Kenny Smith was smoking and made sure Hakeem Olajuwon knew about it. Clyde Drexler pretended anger for the benefit of his friend. Mario Elie barely said a word, but saw – and heard – what would happen.
Olajuwon denied that the scene that was heading for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals 25 years ago on Sunday had upset him. Decades later he still acknowledged that Spurs star David Robinson was a deserving most valuable player.
But that night in San Antonio, the night NBA commissioner David Stern placed the prize in Robinson’s hands with the Rockets looking across the Alamodome court, Olajuwon was at the height of his powers. Offended or inspired, it has risen to spectacular levels. He found levels of greatness beyond his championship climb the year before.
“We were just support teammates, that’s all,” said Drexler, intentionally minimizing their role in fueling Olajuwon’s fire. But they were more than that. At that point, they knew that despite all the physical gifts and refined skills of Olajuwon, he was equally full of pride and competitiveness.
“David Robinson has had a great year,” said Drexler. “He deserved what he had. He is also a super player. But in a series, you use anything as motivation.
“I said something to him. I’m sure everyone said something. ‘Dream, you had another great year. You should probably be MVP. Let’s win this series and show them. “”
Olajuwon grabbed Drexler’s arm and said, “Drex, don’t worry. We’ll get the big trophy.”
Olajuwon has always claimed that he is not offended at all and has understood Robinson’s choice. Olajuwon that regular season averaged 27.8 points, Robinson 27.6; Olajuwon averaged 3.4 blocked throws, Robinson 3.2 and both averaged 10.8 rebounds. But the Spurs went 62-20 and beat the Rockets (47-35) five times in six regular season games.
In the Rockets Game 1 win, Olajuwon scored 27 points while holding Robinson at 21. In Game 2, after Robinson had received the trophy, Olajuwon took off.
“He set up a clinic,” said Drexler.
Olajuwon went 41 points with 16 rebounds, practically making up the moves until, as Rockets television announcer Bill Worrell said, Robinson was “just spoiled”.
“I don’t even know how I can say that with a serious face, but most of the time I thought I’d defend him well enough,” Robinson said that night. “Man has just played as I have seen someone play for a long time.”
Robinson was right, as Olajuwon would have pointed out. He had defended Olajuwon well. But much of Olajuwon’s game, as he would have taught players for years after his retirement, was based on counter-moves. When Robinson defended himself well, Olajuwon responded with another move and another, leveraging each of them until he was unstoppable in the series on the way to the Rockets’ second consecutive championship.
Part of the legend was that Olajuwon’s demolition of Robinson began with that MVP ceremony.
“I’m literally sitting next to him,” said Smith. “David is getting the award just before the initial lineups show up. He gets the award and I said,” Doesn’t it bother you? “He said,” What? “I said,” He didn’t say your name. “He says, “No Kenny, no, no, no. He deserves it. He is the best player this year. No problem.’
“I’m like,” Damn it, okay. “But it annoyed me. When Hakeem won the prize, he told us he felt uncomfortable receiving the prize if we hadn’t come with him. If you look at the presentation of the MVP trophy (1994), Otis Thorpe holds that prize more of him. We thought he was our MVP. We knew what we did for him to help him get that award and he knew what we did for him.
“Fast forward, it was David Robinson who received our award. So when I asked him, I felt offended by him not even recognizing Hakeem. Mario felt offended. Everyone involved was offended by not recognizing Hakeem, not acknowledging us. “
Robinson had been typically kind and humble, crediting teammates and fans and citing other candidates for the award. But he didn’t mention Olajuwon.
“He was not a happy man,” said Elie. “He was a very proud man who had won him before. Much was injured that year that we did business for Clyde. Dream could have been a consecutive MVP, but he hurt himself in that second heat.
“I just remembered when the top five were called, he gave me such a hard blow on the hand, at the time he was a very focused and motivated man. It was one of the most targeted times I’ve ever seen Dream. That was a time when Dream asked him for the ball, I was giving it to him because if I hadn’t given it to him, I could have felt his anger. You saw something in his eyes that you haven’t seen in a while. We all said, “Someone is in trouble.” “
Olajuwon scored 43 in Game 3, but the Rockets lost both games in Houston. In Game 5, however, it was fully functional. He overtook Robinson, 42-22, in the Rockets’ 21 point win in San Antonio. He was 39 with 17 rebounds and five throws stuck in the Game 6 series clincher at home. Robinson was 19 years old.
“It was unstoppable,” said Drexler. “The best player in the league. This is why the Rockets have achieved two championships. “
The Rockets would have swept Shaquille O’Neal and Orlando Magic in the NBA finals. Olajuwon was right. The Rockets would keep “the big trophy”.
His play had peaked when he watched as someone else was celebrated with the Rockets who were around forever convinced that Olajuwon’s fire had been fueled that night 25 years ago in San Antonio.
“At the end of the game, Hakeem has ridiculous numbers,” said Smith. “I’m already on the bench. And he looks over and says,” Kenny, I’m going to his house to get my prize. “I said,” I knew it bothered you. “And we started laughing. He laughs when he comes out of the game.
“That was Michael Jordan. What Michael did those two years is what Hakeem did. And that series, what he did, proved to be the best player on the planet and there was no one close. Nobody. Charles Barkley, you’re not even close. David Robinson. Karl Malone. You’re not even close to who I am. He let the world see him when he did it for the player considered the best basketball player of that year. “