Sonic Dream Turned Nightmare -- Olajuwon Fuels Return Of Rockets To Seattle

In his daydreams, he'd be in Japan, more than 7,000 miles and an ocean away, but feel so close to Seattle that he already could smell the lattes. His team, the Houston Rockets, and the Seattle SuperSonics would meet twice at a spanking new arena in Yokohama. Once the trade went down, all he'd have to do is walk down the hallway to the next locker room and his life in the Pacific Northwest would begin.

"That's what I thought," the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon said, recalling a much-discussed scenario last fall.

But that was before Olajuwon launched the most serious MVP pursuit of his career, before he reconciled with Rocket management and committed to Houston for the rest of his basketball life, before he became a U.S. citizen, and way before he dragged his team past the Los Angeles Clippers to a Western Conference semifinal playoff matchup with the Sonics that begins tonight.

For the next week or two, the man they call Dream will be the Sonics' recurring nightmare.

"The Rockets are pretty simple," Seattle Coach George Karl said. "It's Hakeem right, Hakeem left, and Hakeem down the middle."

Way back in the fall - the months seem like years now - none of that seemed possible.

Olajuwon had called Rocket owner Charlie Thomas a "coward," and said the team was being run by fools. The previous March, he had complained of a sore left hamstring. After team doctors failed to find evidence of the injury, there was speculation Olajuwon was trying to prod a contract renegotiation.

The Rockets fueled that by suspending Olajuwon for three games, essentially ending any hopes of Houston landing in the playoffs. The action also seemed to end any hopes of Olajuwon landing back in Houston. He wanted out, and the Rockets tried to accommodate him.

Though in retrospect Miami and the Clippers turned out to be the most serious suitors, the Sonics then were prominent in Olajuwon-related trade rumors. They had both the goods and the salary-cap maneuverability to swing the deal. It made sense to many, Olajuwon included.

"I thought about it a lot over the summer, especially before we went to Japan," he said. "I decided that I would like to play in Seattle. I like the city. They have a lot of good players. I thought it would be a good opportunity. So I was looking forward to playing in Seattle."

That outlook began to change en route to the NBA's season opener between the Rockets and Sonics in Yokohama. During the 14 1/2-hour flight to Japan, he and Thomas discussed their differences. They didn't resolve anything specifically, but paved the way for a rapprochement.

Four months later, almost on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Olajuwon-Rockets feud, the 7-foot center signed a four-year, $25.4 million contract extension that should keep him in Houston until 1999.

"I knew it was just a matter of time," said Olajuwon, who became a U.S. citizen April 2. "They had to make a decision, one way or the other. I like more to reason, to find a solution peacefully. When people can't reason together, there's often destruction. I didn't want to be the (cause of the) destruction of the team. If I can't be positive, I want to be somewhere else.

"It takes two to make it work. It's like marriage. If two people want the same thing, it will happen. Both will compromise and sacrifice for the sake of making it happen."

The episode cast Olajuwon as a malcontent, and many expected him to mope along until the dispute was resolved. His pride and integrity had been vastly underestimated, however. Even with his future in doubt, Olajuwon embarked on his best season.

He was named the NBA's player of the month for January, before he signed the contract extension, as well as for April, the month after. Olajuwon became the third player in league history (along with David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to record at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 300 blocks in the same season. He also became the second in NBA history (along with Abdul-Jabbar) to have more than 250 assists and 300 blocks in the same season.

"This is the best year he's ever had, because of the consistency," Sonic assistant Bob Kloppenburg said. "Before, you could provoke him, get him angry or into foul trouble. Now, nothing seems to faze him. Now, he calms down the other guys on his team. That never used to happen."

Houston made it to the NBA Finals in 1986 with Olajuwon in the lineup, but that Twin Tower team also had 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and a lot of good fortune. So it could be argued that this season is the first when Olajuwon's brilliance helped his team shine as brightly. Mostly dismissed in preseason, the Rockets won the Midwest Division and tied the Sonics for the fourth-best record in the NBA.

The link between individual and team success thrust Olajuwon, for the first time in his career, into serious consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player award. The race for MVP is considered a dead heat between him and Phoenix's Charles Barkley. This is the most ironic twist of a saga that threatened to brand Olajuwon as the self-centered center.

"I was obligated," he said. "I was under contract. You have to fulfill the contract. That's part of basic beliefs. When you go out on the floor, you aren't just representing the Rockets. You're representing yourself, your country, your continent. You're representing a lot of other people. If you can't do your best, don't even talk. You take care of business on the outside. But on the floor, that's where you come to play."

In the first round of the playoffs, Olajuwon averaged 29.2 points, 15.2 rebounds, 5.8 blocks and 4.8 assists to help the Rockets overcome the four-game absence of a key performer, guard Vernon Maxwell. So, half a year late and under different circumstances than had been anticipated, he will make an extended visit to Seattle. But it will only be a visit.

It will, however, be a return to the site of one of Olajuwon's greatest individual glories. The Sonics and Rockets met before in a Western Conference semifinal series and on May 14, 1987, produced what still is considered an NBA postseason classic. The Sonics prevailed 128-125 after two overtimes, clinching the series in Game 6, but had to endure 49 points, 25 rebounds and six blocks from Olajuwon.

Kloppenburg, then an assistant to Bernie Bickerstaff, calls Olajuwon's "the greatest individual performance I've ever seen. We did everything we could to stop him, but he was just phenomenal."

Nate McMillan, the only current Sonic to have played in that 1987 series, said, "Every time he comes in here, I think about that game. It's dark, it's cloudy, we're double- and triple-teaming him every time he touches the ball, but there's Hakeem falling out of bounds, shooting fadeaways, on the left block. He was awesome."

An even more awe-inspiring thought is of Olajuwon, six years more seasoned and that much better. The 30-year-old native of Nigeria has been playing basketball for only half his life, after all. Experience has been a valuable teacher.

And the lessons have been applicable on and off the court.

"You know what you want, and you try to get there," Olajuwon said. "You do all the necessary things, where before you might have overlooked or taken for granted what is so important. Before you looked at the big things, and the little things you didn't worry about. But it is the opposite. You take care of the little things, and the big things take care of themselves."