Aug. 3, 2006, 1
Here's how it's done
With a wealth of knowledge and techniques to spare, Hakeem Olajuwon is conducting his first Big Man Camp
Hakeem Olajuwon is conducting his first Big Man Camp
Another year, another summer, another morning inside a gym.
Hakeem Olajuwon always knew he never wanted to carry a clipboard, sit on a bench or kneel in a huddle drawing up plays.
But this is different. It's not coaching as much as it is teaching. It's not drilling as much as it is shining a path.
A year ago, the former Rockets icon spent a week or so working one-on-one with Emeka Okafor, the former Bellaire High product who plays for the Charlotte Bobcats.
Twelve months later, Olajuwon is back from his home in Jordan for his annual sojourn to Houston to take care of business, touch base with old friends and conduct his first Big Man Camp.
Okafor has returned, and this time he has been accompanied by Ndudi Ebi, who went from Westbury Christian Academy to the pros as a 2003 first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and a handful of other young up-and-comers. Also expected next week on the court of The Wellness Center at Memorial Hermann-HBU are DeSagana Diop and D.J. Mbenga of the Dallas Mavericks, Ike Diogu of the Golden State Warriors, Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls and free agent Mamadou N'diaye. The Nigerian national team will spend two days in camp en route to playing in the World Basketball Championship in Japan.
"I was a little bit surprised last year at how much I enjoyed the experience with Emeka, and it made me want to expand on it," Olajuwon said. "I began to think of different things that I show to young players. I began to think of different ways I get the message across.
"I have never had an interest in becoming a traditional coach. Those X's and O's are for others to figure out. What interests me is showing the next generation of big men how they can take their game to a higher level."
Olajuwon is not collecting an appearance fee. There is no financial gain.
"If these kids want to come here and take the time to listen and to work, if they're willing, it is my honor to help," Olajuwon said. "This is my way of giving back to the game."
So for a solid two hours, he puts them through a workout that emphasizes speed, quickness and flexibility. He challenges them to change the way they view almost every move they make in the low post or out on the wings. Even little things, such as pivoting on the balls of one's feet, rather than flat-footed. It allows one to explode more toward the hoop and puts less overall strain on the foot.
"Last year was really the first time in my life that I ever had to try to break down the moves that I used in my playing career and explain them to someone else," Olajuwon said. "I've spent time since then thinking about how I can expand the message and show it to a whole group."
He demonstrates a move — whirling, spinning, dipping, twirling with the ball — and you can almost see his pupils' minds working in overdrive trying to comprehend. They want to make connections from A to B to C to D. And what he's trying to achieve is for them to get from A to B and then consider an infinite world of possibilities and combinations. His game in winning two NBA titles, an MVP award, five All-NBA honors and a dozen All-Star nods was always more reactive to the defense.
"Don't try to go through," Olajuwon said. "Find a way around. It's easier."
Okafor, the NBA's 2004 Rookie of the Year, struggled with a series of injuries last season and never could develop a steady rhythm.
"I wish I could have used more of what Hakeem taught me, but I couldn't stay on the court long enough," he said. "There were a couple of times early in the season when I used a move in practice and somebody might say, 'Where did that come from?' I want to build on that."
Ebi was waived by the Timberwolves after two frustrating years of sitting on the bench and played last season for Fort Worth in the NBA Development League.
"This is going to help me," he said. "I'm just trying to get in there, get a fresh chance, a fresh start. I'm starting again, but I've got the right guy to show me. That's the Dream. He's taught lessons to Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. I know he can teach me."
Olajuwon watches the 6-9, 22-year-old Ebi use strong head fakes to get his defender up in the air, then lean in for a finger-roll basket.
"I think Ndudi was too young, too unprepared for the NBA the first time," Olajuwon said. "Now I see stronger, more confident moves. I tell him something one day, and he comes back the next day and uses it. I think he's ready."
Olajuwon hears the talk about the NBA being guard-oriented in the 21st century, that big men are being de-emphasized, even phased out, and he shakes his head.
"For a big man who is just big, maybe," he said. "But not if you play with speed, with agility. It will always be a big man's game if the big man plays the right way. On defense, the big man can rebound and block shots. On offense, he draws double-teams and creates opportunities. He can add so much, make it easier for the entire team."
At 43, Olajuwon still has the moves, the polish, the satin feel to his game. His body is still lean and taut, his large brown eyes still filled with confidence, perhaps the only trace of age a gray strand or two in his closely cropped hair.
"I like to be able to be out on the court with the guys when I'm explaining," he said. "It's still easy for me to make the plays and hold my own on offense and defense. But I know that eventually time will catch up, and I'll have to do it all with words."
Before that time comes, Olajuwon would like to spend time working with one particular student.
"Yao Ming, of course," he said. "He is mobile enough to be a force. He runs the floor very well. He has a soft jump shot, good skills. For him, it is just the concept, the job description, that he must learn. That lane, it belongs to him. Everybody has to go through you. You reject everything that comes in there. It is your house.
"It is more of a mental picture for him to get in his mind and then extend out to other teams. 'Oh no, we have to face the Rockets and Yao Ming! We have so much to worry about!' He needs that mentality. Everybody talks about his skills. But he is a gentleman on the court. No. It is not a place for gentlemen. Not in the lane. He must be a force.
"It is about so much more than stats. It is that toughness, that image, that force that all big men must project. Tracy McGrady is a great player. But this is Yao Ming's team. It should be. He has so much more to offer. It is not out of reach. I am a realistic person. He has what it takes. But he is trying to fit in when he should be making everyone fit in around him.
"Maybe you say it is cultural. I don't know. But he can change. He can be taught. Let him see how it's done. I know he has obligations this year (in China) with the world tournament. But next year, maybe he is free. I plan to be here. Hopefully, with a bigger camp. I would like to work with him."
Yao and Hakeem. Some teacher. Some dream.
Discuss anything related to Golden State Warriors basketball here
It'll be interesting to see Ike expand his already Bible-length book of post moves... Hakeem was a post-master, in his day. Ike has the right idea (from about 5 feet from the bucket)... but I think Hakeem will help Ike most under the hole, setting up on defense for the block, and getting to the line. Should be welcomed information.
Chef is nothing like Duncan. What an idiotic thing for him to say. His game, by basic design, is moreso modeled after (but not nearly as good as) players like Robert Parrish and Kareem Abdul-Jabar. He blocks shots, rebounds, and uses his tall-ness to score. Duncan is more of a skilled player than a physically gifted one. He uses bank-shot jumpers from the midrange to be effective. Chef uses a sky-hook from the block.
Don't even get me started on Kosta/Hakeem...
Don't even get me started on Kosta/Hakeem...