Thursday, Houston: O'Neal vs. Olajuwon
The two centers take the court at the Summit in Houston with a great deal more seriousness than they showed the night before, when they met for a magazine photo shoot at the arena.
The twosome struck a few playful poses during the shoot, and at the end the 301-pound O'Neal scooped up the 255-pound Olajuwon in his arms like a groom carrying his bride across the threshold. That was appropriate, because Olajuwon and O'Neal have a syrupy-sweet affection for each other, with none of the hidden bitternesses or jealousies that mark O'Neal's relationships with some other centers. "Hakeem's the best center in the league," says Shaq. "The best in the world. Don't compare me to anybody else but him."
The 32-year-old Olajuwon has told more than one friend that when he looks at O'Neal, he's glad he won his MVP award and the NBA championship ring last year because the next few could belong to Shaq. "He's the best," Olajuwon says. "Just to see the way he's developing is incredible."
Even more incredible was how well Olajuwon played while observing the 30-day Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which required him to abstain from eating from sunrise to sunset each day. He lost 10 pounds before Ramadan ended today and admits that the fasting weakened him for certain games—but having averaged 29.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.43 blocks, he still won the NBA Player of the Month award for February. Apparently Olajuwon kept his strength up with the gallon—yes, gallon—of water he estimates he drinks daily. The Dream is such a water enthusiast that a day before his battle with Shaq he announced the introduction of his own brand, Hakeem Olajuwon H0 Natural Spring Water.
Olajuwon's strategy against O'Neal is basic. "Stay behind him," he says. "Let the other guys come to help. He usually requires not just a double team but a triple team." In the past those extra defenders might have drawn O'Neal into turnovers and perhaps an offensive foul or two. But the new, improved Shaq refuses to try to bull his way to the basket. Instead he patiently passes the ball back out when he is swarmed.
O'Neal winds up with a relatively modest 19 points but dishes off a career-high-tying six assists, grabs 20 rebounds and contributes a crucial three-point play down the stretch in a 107-96 Orlando victory. Olajuwon finishes with 22 points and nine rebounds but misses 14 of his 23 shots. "It was a slow night for both of us," O'Neal says. "The people watching on [TBS] didn't see the best of me or Hakeem." One viewer is fully aware of that. His name is David Robinson.
Friday, San Antonio: O'Neal vs. Robinson
After having lavished praise on Olajuwon, O'Neal slips back into his short-answer mode when queried about Robinson. Although he called Olajuwon the best center in the NBA, when asked to rank Robinson, he replies, "I don't rate players."
There is a coolness between O'Neal and the 29-year-old Robinson that started in last season's All-Star Game, when Robinson and other Western Conference big men double-and triple-teamed O'Neal, holding him without a field goal for most of the game. O'Neal chalked it up to jealousy, and Robinson later responded during a conference call with reporters: "He talks about people being jealous of him, but he has nothing we want." O'Neal's rejoinder: "You tell David Robinson, the next time he plays me, I'll be on his butt. If there's ever a day David dominates me, it's because he has help."