He has been through his winter of discontent, and a summer of uncertainty. And now Akeem Olajuwon, Houston's very own franchise player, is back where he started, carrying the Houston Rockets on his back.
The Utah Jazz flew into town Saturday afternoon in preparation for what will likely be another evening of figuring out how to stop one of the game's top stars. The game will be aired at 6:30 p.m. on PSN.Olajuwon, entering his seventh year in the NBA, remains among the best players in the most talked-about position in basketball. Last season, despite playing for a middle-of-the-road team, and fighting off-season leg problems, the 7-foot, 250-pound center was second team All-NBA and third team All-NBA Defense. He led the league in rebounding for the second straight year - one of only four players who have done so. The others aren't exactly lightweights: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone.
Olajuwon is also only the third NBA player to have won rebounding and blocked shots in the same year, in company with Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Still, one must wonder what is in store for Olajuwon. He could go down in history as another great player on a team that never won a title. The Rockets got to the NBA Finals in 1986, but lost to Boston. Predictably, Olajuwon lists getting to the finals as his greatest basketball thrill and losing there his greatest disappointment.
Despite impressive stats last year, Olajuwon wasn't a happy camper. He complained that he wanted more help surrounding him. Over the summer he was the hottest name on the trade winds, and rumors persisted that the healthy, wealthy Los Angeles Lakers would shell out the millions needed to get him away from the Rockets.
But the deal never materialized and Olajuwon remained in the city where he also played his college ball and led the Houston Cougars to three trips to the NCAA championship game.
Things have improved slightly in Houston. Guard Sleepy Floyd is presumably happy, having signed to a new multimillion-dollar contract. Floyd has been coming off the bench this year.
Vernon Maxwell, who joined on in mid-season last year, is back after giving the Rockets a boost during the second half of last season. The Rockets also signed guard Kenny Smith from Atlanta, who has been starting at the point.
In the draft, Houston picked up touted rookie Dave Jamerson, a player expected to bring the Rockets some of the perimeter shooting they have needed.
"I feel very good about this team. I am looking forward to a good year," said Olajuwon. "Mentally, not so much physically, I feel a lot better this year."
Olajuwon isn't alone in his optimism. Coach Don Chaney said his star player was "almost in mid-season form" during the exhibition season.
"He's in the best shape I've seen him in in three years," said Chaney. "He was the first guy in the locker roomon day one. He's running the stands all by himself. The guy is destined to have a fantastic year."
At least early, the Rockets have reason for optimism. They went 6-3 in exhibition play, the team's best mark since going 7-1 in 1985. Now they're 2-3 (after losing Saturday night's game aginst the Spurs) in the regular season.
Although Houston could finish no better than fifth in the Midwest Division last year, the Rockets provided plenty of trouble for the Jazz. Last season Utah won just two of five games against the Rockets. Olajuwon averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds a game against the Jazz, but shot only .425 from the field against the Jazz, well below his career average of .515.
"We're talking about a super player," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "He plays so hard every minute. His ability to run the court is incredible. He can dunk at one end and block the shot at the other."
Utah isn't apparently one of Olajuwon's favorite opponents. He lists Jazz center Mark Eaton as the "opponent who frustrates me the most."
Eaton's reply: "Good."
He continues, "I've played against Akeem at least 30 times. I've had some success against him, but I've also had a lot of help from my teammates. We realize that he's their (Houston's) main guy. If you shut him down, you'll do OK."
In five games against the Rockets, Eaton had 19 blocks last year.
"He's still as good as there is," says Eaton. "No question. He, David Robinson and Pat Ewing are all right there."