It was so much easier the first time they met. With nothing to be won or lost, they quickly found common ground. The time was the summer of 1983, the place a Phoenix hotel, and University of Houston senior Akeem Olajuwon was listening to a tape of reggae musician Peter Tosh on his cassette deck when the fellow staying in the room next door stopped by. Georgetown junior Patrick Ewing introduced himself and declared his fondness for reggae, which reminded him of his childhood days in Jamaica. The Nigerian-born Olajuwon invited Ewing in, and together they listened and talked about music, not basketball, as the Caribbean sounds filled the room.
They were teammates of a sort at the time, traveling on an NCAA-sponsored antidrug campaign, and it would be the last time they would meet with so little at stake. The next year they would play for the NCAA championship; Ewing would score 10 points, Olajuwon 15, but the Hoyas would get the better of the Cougars, 84-75.
Thus began a decade in which they have been noble adversaries. The years have given them more in common than just taste in music, and much of what links them has to do with championships—or the absence of them. They both lost what appeared to be certain college titles in stunning upsets, Olajuwon to North Carolina State in 1983 and Ewing to Villanova in '85. They both had brief periods of discontent in the NBA, during which each wanted to leave his team for one with a better chance of winning a championship.
And although both are perennial All-Stars and have accumulated their share of honors—that NCAA championship and two Olympic gold medals for Ewing, this season's MVP honors and two Defensive Player of the Year awards for Olajuwon—their strongest bond is not what they have but what they lack. After years of hard NBA labor, 10 for Olajuwon (who since 1991 has been known as Hakeem) with the Houston Rockets and nine for Ewing with the New York Knicks, the two are meeting again, in the NBA Finals, which began Wednesday at the Summit in Houston. This is Ewing's first Finals appearance, Olajuwon's second. There is an NBA championship trophy to be had, but unlike that reggae tape, Ewing and Olajuwon cannot share it.
"And that is the shame of it," says Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets, who was born in Zaire and followed Ewing as a Hoya center. "I pull for Patrick because we share Georgetown, but I pull for Hakeem because we share Africa. They both deserve it so much. They have both waited so long. It is as if two men have been in the desert and they come upon one glass of water. There is only enough for one of them to drink. When you watch them, do you not wish there could be two glasses of water?"
Of course, both had hoped to sip from the glass by now. Ewing, the first pick of the 1985 draft, was supposed to return the Knicks to glory long ago, but instead of championships there was only instability, with five coaches and a constantly changing cast of teammates in his first six seasons. He eventually became so frustrated that he tried to use a loophole in his contract to become a free agent in '91 before agreeing to a two-year contract extension with New York. Olajuwon, the top choice in '84, did get that earlier visit to the NBA Finals, in '86, but Houston lost to the Boston Celtics. By '92 the Rockets were floundering, and Olajuwon was feuding with management and seeking a trade. New coach Rudy Tomjanovich discouraged a deal; the next year Olajuwon resolved his differences with the front office and signed a contract that will keep him in Houston through the 1998-99 season.
But all that unhappiness seems like ancient history now that Ewing and Olajuwon are only a step away from a championship. What makes their confrontation fascinating is that only one of them will finally quench his thirst, and to do so he will have to snatch the glass from the other's lips.
Ewing and Olajuwon, both 31, both listed as 7'0" (though Olajuwon may in fact be closer to 6'10"), have even more in common than their age and height. They are both foreign-born big men who came to the game relatively late in life, Olajuwon at 15, Ewing at 13. And they both are members of that group of stars in their 30's—Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Dominique Wilkins—still searching for their first NBA title. "When I look at Hakeem I see the same need to win that I have," Ewing says. "He's a great player, and I'm a great player. We've both done just about everything there is to do in this league but win a championship, and we've got that same look in our eye now. All we want to do is win."
The Olajuwon-Ewing battle is unlike the marquee matchups from NBA Finals of the recent past, such as the confrontations between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the one in '91 that pitted Magic against Michael Jordan. This time the two combatants play the same position and will spend most of the series matched against each other. Thus those head-to-head statistics that NBC is sure to flash throughout the series will provide a fairer comparison than they usually do.
There is something especially glamorous about a duel of elite centers. Olajuwon against Ewing may not be quite the equivalent of the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain wars of the 1960s, but it's as close as the NBA Finals, dominated lately by forwards and guards, have come in years. Not since the Knicks' Willis Reed faced the Lakers' Chamberlain in 1970 has there been such a compelling main-event duel of traditional centers for the championship. Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers did battle in '83 with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the presence of Magic and the 76ers' Julius Erving in that series diverted attention from the center matchup.