If you had to use one word to describe basketball, you ought to use ‘creativity.’ The sport has been described as jazz. There is no other popular sport that offers the chance for so much manipulation of the ball, free wheeling movement, and thus a chance for players to put their own stamps on the game. Mid-air creativity a la Dwyane Wade is gorgeous, and spontaneous. The pinpoint dishes of Steve Nash and Chris Paul are passes perfectly designed no matter the hurricane of bodies swirling around them. But one move stands out the most to me, a move crafted and honed and multi layered: the Dream Shake.
You don’t have to be a Houston Rocket fan to love the Dream and his signature move. The fakes, the swaying fall-away jumper, pivots, the whole “go one way and then sweep back around and THEN sweep back AGAIN” for an open layup? No one since Kevin McHale made so many big men in the NBA look so foolish. Not by dunking on them for a poster shot, but by making them the unwitting (and unwilling) partner in a graceful dance they didn’t know the steps to. Hakeem’s defense is also legendary (all time blocks leader) and if you look at his playoff versus career numbers you can see that his points, rebounds, blocks, assists, and percentages all rise from great to better when the games count the most.
Of course, numbers are numbers (and Wilt holds them all) and there have been many great big men who could fill it up, or change the game on D, or both. The thing with Hakeem, though, was the style with which he did it, and that’s why we named the website Dream Shakers.
At the beginning of the 94-95 Western Conference Finals, the NBA awarded the regular season MVP to David Robinson, who had led his Spurs to the best record with these averages: 27.6ppg, 11rpg, 3apg, 3.2bpg, 53%fg, 77%ft. The Spurs were 62-20.
Hakeem had averaged 27.8ppg, 11rpg, 3.5apg, 3.36bpg, 52%fg, 76%ft. The Rockets were 47-35.
Comparable individual numbers, yes. But it was a no brainer when you looked at that one number: the teams’ records, clearly David Robinson deserved the award as he’d led his team to the best record. When the teams met in the playoffs, this happened:
Robinson: 23.8ppg, 11.3rpg, 2.7apg, 2.2bpg, 45%fg, 79%ft
Olajuwon: 35.3ppg, 12.5rpg, 5apg, 4.2bpg, 55%fg, 82.5%ft
The Rockets won in 6 games and went on to sweep the Orlando Magic in the Finals. Bill Simmons has described in detail the significance of Hakeem, in subsequent seasons, vanquishing his rivals (Ewing, O’Neal, Robinson) who make up some of the best centers of all time. Drexler said in the interview that it was awe-inspiring to watch Hakeem’s performance in that series, particularly with the pressure and stakes involved. Isn’t that, then what the real greats do? Jordan destroyed anyone and everyone who was ever conceived by pundits and fans as a worthy rival. That included Drexler. There’s a quote in that youtube clip that reads something like: “Rockets drafted Hakeem ahead of Jordan, and you know what? Not an ounce of regret from Houston on that one. Great player.”
One thing I left out was David Robinson’s dominance on made and shot free throws- he made 55 to Olajuwon’s 25. The reason for this is a prime example of Hakeem’s wonderful playing rather than a knock on his game: Robinson and the Spurs couldn’t touch the Dream.
Today, more centers are built for power, size, and athleticism. Some have a move. Dwight Howard has the faceup and drive, a quick spin after he takes a step, and the finish with the dunk or short shot. Dwight has correctly been called a man without a go to move because all of the above are not something he can utilize effectively when his team really needs a bucket. His bullying style is successful because he’s so big, strong, and athletic: he often can get a good look close to the rim or get fouled. But that lack of a soft touch and a dependable post move hurt him: he’s all bayonet, no rifle. Hakeem, on the other hand, had multiple weapons applicable in many situations: “He’s got about five moves, then four countermoves…that gives him 20 moves.” Shaquille O’Neal, the modern day most physically imposing center in basketball, deadpanned that. Dwight Howard, in some ways a more athletic splicing of Shaq and Robinson but as good as neither, makes the highlights with dunks and blocks unleashed with ferocity. These things, however, are replicated by Josh Smith, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Chris Andersen… and the list goes on. At best, he can dunk and block more than anyone, good but not great.
The fluidity, the smoothness, the cleverness, these were the aspects of the shake. They made Hakeem, holder of numbers and awards to rival most NBA stars throughout, something special.