The release is bizarre, the trajectory flat, and the sideways spin has earned it comparisons to an orbiting satellite. Point guard Kenny Smith's shot is an endless source of yuks to his Houston Rocket teammates, even if it hasn't changed much in either form or formidability since Smith was an 11-year-old New Yorker putting on a free throw exhibition during a Harlem Globetrotters game. On Sunday, though, the Rockets were laughing with Smith, not at him. With the Utah Jazz committed to doubling down on center Hakeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, Smith's court presence and Sputnikian jump shot—he went 8 for 15 from the field and scored 25 points—propelled Houston to an 80-78 victory in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals and a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the series.
As the Rockets closed in on a berth in the NBA Finals, the emerging book on them was this: Given that Olajuwon is a monster in the middle, if Houston's outside shots fall, so will the opposition. The unabridged version, however, also makes note of the Rockets' aggressive, adhesive defense; their, ahem, demonstrative way with officials; and their clever offensive scheme that allows different players each night to spot up and deliver. In Game 4 at Salt Lake City not only did the Rockets go by the book, but this volatile team also held together in the final moments when a brain-locked timekeeper gave the Jazz an extra nine seconds in which to try to tie the game. "Championship teams go with all kinds of different weapons," Olajuwon says. "When they concentrate a lot of their energy on me, they should pay from the other guys."
One could forgive the Jazz for focusing a lot of their attention on Olajuwon. After a 100-88 Rocket runaway in the opener at Houston's Summit on May 23, the Dream lived a night of wide-awake fantasy there two days later when Game 2 was played. It began before the tipoff, when NBA commissioner David Stern, praising the 7-foot Olajuwon's "grace and elegance," presented him with his first MVP trophy. It ended 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists later, shortly after his whirling, falling-down fadeaway in the lane against a triple team sealed a 104-99 victory. "Just because I win the award, I do not play to prove myself," Olajuwon said afterward in his raspy lilt. "If you play to win, everything comes naturally."
In all, it was a 46-minute star turn that combined ferocity and magic and conjured up memories of, yes, a current outfielder for the Birmingham Barons. Olajuwon has been linked to Michael Jordan since 1984, when he was chosen first in the draft and Jordan went third; even the title of a recent movie that was a knockoff of Olajuwon's hoops odyssey out of Africa, The Air Up There, seemed to suggest that they were neighbors in the same stratosphere. With his Defensive Player of the Year award now bookended with the MVP, Olajuwon joined Jordan as the only players to pull off that double in the same season. And like Mike, Hakeem is capable of constant invention on the fly. "When I started playing, I only liked to dunk," Olajuwon says. "Now I enjoy creating."
During Game 2, in which he went 14 for 22 from the field, Olajuwon's nimble repertoire comprised spinning finger rolls, a one-footed step-back, jump hooks, half hooks, a 15-foot runner, a bunny-hop bank shot, two stumbling one-handers and the ever-reliable baseline turnaround. (He also converted all 13 of his free throws.)
Down the stretch he guarded Karl Malone, the Jazz's All-Star forward, and the two swapped baskets over a 15-point, two-minute span that was the most stimulating mano a mano since Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins traded fire for the entire fourth quarter in Game 7 of their 1988 Eastern Conference playoff series.
But while Jordan won three championships, which cemented his reputation as a superstar who made those around him better, the titleless Olajuwon is only now getting similar acclaim. His elevated on-court stature follows a period of off-the-court growth. Born a Muslim in Nigeria, Olajuwon rededicated himself to Islam three years ago and has found greater serenity and a more spiritual perspective. "Basketball is not just a job now," he says. "It's an obligation, an act of worship." These days he is quicker to seek help—and to provide it. "When things are going wrong, he steps in and says, 'Relax, everything is going to be all right,' " says Houston swingman Mario Elie.
At the same time, Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich has devised an offense populated with penetrators like rookie Sam Cassell and hair-trigger three-point shooters like Smith and Vernon Maxwell to complement Olajuwon's interior dominance. Catching the ball on the left block, Olajuwon usually has two frothing teammates poised on the arc facing him—what Tomjanovich calls "the money spot"—and a third at the top of the key. With the trio in easy view, Olajuwon can dish the ball quickly before the inevitable double team arrives. The result: With the attack running through him, Olajuwon has increased both his shot attempts and assists since Rudy T replaced Don Chaney during the 1991-92 season. "I love a big man who finds the open man for a pure jump shot," Olajuwon says. "It's beautiful to watch. It is fulfilling to me."
"He's been such a great player that he had a tendency at times to take the shot himself rather than pass," Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. "The game is a lot easier for him now." Olajuwon's comfort with the rest of the Rockets—the Dreamaires?—was apparent in a pair of scenes bracketing Game 2. First, when the MVP award was announced, he asked that his teammates and coaches come onto the floor and share the ovation. "One of the classiest things I've ever seen," said Houston assistant coach Carroll Dawson.
Then, at the timeout that followed Olajuwon's clinching shot, backup forward Earl Cureton ran from the Rocket bench to midcourt to embrace the man of the moment. Cureton, a 36-year-old late-season call-up from the CBA who was a teammate of center Moses Malone's on the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers' championship team, believes he is now playing with the best big man in the history of the game. "All Dream's energy was gone, but he knew we needed him to take that shot," Cureton said. "And when he made it, I came out to get him, because I knew it had come straight from his heart."