Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 3/22/12
HOUSTON They shared stories from glory days gone by, offering perspectives unique to their place on the Rockets' 1990s All-Decade Team all while making one teammate the centerpiece of every anecdote. Clyde Drexler recalled his ballyhooed arrival at The Summit on Valentine's Day in 1995 fresh off his acquisition from the Trail Blazers, but his tale inevitably included Hakeem Olajuwon. Mario Elie relived his famed "Kiss of Death" in Phoenix against the Suns, but his 3-pointer of lore would not have materialized without the supremacy of Olajuwon. Robert Horry, with his astonishing collection of seven championship rings, declared his second title with the Rockets as his most memorable and then highlighted one flashpoint of the Rockets' remarkable run. It occurred in San Antonio as Spurs center David Robinson clutched his Most Valuable Player trophy with the Rockets, and Olajuwon, observing. "That was a huge motivation for him, and his motivation from that fueled us," Horry said. "The reaction we saw from him gave us so much energy because when you play a team that has your number during the season, you have a little doubt. No athlete would want to say that, but you're a little worried. You're like, 'OK, can we beat this team?'" The Rockets lost five of six meetings against the Spurs during the 1994-95 campaign, including a 21-point drubbing in San Antonio on March 5 in the final regular-season contest between the Midwest Division rivals. During the Western Conference Finals Robinson was honored as the league MVP, a just reward for his statistical dominance that included Robinson averaging 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks while pacing the NBA in player efficiency rating (29.1) and win shares (17.5). Olajuwon, the reigning MVP, wasn't exactly chopped liver that season with averages of 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks as the foundation of a 26.0 player efficiency rating and 10.7 win shares. There was a raging debate over the most outstanding center in the NBA in 1994-95, with Magic center Shaquille O'Neal encroaching upon the conversation. During the awards presentation, eyes were on Olajuwon. "They were giving away Hakeem Olajuwon's MVP trophy to David Robinson, and I was more upset than he was," Drexler said. "And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Dream, aren't you even the slightest bit upset?' And he goes, 'Do not worry. We will get the big trophy.'" Added Horry: "When he said that, that gave him that extra motivation. And we were like, 'Wow! Dream is going at this guy (Robinson); we've got to back him up.' When your star player is playing as hard as he can, you're not going to let him outdo you. You're going to join him." Olajuwon dominated Robinson, averaging 35.3 points (on 56 percent shooting), 12.5 rebounds, five assists and 4.2 blocks as the Rockets amassed in the Western Conference Finals one-third of their nine postseason road wins. Every discussion of the Rockets' back-to-back NBA championships begins and ends with Olajuwon. There is no dispute. While the composition of these All-Decade teams warrants discussion, from the exclusion of John Lucas in the 1970s to the glaring omission of Otis Thorpe in the 90s, the inclusion of Olajuwon in both the 80s and 90s represents the proverbial slam dunk. He is the franchise icon, far and away the best player in Rockets history and, all these years later, the crux of any dialogue pertaining to the Rockets' run of exceptionality. Drexler, Elie and Horry were on hand for feting for their contributions (Kenny Smith was recognized but unable to attend), but they rightfully deferred to Olajuwon. Each enjoyed a moment or several of singular magnificence, but Olajuwon was literally and figuratively at the center of their collective success. Drexler was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004, yet he gushed about how his trade-deadline acquisition from the Trail Blazers reunited the former Phi Slama Jama fraternity brothers from the University of Houston. That famed Olajuwon serenity lured Elie from the brink of despair during the 1994 NBA Finals after the Knicks won Game 5 at Madison Square Garden and carried a hard-earned series lead back to Houston. "Dream was like, 'Relax. We're going home for two games. We're going to be alright,'" Elie said. "He made me who I am today. Like I tell everybody, I get the 'Kiss of Death' shot (that clinched Game 7 of the 1995 Western Conference Semifinals) because Danny Schayes didn't want to leave Dream under the basket. It was either my shot or Dream making a shot down low." Even now, nearly two decades later, it's difficult to declare with conviction which championship resonates the most. For Olajuwon, the road back to the NBA Finals was arduous, particularly when compared to the immediacy of the success the Rockets enjoyed when Olajuwon was teamed with center Ralph Sampson following the 1984 NBA draft. In the second season of the Twin Towers the Rockets dethroned the Lakers and met the Celtics in the Finals. Their series loss was bitter, but the assumption was the Rockets would return soon thereafter. That it required a decade for Olajuwon to reach the pinnacle isn't lost on him. "It was a great honor," Olajuwon said. "We were in the Finals in 1986 and it took 10 years to get back. Winning that first championship really sealed my career." However, the second championship capped an improbable run as the sixth seed in the Western Conference, with the Rockets eliminating the Jazz and Suns on the road before winning five consecutive road games against the Spurs and Magic. Olajuwon indeed claimed the "big trophy" and cemented his status as an NBA legend with his virtuosic brilliance. On Thursday the core of those title teams was reunited, and memories flowed as freely as handshakes were delivered. Olajuwon was, as usual, the picture of modesty and decorum. While his pride was rooted in his shared accomplishments, his teammates were more than willing to pick up the mantle and reveal how instrumental Dream was to their legacies. "I tell guys he doesn't get the respect that he deserves," Elie said. "They've got him fifth or sixth on the center chain, which I think is a disservice. Dream played defense, he led the league in blocks (thrice), he's the all-time shots blocked leader. He had a jump hook; he could shoot face-up jump shots. He could guard the four-man; he could guard the five-man. He's the most versatile center I think to ever play the game." Said Horry: "You look at everything he's accomplished, (and) to me he's the greatest center to ever play the game." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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