Houston’s national runner-up teams in 1983 and 1984
Olajuwon’s final two seasons at UH were spectacular, as he averaged a double-double in both 1982-83 and 1983-84. As a redshirt sophomore Olajuwon averaged 13.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 5.1 blocked shots per game, shooting 6.1 percent from the field. “The Dream” was even better the following season, as he averaged 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.6 blocks per game while shooting 67.5 percent from the field. As a result Olajuwon, who helped lead the Cougars to a second consecutive national title game appearance, was named Southwest Conference Player of the Year while also earning consensus All-America honors.
What those individual successes did not result in was a national title. After losing to N.C. State on Lorenzo Charles’ dunk as time expired in the 1983 national title game, Houston lost to the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas in the 1984 title game.
4. Olajuwon won two NBA championships while with the Houston Rockets
Olajuwon departed for the NBA following his redshirt junior season, and while there was debate as to who Portland would take with the second pick in the 1984 NBA Draft (Michael Jordan or Sam Bowie), there was no such issue regarding the top pick. The Rockets selected Olajuwon first overall, pairing him with former Virginia big man Ralph Sampson. They would lead the Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1986, where they would lose to the Celtics, and that was as close as Houston would get to a championship until 1994.
In a physical series the Rockets beat the New York Knicks in seven games to win their first NBA championship. Houston would repeat as champions the following year, sweeping the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Olajuwon was joined by his college teammate Clyde Drexler, with the Rockets acquiring Drexler during the 1994-95 regular season. On their way to that title the Rockets beat the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, with Olajuwon outplaying league MVP David Robinson.
5. Olajuwon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008
Olajuwon played his first 17 NBA seasons in Houston, but he finished his career as a Toronto Raptor. Unhappy with the Rockets’ contract offer during the summer of 2001 Olajuwon signed with the Raptors, with the Rockets agreeing to a sign-and-trade deal that netted them two draft picks in return. In 18 NBA seasons Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 2.5 assists per game, and at the time of his retirement he was (and still is) the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 3,830.
Olajuwon, who became a naturalized American citizen in 1993, was granted a waiver by FIBA to represent USA Basketball in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he won his lone Olympic gold medal. As a result of all of his accomplishments, Olajuwon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2008. He’s one of three members of those “Phi Slama Jama” teams to land in the Hall of Fame, with Drexler being inducted in 2004 and Lewis in 2013.