Commentary

Jordan or no Jordan, Olajuwon was great

Originally Published: September 5, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Hakeem OlajuwonBarry Gossage/Getty ImagesWith moves like this, Hakeem Olajuwon was unstoppable at times during his career.

Watching Vijay Singh snatch another PGA Tour victory in Tiger Woods' absence was a fitting way to start a week that ends with Hakeem Olajuwon's enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Singh is the closest thing any other sport has to Olajuwon, the man who best took advantage of some down time by The Man.

From 1990 to 1997, every time Michael Jordan showed up for training camp, he wound up raising the Larry O'Brien trophy over his head at the end of the season. But the two times he didn't, Olajuwon swooped into the void. That's how Olajuwon earned the highest accolade you can give him, a tag much greater than "12-time All-Star" or "franchise's all-time scoring and rebounding leader." All that needs to be said for his career is this: The Houston Rockets don't have to apologize for taking him ahead of Jordan in the 1984 draft. Olajuwon won two championships and a Most Valuable Player award. It's everything you could ask for from a No. 1 overall pick, and he delivered.

To anticipate or envy Jordan's career and what it meant to the Bulls would be excessive. Don't be jealous of the guy driving the Ferrari in the next lane; just be glad you aren't riding the bus.

Olajuwon gave the city of Houston its first big league championship and granted the Rockets access to the most exclusive club in major pro sports. Since Olajuwon entered the league in 1984, only seven teams have won the NBA championship. In that time span there have been 16 World Series champions, 13 Super Bowl winners and 12 Stanley Cup champions.

The only question is, do we devalue Olajuwon's championships and MVP award because they came while Jordan missed one entire season and all but 17 games of the next during his first retirement? Not at all.

This is where Singh comes in. You'll notice that his three major victories -- the 1998 and 2004 PGA Championships and the 2000 Masters -- came when Tiger was retooling his swing and going through his two longest major droughts. So what does that make Singh? A three-time major champion. No asterisk affixed, no questions asked. And now that Woods is out after knee surgery, Singh is zeroing in on the funky FedEx Cup. It's an open range out there, but you don't see Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia padding their win totals.

The further we get from the events, the less we care about how they were won. Nearly a quarter century later, Mary Lou Retton is still an Olympic hero even though her 1984 gymnastics gold medal came amid an Eastern Bloc boycott, with nary a Nadia or Svetlana in sight.

The same goes for Olajuwon. They still held the NBA Finals in '94 and '95, with or without Jordan. The league didn't come to a halt. (For what it's worth, Olajuwon's 1995 team swept the Orlando Magic squad that took out Jordan and the Bulls).

There's a whole generation of players who had the misfortune of coming of age at the same time as Jordan. It was like hoping to win a Grammy the year "Thriller" came out. Jordan is personally responsible for denying championship rings to half the Dream Team. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, John Stockton, Christian Laettner ... they all suffered at least one playoff loss at Jordan's hands.

But they all had an equal opportunity when Jordan was gone, and Olajuwon was the only won to cash in. He got his first ring at Ewing's expense, which makes Ewing's inclusion in this 2008 Hall of Fame class a little bit cruel. Ewing is the opposite of Olajuwon. He's the guy tormented the most and longest by Jordan, starting with the jumper that beat Georgetown and launched the Jordan legend in the 1982 NCAA championship game, and continuing through five NBA playoff meetings, all won by Jordan. (In the ultimate sign of can't-beat-'em-join-'em, Ewing wound up as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards in Jordan's last year there and often walked around clad head-to-toe in Brand Jordan gear).

At some point during this weekend's ceremonies, Ewing will have to flash back to 1994. With Jordan finally out of the way, off playing Double-A baseball, Ewing had a clear shot at that elusive ring ... until Olajuwon blocked it. Olajuwon outscored Ewing 189-133 and outshot him 50 percent to 36 percent in a seven-game NBA Finals.

Ewing would never get as close to a championship as he did in that Game 7 defeat. It came just a couple of weeks after his greatest moment, when he followed up a missed shot by John Starks to send the Knicks past the Indiana Pacers and into the NBA Finals. Against Houston, there were just too many Starks misses, 16 of them in that last game, and not enough Ewing could do about it. Certainly not enough to overcome Olajuwon, the MVP of that series (and the next year's NBA Finals as well, after he thoroughly dismantled David Robinson in the conference finals).

Olajuwon distanced himself from his center contemporaries and put more hardware on the shelf than either Ewing or Robinson. More importantly, he separated himself from Jordan, emerging from the often-smothering silhouette that often blanketed the league. Jordan's collection is larger, but he has none of the most important items (rings, MVP awards or Olympic gold medals) that Olajuwon does not have as well.

The only missing element is an answer to what would have happened if they had met head-to-head in the NBA Finals. While that's something we want to know, Olajuwon doesn't need it. He has every bit of validation he needs.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.