They've come in waves, a gold and purple Pacific of defenders—Kurt Rambis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Lucas, Mitch Kupchak. All have tried to stop the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon, and all have failed. They've fronted him and backed him, elbowed him out of position, yanked him to the floor, sent him to the free-throw line and moved their quick-handed guards, Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, down low to double-and triple-team him. Better they should have tried to tie his shoelaces together.
Nothing has worked against Olajuwon, a mixture of brute and ballet dancer, a center so swift and so strong he can kill you softly or violently.
Defend the NBA title? Puh-leese. The next words out of Los Angeles might well be no mas. "I know Kareem won't give up," said Olajuwon, "but I don't think they can win three in a row."
Not if Akeem were to continue at his latest implausible pace, anyway. He scored 40 and 35 points last weekend at the Summit in Houston as the young Rockets, having suddenly changed from diapers to combat fatigues, beat the Lakers twice to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Next up was a game in the Forum on Wednesday, but even there the Lakers were not safe. Houston beat L.A. 112-102 in Game 2 on Tuesday of last week in that very arena, a result that heralded the changing of the guard in the West that the Rockets obviously had in mind.
"Eventually, you knew it was going to happen," said Laker sixth man Michael Cooper. "You knew they were going to be a team to reckon with. It's just happening a little bit sooner than we thought."
Indeed, the Rockets are currently in the third year of management's "five-year plan." It began in 1983 when owner Charles F. Thomas, a.k.a. King Coin Flip, called "heads" and earned the right to draft Ralph Sampson. Two years ago Portland called "tails," up came heads, and Olajuwon went to the Rockets. And now there was Houston, only one win away from sending its Twin Towers against the imposing Boston skyline in the finals. Give Sampson his due on this point—he has long pooh-poohed the front-office's plan as overly cautious. "I didn't want to hear about five-year plans then and I don't want to hear about them now," Sampson said last week, possibly because he, more than anyone, realized the full potential of Olajuwon.
Now the Lakers know it, too. Magic: "In terms of raw athletic ability, Akeem is the best I've ever seen." Lucas: "The rebirth of a bigger Moses Malone." Kupchak: "I can compare him to, maybe, Alvin Robertson in terms of being able to do everything. That tells you something, since Robertson is a guard. I've never seen anyone that strong, that quick, that relentless and who also happens to be seven-feet tall."
Actually, he's more like 6'11", but who's measuring? The point is that no one on the Lakers, long of tooth and short of rebound (the Rockets dominated the boards 186-145 in the first four games), has been able to cut him down to size. For all the success the Laker big people have had, coach Pat Riley might just as well send out his all-purpose defensive octopus, the long-armed 6'7" Cooper, to guard Olajuwon.
Cooper almost jumped off the locker room bench when that idea was proposed after Houston's 105-95 victory on Sunday. "Shoot, I'd love to guard him," said Cooper. "I'm not saying I'd stop him, but I know this—we're playing him wrong. You can't get your body on him because he just feels where you are and moves away from you. You've got to let him catch it and then go to work on him."
That same theory has been advanced by 76er center Malone, Olajuwon's longtime off-season foe at the Fonde Recreation Center in Houston. Olajuwon says he wouldn't know how to tell an opponent to guard him, though he claims that as L.A. changes defenders, he adjusts his game accordingly. "I know all their games," he says. And how does Lucas play you, Akeem? "Very physical," says Olajuwon. "He tries to push me out." Abdul-Jabbar? "He also tries to push me out. He is very strong." Kupchak? "Very physical." Boy, that's some book Akeem has on the Laker defense, eh? Everybody does the same thing.