NBA legend and Hall of Famer, Houston Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon joined Adam Clanton and Adam Wexler Monday on “The A-Team” and shared his thoughts on a number of topics. He began the interview looking back on the 1995 NBA Finals, in which his Rockets team defeated the Orlando Magic in a four-game sweep.
Trade for Clyde Drexler
Olajuwon also recalled fondly how his teammates were a major contributor to a sixth-seeded Houston squad becoming the only team in NBA history to win a title from that position in the playoffs. Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith and Mario Elie were all mentioned by Olajuwon, who laughed when asked about the midseason trade for Drexler—something his teammates didn’t warmly receive when the Rockets dealt starting power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland on Valentine’s Day in 1995.
“That was a dream for both of us for a long time,” Olajuwon said. “But when it actually happened, when (Drexler) came to our team, I just couldn’t believe it. Now we’ve got an opportunity (to win a championship).”
Olajuwon was then asked about the Orlando team the Rockets defeated, and about Shaquille O’Neal holding Hakeem in high regard. “When I looked at the schedule…the first thing I looked at is when am I playing against Shaq? When is Patrick (Ewing)? When is David (Robinson)? So there was tremendous mutual respect between all of us.”
Rockets beat Magic (after Magic beat Jordan's Bulls)
When asked about ESPN’s “The Last Dance” highlighting Michael Jordan and the 1990’s Chicago Bulls, Olajuwon revealed he had not seen the documentary—but gave a history lesson to NBA observers who try to slight the Rockets for winning two titles “while Jordan was retired.”
“In ’95 Jordan was back,” Olajuwon said. “That great Orlando team beat him in Game 6, and everybody seems like they forgot the big steal against Jordan. Nick Anderson made that steal to cost Chicago the series. (Jordan) was back.
“You don’t make excuses for a champion to discredit anything. You have to give them the credit because they won. We didn’t play Chicago in the Finals. We didn’t get that chance. But that doesn’t discredit our accomplishment as a champion.”
Dream on James Harden
Olajuwon was asked about the current version of the Rockets, and specifically about James Harden, the criticism he receives and whether or not he’s a championship-caliber player.
“There’s no question about that,” Olajuwon said. “At his position, it’s very, very difficult to carry a team. I mean, look at all his statistics. He’s a player at the level of Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. He’s unbelievable in this era.
“There’s no question about James’ ability as a (potential) champion,” Olajuwon added. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”
NBA potentially returns to action
Olajuwon also shared his thoughts on the upcoming return of the NBA, in which teams will be in a “bubble” environment on the campus of Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s the circumstances that forced the NBA to try to not jeopardize the whole season,” Olajuwon said. “This will be a one-of-kind event, playing without fans on a neutral ground.”
Olajuwon added: “I think that’s James (Harden’s) style. And that’s (Russell) Westbrook’s style. I think they will do very well in that kind of environment.”
Current NBA taking a stand
The focus then turned to several NBA players such as LeBron James and others who have been vocal on social issues, and Olajuwon applauded them for what he called being responsible.
“It’s a social responsibility,” Olajuwon said. “If you look at the situation…the support from the players, politicians, everybody…I’m very, very encouraged to see support to bring change.
“It’s a time for change,” Olajuwon added. “Not just protest, then it’s over, then you go back to the norm. I think it’s time for real change and that’s what I see going on, and I’m very proud of the response from all of the spectrum.”
Olajuwon emigrated to the United States from Lagos, Nigeria in the early 1980’s and found himself playing for the University of Houston before being drafted by the hometown Rockets in 1984. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in April of 1993 and later played—and won gold—with fellow Americans on the 1996 Dream Team in the Olympics in Atlanta that summer.
Olajuwon on race relations
When asked about his unique perspective on the subject of race relations in America and his opinion about what kind of country Olajuwon thought the United States is in 2020, he didn’t hesitate.
“I think it depends on individuals,” Olajuwon said. “Racism (in the United States) is magnified by social media. It’s always been there. But it depends on the individual and how you take it.
“Of course the treatment black athletes will get from the public will be different than just a regular person,” Olajuwon added. “But everyone has the right to be able to express. That’s one thing that everybody outside of America looks at in America: that you have the freedom of expression, freedom of speech, as long as you don’t break the law. Other countries outside of America don’t have that opportunity.
“America, as the leading country in the world, has to show by example,” Olajuwon finished. “I believe strongly that this protest will bring about positive change, God willing.”
Rudy T a Hall of Famer
Olajuwon concluded by addressing the long-awaited induction of Rudy Tomjanovich into the Basketball Hall of Fame, after being a star player and then head coach that helped lead Olajuwon’s Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.
“It’s well-deserved,” Olajuwon said. “If you look at his accomplishments as a player…as a coach, then the Olympics, he’s accomplished a lot in his career. When I was playing, I played so hard so as not to let him down.
“And I feel so honored to be there (as his presenter) with him,” Olajuwon added. “So it’s well-deserved and it could not have happened to a better coach or better guy.”