Big, bad 'Dream' gave opponents nightmares

There was always a distinguished, dignified air about him. He spoke five languages. He was cultured and educated. He drove a black Mercedes around Houston in his early years with the Rockets with the license plate "DREAM."

Back then, and for another decade, Hakeem Olajuwon was a dream, unless you happened to be playing against him. He was a dream to watch. He was a dream to coach. He was the greatest frontline player of the late 1980s and early 1990s, case closed. Better than Patrick Ewing. Better than Karl Malone. Better than David Robinson. Better than any of them. And don't for a minute believe the nonsense in the NBA Register that he was 7-feet tall. He did this all at 6-10, max.

And, for the two years that Michael Jordan decided to take a fling at baseball, he was the best basketball player on the planet. Period. You longed for a matchup of Hakeem's Rockets against Jordan's Bulls, but it never came to pass. Hakeem's two rings may be tainted in the eyes of some because MJ was in his wilderness years, but not in these. You'd want to see the Olajuwon of 1994-95 against the Shaq of 2002 just to see how much athleticism, grace and polish he had.

The problem now, of course, is that you need ESPN Classic to understand what all the fuss was about. Olajuwon hasn't really been the Dream for awhile, certainly not last year in his ill-advised sojourn to Toronto to extend a career that should have ended in Houston. You have to go back to 1995-96, when the Rockets were trying to three-peat, to find the last year he averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. Injuries and wear and tear eventually did him in. He will turn 40 in January and the fact is that he really retired three years ago and didn't know it.

But consider this. In his first 12 years in the league, he never averaged less than 20 points a game, never averaged less than 10 rebounds a game, never averaged less than two blocks a game -- and still waited 10 years to collect his first championship ring.

When he brazenly led the Rockets into the 1986 NBA Finals against the Celtics, he was still in the process of being Americanized. Politely, he told interviewers that he was raised in a big city (Lagos, Nigeria) and that the only wild animals he had ever seen were in the Lagos Zoo. But he also admitted to being astonished that he could order food at a drive-thru restaurant and that everyone drove cars. He was amazed to think that no one gave his team a chance against the mighty Celtics, who ended up prevailing in six games.

"I know nothing of this tradition," he said in Boston before Game 1 of the 1986 NBA Finals. He was callow. He was 23. He didn't know that 15 banners hung from the Boston Garden rafters. "I am not from here."

That admission prompted Larry Bird to say, "We'd like to give him a two-week history lesson."

You thought the Rockets were onto something back then. Bill Fitch had his Twin Towers look with Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, both incredibly athletic and agile big men. But Sampson never panned out due to injuries. Two other Rockets were banished due to drug abuse.

Olajuwon stayed the course in Houston and led the franchise in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocked shots. That's right. A center led the franchise in steals. It wasn't by accident. He was a dervish on defense the same way he was a dynamo on offense.

The Rockets didn't get back to the NBA Finals until 1994, but when they did, Olajuwon was in full flower. Houston defeated the Knicks in seven games, Olajuwon tipped away a potential series-winner from John Starks in Game 7 and he walked away with the first of two consecutive MVP awards for his play in the NBA Finals.

He was named to the 1996 Olympic Team after gaining United States citizenship. He was named one of the top 50 players of all time in 1996. He won one MVP award, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and was first-team, All-NBA six times.

But perhaps his greatest accomplishment in his 18 year career was this: at no time over the course of those 18 years did anyone ever suggest that the Rockets made a mistake drafting him ahead of Jordan in 1984. You certainly heard it when Portland took Sam Bowie at No. 2, allowing the Bulls to snare MJ at No. 3. But you never, ever, heard anyone say that the Rockets, who at that time already had Sampson, should have gone in another direction.

He was Akeem back then. Then, in 1991, he added an "H" before Pat Sajak and Vanna White became household names. He was amazingly durable as well; in his first 13 years, he went wire-to-wire four times and only once -- in 1990-91 -- did he play fewer than 68 games. He patented a spin move around the basket -- dubbed the DreamShake -- which is a staple on any NBA highlight show of the 1990s. There he goes up with the hook, whoops, there he goes up and under. David Robinson still doesn't know where he is.

In the end, however, he was not unlike his fellow trouper, Ewing. Both had game when they met in the 1994 NBA Finals. Neither had anything close to it last season, when Olajuwon mostly sat on the bench in Toronto when he wasn't hurt and Ewing did the same in Orlando.

Olajuwon is going to make his retirement official in the place he never should have left -- Houston. He almost never got there, because on his first car ride from the airport, the cab driver thought he said "Austin." But he eventually found his way. He went to college there. He played all but one year of his NBA career there. He defined Houston sports for more than a decade.

He was a Dream. He was Dream, period. Unfortunately for him, and us, we all wake up at some time. But that doesn't mean we can't remember or enjoy what we saw.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.