Hakeem Olajuwon stretches his graceful 6'10" frame skyward, takes in a large gulp of warm afternoon air and listens to the song of a hundred invisible birds. "They are all around," says Olajuwon as he stands on his spacious property in a quiet Houston suburb. "The best time to see them is in the early morning." He smiles. "It is very nice here, yes?"
Yes. Olajuwon has plans to build a large L-shaped house on what he calls "the compound," but for now he occupies a Mediterranean-style "guest house," an airy, one-story dwelling with high ceilings and arched windows. He lives alone but is not lonely, he says. His five-year-old daughter, Alon, and her mother, Lita Spencer, live in Los Angeles and visit only occasionally.
Over the last few years Olajuwon has become increasingly devoted to Islam, and he often stops at a mosque near the Summit, the home arena of his team, the Rockets, for a group prayer in the afternoon. His baggage on the road includes a prayer rug and a special compass that points him in the direction of Mecca. Today he excuses himself and adjourns to the front porch of the guest house, where he removes his shoes, stretches out the rug, sinks to his knees and recites his noonday prayer, called the zuhr. "I am," Olajuwon says upon completion of the prayer, "a man at peace."
A year ago "at peace" would not describe cither Olajuwon or the Rockets, as the franchise center and the franchise engaged in an ugly version of Dysfunctional Family Feud. Olajuwon was suspended for three games last March by general manager Steve Patterson because Olajuwon, who claimed to have a hamstring injury, was believed by the Rockets to be dogging it. By that time Olajuwon had made it clear he was disenchanted with his contract, his teammates and his owner, Charlie Thomas, whose efforts to sell the Rockets had become infuriating to Olajuwon, who felt Thomas was bailing out on the team when it was down.
Even with Olajuwon back in the lineup for the stretch run last season, the Rockets lost four of their final five games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1983-84, the season before Olajuwon joined them. Some observers thought that Houston might have tanked the games in order to qualify for the draft lottery; but, in fact, the Rockets were probably as bad as their pitiful record indicated. "We went through more in one year than most teams go through in three," says Patterson, who then smiles the smile of the redeemed. "But turnarounds like ours, well, I guess that's what makes sports so interesting."
And right now Houston is the most interesting team in the NBA. Its 104-95 victory over the Utah Jazz Saturday night was a franchise-record-tying 13 in a row. The San Antonio Spurs have been the rebirth story of the year, but as of Sunday the Rockets, picked to finish out of the playoffs by more than one NBA observer, were one game ahead of the second-place Spurs in the Midwest Division. The Phoenix Suns, 46-14 to Houston's 40-21 at week's end, may be uncatchable for the NBA's best record, but the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs would be more than the Rockets dared hope for just five weeks ago, when, after embarrassing back-to-back home losses to the wretched Minnesota Timberwolves and the woeful Washington Bullets, their record stood at 26-20.
As for the peaceful man in the pivot, well, he's simply having a career season: Through Sunday he was averaging 25.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and a league-leading 4.2 blocked shots a game. Phoenix's Charles Barkley may keep Olajuwon from winning his first MVP award, but Olajuwon will most assuredly receive, for the first time in his eight-season career, strong consideration for the honor. Over the years he has received only four first-place MVP votes, with his highest finish coming at the end of the 1985-86 season—in which the Rockets reached the Finals—when he was fourth behind Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins and Magic Johnson.
At the very least Houston's ascendance has put a spotlight on the NBA's most overlooked superstar. A number of factors have contributed to Olajuwon's relative obscurity: the Rockets' numbing mediocrity since losing the 1985-86 championship series to the Boston Celtics in six games, the presence in the pivot of more camera-ready figures, like David Robinson of the Spurs and now Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic, a dearth of endorsements and perhaps even his Nigerian heritage. If Olajuwon has not exactly been ignored, he certainly has been taken for granted.
Not anymore. "Nobody in the league dominates the game on both ends of the floor like Hakeem," says Sacramento King center-forward Wayman Tisdale. After Olajuwon had 27 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 104-91 win over the Portland Trail Blazers last Thursday, Blazer coach Rick Adelman said, "You can compare these great centers all you want and not figure out who's best. All I know is, there's no one better than Hakeem."
The Dream is the lone MVP contender without a best supporting actor. Barkley has Dan Majerle; Robinson has Sean Elliott; Michael Jordan has Scottie Pippen with him on the Chicago Bulls; and Mark Price has Brad Daugherty with him on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hakeem has...Otis Thorpe? Kenny Smith? Vernon Max-well? Peruse the list of the NBA's leading scorers and rebounders and, after seeing Olajuwon in sixth and third, respectively, you'll find no other Rocket in the Top 40 in either category. "Night in and night out," says Houston guard Scott Brooks, "Dream just picks us up and carries us."