Ever since the league drew a three-point line at each end of the court, the NBA has been making it easier for guards to score and have an influence on the game. The reason why so many people harken back to the good old days of the 1990s is because it saw teams starting to toy with the idea of using long-range shooters to surround dominant talents. But the spacing proved so valuable that the likes of Shaquille O’Neal kicking it out to Dennis Scott turned into scenarios where more ball-handling bigs like Chris Webber playing in and out to pass to an open Peja Stojaković, which went on to inspire the system around Dwight Howard and four shooters in Orlando. Now we’re at the point where everyone seems to think that the only form of basketball is five players on the perimeter, driving and kicking or cutting and passing to shoot open threes.
In truth, this isn’t entirely the case. While the big man role has changed, it doesn’t mean a 7’0 banger in the post is useless. If they are restricted to such activity, then you tend to be more of a role player – look at players such as DeAndre Jordan and late Andrew Bogut – but the bigs who have adapted to the change are out there. They just have to be more skilled in shooting, passing, dribbling and playmaking, before you even talk about switching on to smaller players and defending everywhere from the perimeter to the rim. But these players exist, and they can all be traced back to one man: Hakeem Olajuwon.
Nicknamed “The Dream” because of the ease in which he dunked a ball and his grace on the floor, Olajuwon was one of the two dudes selected in front of Michael Jordan in that famous 1984 NBA Draft – shout out to Sam Bowie. Olajuwon didn’t quite have the career of Jordan, but it wasn’t as far off as you’d think.
The big man won two titles. They might have been during the two years that Jordan was off playing rounders, but a few believe that the Chicago Bulls team expected to return in 1994 wasn’t set up to win a fourth consecutive title.
During that year, Olajuwon picked up the Most Valuable Player award with averages of 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists – as well as a ridiculous 3.7 blocks, that wasn’t even a career high. Beyond that he shot nearly 53 percent from the floor and 42 percent(!) from three, even if he only took 19 of them.
But his Houston Rockets had an incredible roster that year, and while the following season was just as spectacular and ended in another championship, Olajuwon displayed otherworldly talents in 1995 that made him worthy of the title of the best player in the world – even if it was just until Jordan returned to wearing 23. The pair didn’t face-off in the Finals and, instead, Olajuwon made fools of one of the best defenders in the world, David Robinson and the best up-and-coming center in the NBA, Shaquille O’Neal.
Since he retired in 2002, the art of post play has slowly dwindled, especially after Shaq and Tim Duncan retired. It looked concerning a few years ago, with some of the retired NBA heads reminiscing about the good old days of big guys ruling the paint.
But it is looking to make a comeback. The likes of Karl Anthony-Towns, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are built in the mould of Olajuwon. They might leap more than The Dream was known to do, and they step outside the three-point arc more these days, but that doesn’t mean they are all just large, glorified wing players. Their footwork might need work to reach Olajuwon’s heights, but there are still big guys who can take hold of the NBA and make it their own.
The important thing to take away from all of this is that the big man is still important in the current ‘positionless’ basketball being played. Because, let’s be honest, it’s not really positionless, it’s just that switching defenses and better spacing than ever means you need to be able to defend at every spot on the floor.
This is something Olajuwon could do as well as anybody at the time. How he would have fared in today’s game is difficult to say, because switching on to smaller players was not as de rigueur 25 years ago, but he did manage more than two steals per game during those years playing more of the power forward role in the twin towers line-up with Ralph Sampson, when he was usually guarding the smaller player slightly further from the rim.
Olajuwon has been sharing his secrets for years with NBA talents and players of all ages and abilities. Some of the best bigs in recent years, such as Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard, requested his help, but basketball fans in the UK can also benefit from his expertise between 29 July and 2 August.
Olajuwon has ties with the City Of Birmingham Rockets Basketball Club and visits each year to hold a camp. He said: “The City of Birmingham is a special place for me personally, and I am excited to be back working with children from all around Britain, Europe and worldwide.”
It will be the fourth occasion that players between the ages of 10 and 18 will enjoy working alongside the NBA legend. If the trend of basketball is returning to appreciating the talent of big players who can move their feet and dominate the paint as well as defending several positions and shooting from all over the floor, youngsters of Britain should make the most of this great opportunity.
Feature photo – AP / Bill Baptist / NBAE / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington