Every once in a while there comes along a player that transcends all odds and overcomes incredible adversity.
And every once in a while someone throws out a really stupid cliche like the one above. The difference is that when it comes to Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, the cliche doesn't begin to describe how transcendent and resilient the man was.
Take, for instance, how he started. The stories about basketball players starting their careers late have become more ubiquitous in recent years (Tim Duncan comes to mind), Hakeem started on a different continent, playing a completely different sport, in a country that couldn't have cared less about basketball. Granted, it was the Dream's history of playing goalie in Nigeria that helped him develop his trademark footwork and shot-blocking prowess.
And the adversity was certainly there from day one. Learning English, honing his basketball skills, and comprehending American culture were just some of the hurdles Hakeem faced. Life in the NBA wasn't a cakewalk either. Though his teams always had talent, injuries to Hakeem and Ralph Sampson kept the Rockets from achieving meaningful success. Nevertheless, Hakeem continued through a contract dispute, allegations of a lack of caring from the franchise, and a sudden lack of a supporting cast in the early 90s to become one of the greatest centers of all-time.
We can talk all we want about the accolades: only player in NBA history to be named MVP, Defensive MVP, and Finals MVP in the same season, two NBA titles, Olympic Gold Medalist, multiple All-Star and All-NBA seasons (regular and defensive), most blocked shots ever, and so many others.
I could talk about all the signature moments that Olajuwon gave the city of Houston. He blocked John Starks in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals when everyone and their mothers knew Starks wasn't going to miss. He "bamboozled" David Robinson in a series that even Spurs fans talk about in hushed tones. He tipped in the game winner in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals.
Or we could look at his off-the-court demeanor. He was a devout Muslim whose character was hardly ever questioned. He endorsed Spalding shoes because they were cheaper than Nike and Reebok alternatives. His charity work has also been well-documented.
But when I think back on Hakeem Olajuwon, I think of that 17-year-old kid playing soccer who had no clue that he would affect so many lives in another country entirely, through a sport he had never played. The Dream is the reason I watch basketball today, and for that I am eternally grateful. It is a gift I cannot return, but I can give thanks and wish him a very happy birthday to the 48-years-young man who showed a five-year-old boy in Houston about the wonderful game of basketball.
What do you remember about Hakeem? What did he mean to you? Sound off in the comments.