HOUSTON – It was Michael Jordan‘s birthday Sunday – in case you’re the one who hadn’t heard that by now – but it is Hakeem Olajuwon‘s “year.”
Olajuwon, the Hall of Fame center who spent nearly his entire career in the host city for the 2013 All-Star Weekend and led the Rockets to two NBA championships, was honored at the National Basketball Retired Players Association Legends Brunch as its “Legend of the Year.” He didn’t blow out any candles, but he did hear the applause and feel the appreciation of more than 1,000 attendees of the burgeoning event, sponsored by the retired players association now for 14 years.
Oh, and Olajuwon not only was selected No. 1, two spots ahead of Jordan, in the 1984 Draft. He beat him to 50 as well, hitting that milestone on Jan. 21.
The 6-foot-10 native of Lagos, Nigeria, who set standards for grace and footwork among the NBA’s great big men, Olajuwon famously transferred some soccer skills to hardwood when he picked up a basketball at age 15. In an acceptance speech that lasted more than 17 minutes – so much for “The Dream’s” image as a man of few words – he talked of his development under respected coaches such as Guy Lewis at the University of Houston and Bill Fitch and Rudy Tomjanovich with the Rockets.
But he also paid tribute to Ganiyu Otenigbagbe, who essentially discovered and molded his game in secondary skill. “I did not know the rules of basketball,” Olajuwon said Sunday, “but he gave me his job description: ‘Stay in the paint!’ ”
The Legends Brunch traditionally honors former NBA players and coaches who worked in, hail from or shared some other connection with the All-Star city each year. The others honored for 2013:
Ambassador of the Year: Yao Ming. Yao’s foundation and his partnership with NBA China has enabled him to “build a bridge” between his homeland and the U.S. The 7-6 native of Shanghai, whose eight-season career was interrupted and cut short by foot and leg injuries, was introduced by current Rockets guard Jeremy Lin.
Humanitarian of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo. The shot intimidator and blocker who spent the last five of his 18 NBA seasons in Houston is renowned for his charitable works, particularly in his native Republic of the Congo. Mutombo credited Olajuwon, who preceded him to the NBA by eight years, with being the “key of our continent.” “You’ve become The Dream for winning championships,” Mutombo said, addressing his friend from the stage, “but you’re a dream for so many African players.”
Hometown Hero Award: Robert Horry. Horry, known as “Big Shot Bob,” was part of the Rockets’ title-winning teams in 1994 and 1995, then won five more rings with the Lakers and the Spurs. In an ironic twist, the former teammate who was supposed to introduce Horry – Sam Cassell, known for his motormouth tendencies on and off the court – needed an assist from TNT announcer and emcee Ernie Johnson because Cassell lost his voice somewhere during All-Star festivities.
Houston Rockets Lifetime Achievement Award: Tomjanovich. A five-time All-Star as a rockets player and coach of the two championship teams, Rudy T joked that when he was drafted in 1971, the NBA ranked fourth in popularity in Houston behind football, baseball and “bull-riding.” “Now the city is hosting its third All-Star Game,” he said.
Pioneer Award: Calvin Murphy. The flamboyant 5-foot-9 Hall of Famer took the stage after a video montage of career highlights was shown on screens in the ballroom, then said, “Boy, I was good.” The point guard from Niagara turned longtime Rockets broadcaster noted the difference in prestige that came with former NBA players no longer being referred to as “Old Timers” but rather “Legends.”
Lifetime Achievement Award: Clyde Drexler. Drexler, a 2004 Hall of Fame enshrinee and member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” grew up in Houston and gained initial fame teamed with Olajuwon in college on the “Phi Slamma Jamma” University of Houston team in the early 1980s. He returned to the city and to Olajuwon via trade in for the 1995 title run.
Drexler was the guy whose rookie season of 1983-84 in Portland was so promising – he had 10 All-Star appearances in his future – that the Trail Blazers opted to draft Kentucky center Sam Bowie at No. 2 behind Olajuwon, passing on you know who. That means Drexler, for the record, turned 50 last June 22.
A large number of familiar NBA names – from other Hall of Famers to role players – attended the brunch, including 2000 Sixth Man award winner Rodney Rogers. Rogers, 41, required the use of a wheelchair and ventilator after being paralyzed in an all-terrain vehicle accident in December 2012.