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Hakeem Olajuwon passes on wisdom to younger NBA players


For almost two decades, Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake” move made him one of the NBA’s top go-to superstars.

That signature move — a combination of quick upper-body twitches, show-the-ball feints and pump fakes combined with nimble, soccer-influenced footwork — was as fluid as water, and as difficult to stop as a raging flood. Olajuwon used that move and a feathery shooting touch to score almost 27,000 points, lead the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and ’95, land a spot among the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players and open the doors to the Hall of Fame.

And almost a decade after his retirement, Olajuwon remains a go-to superstar, and the Dream Shake is still the reason.

Players from around the league — from a classic low-post guy like Dwight Howard to perimeter-oriented threats like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — have made the pilgrimage to Houston, seeking Olajuwon’s insights on how to build or refine a back-to-the-basket game.

“When I watch games on TV, I see so many opportunities where guys are not aware and (not) recognizing the chances their opponents are giving them,” says Olajuwon, who splits his time between Houston and his family home in Amman, Jordan. “I see them try to make a move and it is cut off because there was not an opening. The first thing you always have to do is take what the opponent is giving you. If he keeps giving it, you keep taking it.”

The beauty of Olajuwon’s mastery of footwork is that his move can instantly morph to deliver whatever is needed for any given situation.

“You are trying to get to the most commanding position,” Olajuwon says. “So when I have made the first move, what I am really trying to do is get to the second move. That’s where the real advantage is. That’s how I am trying to get them to think. One move off the previous move is automatic.”

While it may be unpredictable to the defense, the results are very predictable. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of its effectiveness came in Game 2 the 1995 Western Conference Finals, where the Rockets were facing the Spurs and David Robinson, the newly minted league MVP.

In a play that is probably his most celebrated, Olajuwon crossed over Robinson on the baseline, stopped in the paint, showed the ball, reverse pivoted, showed it again, and when the Admiral finally took the bait and went airborne, reversed once more, ducked under Robinson and gently dropped the ball in off the glass.

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“The great shotblockers, guys like David Robinson, they can recover,” Olajuwon explains. “That is when you have to go to three or four moves…Always stay one step ahead.”

Yes, it’s one thing to get posterized by a freight-train dunk, but it’s quite another to get absolutely undressed by such a beautiful combination of skill and finesse.

Plays like that are the fruit not only of instruction, but of intuition and instinct, too. That is why Olajuwon teaches a balance between a physical approach — moves, counter-moves, fakes and spins — and a mental one — sense, intuition and anticipation.

“How do you maneuver? How to you change direction? How do you change speed? Do all the things that give you advantages. They have never even thought about these things before,” Olajuwon says. “Things that to me are all the weapons that you need to execute the offense. You break it down to basics.”

Olajuwon carefully tailors each tutorial to match each pupil’s skill set.

“I am not trying to teach everybody one move,” he says. “I am trying to give you the basics and the understanding. Then it is up to the individual to make it work best for him. With different players I want to examine their weaknesses, but mostly expand their strengths.”

For James, Olajuwon broke down the Dream Shake footwork so it would benefit his unique combination of size, skill, strength and quickness.

“(James) told me that he has been playing outside and he really wanted to establish his post moves,” Olajuwon says. “Almost every night he has an advantage over the guy who is guarding him. So it was about how to turn the outside game into an inside game using all of the same skills and strength. So when I see how he is separating from his guy now, I see easier shots. I see a game all over the floor that is very, very difficult to stop.”

In addition to Howard, Bryant and James, guys like Rashard Lewis, Emeka Okafor, Josh Smith and Hasheem Thabeet have sweated through workouts with Olajuwon.

“The recognition of players reaching out and realizing the importance of the post moves, that’s a huge compliment for me,” Olajuwon says. “And I know also that I can add value to players’ careers. There is no question about that.”

--By Michael Murphy for Athlon Sports Monthly