If the championship of last year sometimes looked as if it were bought with inflated dollars—Michael Jordan had retired, the Rockets rolled down an easier path to the Finals when the No. 1-seeded Seattle SuperSonics were eliminated in the first round by the Denver Nuggets—this year's trip to the Finals against the Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic did not come cheap. Lacking a proven power forward (last season's starter at that position, Otis Thorpe, was traded in February to the Portland Trail Blazers for Drexler, and Thorpe's backup, Carl Herrera, is out with a shoulder injury) and usually playing no more than nine people, the Rockets have had to lean even more heavily on their superstar. Take away Olajuwon and his playoff-leading 33.0 average, and the big basketball news in Houston would be the interviews with potential lottery picks. Put him on the court, and the city goes borderline wacky, certainly wackier even than last year, people talking Rockets, Rockets, nothing but Rockets.
The credit that Olajuwon has never received, not even with a championship and an MVP award last year, has begun to arrive in a hurry. He is now doing the postseason stuff of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Jordan and Bill Russell. Maybe, hard though it may be to believe, he is doing even more. Did any of them have to perform with such a nondescript cast? Perhaps the better comparisons for his postseason transcendence come from other sports: Olajuwon is more like Bob Gibson hurling the St. Louis Cardinals to World Series championships, Reggie Jackson in various October settings, Joe Montana in those Super Bowls, Wayne Gretzky on one of those Stanley Cup runs in Edmonton, suddenly everywhere all at once, controlling the entire drama.
"The series he just played against San Antonio is going to be legendary," Tomjanovich says. "People will be talking about that series and how he played for many, many years."
He took apart Spur center David Robinson in that series. That's what Olajuwon did. Robinson, who before the series was named the league MVP for this season (Olajuwon was fifth in the balloting), is Olajuwon's closest counterpart at the position. Tall, fluid, graceful, Robinson promised to be a mirror image, negating whatever good Olajuwon could accomplish. Weren't the rest of the Spurs far superior to the Rockets? Wasn't form easy to establish? Hadn't the Spurs beaten the Rockets five of six in the regular season? Advantage, big advantage, Spurs. The problem was the basic premise: The reflection in the mirror was not nearly as sharp as the real object. Robinson never could handle Olajuwon. Olajuwon more than handled Robinson.
From the first-game upset in San Antonio—when Olajuwon scored 27 points, collected eight rebounds and made his sixth and final assist to a carnival-open Robert Horry for the 17-foot jump shot that won the game 94-93 with 6.4 seconds left—the Dream established his superiority. By clinching Game 6, a 100-95 Rocket win last Thursday in Houston, he had Robinson completely baffled. Olajuwon had scored 42 points, with nine rebounds and eight assists, in the breakaway fifth game in San Antonio, a 111-90 rout. In the final game he had 39 points, on 16-for-25 shooting, and 17 rebounds. Seventeen rebounds! Robinson was tentative, off-balance, hitting only six of 17 shots for 19 points, grabbing but 10 boards, missing important foul shots. Lost. David Robinson was lost. "I've never felt this way before," he said afterward. "For the first time in my life, I felt I let my teammates down."
"When you play a center of David's caliber, that makes it more competitive," Olajuwon replied in his humble yet confident way. "It was a great victory for us."
What are you going to do? The question Tomjanovich asked while viewing videotape was Robinson's nightly puzzle. Robinson thought he was playing pretty good defense. He said he knew that sounded odd, but he meant it. The Spurs thought they were playing pretty good team defense too, running people toward Olajuwon every time he had the ball. He still would roll left and right and jump and hit those eight-footers, those in-between shots that no one else can hit with such consistency. And he still would look at his options and pass away to other people for jumpers. Other people would hit the jumpers. The process was so repetitive, so effective, it looked easy. Throw the ball to Hakeem. Go from there.
"His shooting touch is what is amazing," Dawson says. "I don't think anybody thought he had that when he came here. I thought we were getting a guy who could rebound, block shots and run the floor. What'd he average, 13 points in college? He was just learning the game. He has developed this touch and added an arsenal of moves that no one in this game ever has had. Every year he adds something new. The latest thing is a face-to-the-basket jumper from about 22 feet. We run him off some pick-and-rolls now to shoot that shot. How do you guard that if you're the other center?"
His teammates think that the MVP voting should be reopened. ("What do you think?" Drexler asked. "Is there any doubt?") The instant analysts rush to ponder the question, Where does he fit in the history of the game? ("Right up there," is Tomjanovich's reply. "With Wilt and all of them.") The forecasters wonder whether he can run this string the rest of the way in the Finals. Can he take this curious team of defending champs and heavy underdogs to a curious repeat championship?
Olajuwon mostly smiles at the sudden commotion. There is a serenity to him, a grace, that removes him from the laser lights and the noise even as he dominates. He says proper things in his proper English school accent.