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As his return neared, the trade talk mellowed. Olajuwon, either humbled or impressed by the team's success without him, said he would be glad to come in as a sixth man, that he was very mindful of what had been achieved without him, that he didn't want to wreck the team's new wide-open attack. The players were equally realistic about his return. Floyd, who admits he had been hurt by Olajuwon's criticisms but who had learned to brush them off ("That's Hakeem") and had even become a friend, predicted, "He comes back and takes us to the next level." Said Kenny Smith: "Here it is after the trading deadline, and we have a chance to get an All-Star center for nothing. How could you not be better with him on your team?"
But this much better? The Rockets lost to the L.A. Clippers on Feb. 28 in Olajuwon's first game back, and the talk shows went wild again with trade-Akeem chatter. "I felt so bad for him," says Floyd. "He comes back, and so we lose. Like it was his fault. You should have seen his face." But then Houston beat the Lakers in the Forum in its next game to start a 13-game winning streak that ended last Saturday when the Rockets lost 114-82 in Orlando. The streak included a 100-90 romp on March 25 at Chicago Stadium, where the Bulls had been unbeaten in 26 games, and a last-second, 112-111 win in Atlanta last Thursday. No wonder Warrior coach Don Nelson calls the Rockets "the most feared team in the league right now." Chaney, whose job situation was tenuous, is now a candidate for Coach of the Year. "You can get very smart very fast," he says.
The players are happy to have Olajuwon back, but it is no betrayal for them to admit they were happy to have him gone. "It was a blessing in disguise," says Thorpe. "We needed that so each individual could find himself." In the past the guards would bring the ball up, pound it in to Olajuwon and then commence to daydream. "Their workday was done," says Chaney. But with Olajuwon out of the low post, the other Rockets found they could drive to the basket or just pull up and pop a three-pointer. The three guards—Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Floyd—were having a big time.
This teamwork, this running around, was a revelation to Olajuwon. "Guys diving for the ball, hungry guys," Olajuwon says. "It was like, 'Look at me.' They had a chance to show what they could do."
"He's very smart," says Chaney of Olajuwon, "and, really, all he wants to do is win. He saw what was going on out there. It was self-explanatory." Olajuwon was so happy to blend into this new system that he didn't even want to start ahead of Larry Smith. "I had to force him to start," says Chaney. Olajuwon seemed amazed by this team. So he didn't have to do all the work after all. This was interesting. He can still clog up a lane, still demand the ball, but there is no question that he is only a part of the offense now. The three guards are not about to let their fun stop. They no longer look just to Olajuwon, but to any open man. Or they just shoot. Against Chicago, Kenny Smith was amazing as he drove to the basket. And Olajuwon was careful to get out of the way. In the game against Atlanta, with Houston trailing by a point with eight seconds to play, the ball went to Maxwell, not Olajuwon. Maxwell, to nobody's surprise, calmly hit a 23-foot jumper.
And what has this done to Olajuwon's game? It didn't hurt it any. "Ever since I came to this league, I've been double-teamed," he says. "But now that the offense is spread out, the game is suddenly easy. Easy! It's like in college. I get a few rebounds and get my points, or the guards—and they are criminally quick—dish off for a few dunks. Easy points! Same points, and I do less work. It reminds me of Phi Slamma Jamma [the nickname for his University of Houston team], so much fun. When the game is over now, I'm not even tired. I could play another game." He is almost grateful to unburden himself of the pressure of Team Akeem: "I've been looking for this freedom."
Larry Smith has been an Olajuwon observer for years and recognizes the pressure his teammate has played under. "He felt he had to score 30 to 40 points and get 20 to 25 rebounds to win," Smith says. "Now, for the first time, he realizes he doesn't have to do that. We don't need to depend on the Dream for everything. On the other hand, it's more relaxing for the rest of us to have him back. I always knew if I got the minutes, I could contribute. But I also knew if I got the minutes, I still wouldn't grow to seven feet."
The Rockets these days are at once contentious and relaxed. Contentious in that they take nothing from anybody. Relaxed in that they have discovered the certainty of winning.
A basketball season is long, the playoffs are treacherous. And nobody expects Houston to win an NBA championship. But what if the Rockets really are a changed team? What if it's just as simple as Olajuwon's waking up one day and deciding that he wants to change his name? That from now on he wants to be called a winner? Better late than never.