Hakeem Olajuwon was added to the roll of legendary big men when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left in 1989. Big men have ruled the NBA since its inception in 1949. George Mikan, the first great center, towered over the league during its formative years.
Defensive genius Bill Russell followed in 1956, a year after Mikan retired, and Wilt Chamberlain joined him three years later. When the Russ-Wilt axis collapsed in 1969, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar arrived to carry the tradition forward.
Of all the greats, Akeem Olajuwon took the most unusual path to stardom. He was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, and didn't begin playing basketball until age 15. But as easy as 1-2-3, he got a basketball scholarship from the University of Houston, led the Cougars to three consecutive Final Four appearances, and went first overall in the 1984 NBA draft -- ahead of Michael Jordan.
In his first 12 seasons with the Houston Rockets, he averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds each season, won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1994, and reached the pinnacle of his profession with back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. (Along the way, he added an H, becoming Hakeem Olajuwon in 1991.)
On the court, Olajuwon's signature became the fadeaway jump shot, delivered on the heels of a spin move. This sequence is called the "Dream Shake" (Hakeem's nickname was "The Dream") and was unstoppable. "It's a legendary shot, a Hall of Fame shot," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
Olajuwon also employed jump hooks and straightaway jump shots, and got his share of points converting offensive rebounds. His shooting eye improved over time as well: After making 55 percent of his free throws in college, he grew into a 75-percent shooter in later seasons.
Remarkably agile at 7'9'', 255 pounds, he ranks among the greatest rebounders in history, and he's the only player to stand in the NBA's all-time top 10 in both blocked shots and steals. In fact, Hakeem broke Abdul-Jabbar's record for career blocks in April 1996.
He was born January 21, 1963, to Salaam and Abike Olajuwon, who owned a cement business in Lagos. Soccer and handball were the sports that first attracted young Akeem. He started playing basketball in 1978 and competed with the Nigerian team at the All-African Games in 1980.
In December 1981, he played his first official game in the U.S., against Mississippi State in the Salvation Army Christmas Kettle Classic. He totaled eight points and three rebounds. He averaged 13.3 points as a collegian while attempting fewer than 10 shots per game, but in 1983-1984 he led the nation in rebounding (13.5 per game), blocked shots (5.6), and field-goal percentage (.675). In his first season in the NBA, scoring opportunities multiplied and he topped 20 points per game.
Early in his pro career, Olajuwon was paired with 7'4'' Ralph Sampson in a "Twin Towers" alignment. The Rockets reached the NBA Finals in 1986, losing to Boston, before injuries to Sampson grounded the franchise. Houston won only one playoff series the next five seasons.
In 1992, management entertained trade offers for Olajuwon. He stayed, Tomjanovich took over as coach, and soon the Rockets soared again, streaking to the championship in 1994 after beating the New York Knicks in the Finals. Olajuwon became the first player ever to win the regular season MVP, Defensive Player of the Year Award, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season.
Midway through the next season, the Rockets acquired Clyde Drexler, Hakeem's former college teammate, and rolled to their second consecutive title, sweeping the Orlando Magic in the Finals. Olajuwon finished second in the league in scoring and blocked shots, eighth in rebounding, and ninth in steals, then averaged 33.0 points per game in the playoffs.
Even Michael Jordan, who had returned to the Chicago Bulls late that year, agreed that Hakeem had become the best player on Earth. With Jordan's comeback taking full effect in 1995-1996, Houston would fail to win another title or even return to the NBA Finals.
Injuries slowed Olajuwon in the last three seasons of his career, but the big man retired in 2002 worthy of consideration among the five best centers in NBA history.