Imagine if Martin Scorsese had stopped making his own films 10 or 15 years ago and instead had signed on as Paul Thomas Anderson’s second-unit director. Or say Warren Buffet dropped Berkshire Hathaway to serve exclusively as Mark Zuckerberg’s financial advisor. Think of Kate Upton, tutored in the kitchen by Rachel Ray.
Unfair, right? Overkill. The rich, the gifted and the awesome don’t need to get that much richer, more gifted or awesomer, do they? Yet that is what happened in the NBA when LeBron James enlisted the help of no less than Hakeem Olajuwon as his post-moves coach.
As described in the fine feature story by Mike Berardino of the Sun-Sentinel, the teacher-pupil relationship between arguably the NBA’s most swift and elusive Hall of Fame center ever and its most dominant active player began during the lockout. Stinging from Miami’s loss in the 2011 Finals, his ears burning from ceaseless criticism, James sought out Olajuwon to add a new wrinkle to his game: Balance, footwork, deception and scoring tricks in the low post.
It was like Eric Clapton making a pilgrimage to Les Paul.
Rival coaches and opponents commented immediately last December on James’ newfound back-to-the-basket skills. They alternately marveled and cringed all the way to late June, thanks to what Berardino refers to as the Hakeem Sessions.
How many times during the Heat’s 2012 championship run did LeBron turn his back to the basket and spin past a helpless opponent for an easy score?
How many times during his third league MVP season did LeBron exchange the easy and the familiar of the perimeter for the rugged and the raw of the low post?
And how many times in those final three matchups, against the Pacers and the Celtics and the Thunder, did LeBron help the Heat climb back from daunting series deficits with moves right out of the Olajuwon repertoire?
Spinning, dipping, up-and-unders?
Cheetah-like drop steps followed by thunderous slams?
And yes, even a handful of feathery fadeaways along the baseline, a move so familiar Olajuwon will soon be releasing a full line of lifestyle gear, including personally designed basketball shoes, in its honor.
The Dream Shake.
“I saw all of the moves we worked on,” Olajuwon, 49, says proudly. “When you work with a player, the satisfaction is in knowing that now, when it counts, when it is valued, he is executing.”
James had picked the brains of other former NBA greats, including Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Olajuwon had worked with other players such as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. The legendary Houston Rockets center is becoming quite a go-to guy, in fact, for teams wanting to develop their big men’s post games. He plans, for example, to visit the Knicks’ training camp next month to work with Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and others.
It’s a great second career for Olajuwon, tapping skills that made him as slippery as a point guard when he set up shop on the baseline. It was a no-brainer for James, who has a habit of hitching his wagon to the best (from joining Dwyane Wade’s team in Miami to lunching with Buffet in his quest to become a billionaire).
But with so many needy big men out there, Olajuwon – famous for his humanitarian and charity work away from basketball courts – would seem more ripe to focus on the JaVale McGees and Kenneth Farieds of the league.
James’ determination won him over, however. So instead of sticking to the square-dance fiddlers, this Itzhak Perlman of NBA big men hooked up to play mentor to James’ Joshua Bell.
“He was so determined,” Olajuwon says, clenching a fist. “That’s number one. He was always saying, ‘I’m here.’
“That pushes me. When somebody wants it so much and is so eager … wow. I was very happy because I knew I could help him.”
The package of moves Olajuwon shares is tweaked for the particular skills of each NBA visitor. LeBron, he quickly surmised, had some of the same physical attributes of Howard, but no one in the modern game, maybe ever, can fully approximate what the Heat star brings to the table.
Olajuwon and James hit it off and stayed in touch through the Heat’s title run. Now the mentor believes his protégé will incorporate even more of the maneuvers and tricks he shares, because James is more comfortable down low and, of course, because he still wants to improve.
It all makes for a remarkable relationship and a marvelous updating of Olajuwon’s craft in 2012 form. But it still seems, y’know, awfully unfair.