The Most Important Lessons Dwight Howard Can Learn From Hakeem Olajuwon’s Pitch

Before Dwight Howard‘s made-in-Disney World start in Orlando devolved into a Dwightmare, The Dream gave Houston management insomnia in the 1990s. Yes, Hakeem Olajuwon has more than just footwork lessons tying him to Howard, the disgruntled Magic center whose demands to get out have bookended a short-lived claim to return.Olajuwon’s second career in hoops has been reborn as his status of unofficial big man guru who’s pupils have included LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. His first career, though, was built on the back of his Hall of Fame career after winning consecutive NBA titles.

Those titles are why this latest news is so much more interesting, some 20 years later: The Rockets have formally asked The Dream to pitch the option of re-signing with Houston to Howard, should the Rockets pull off the trade. The news from the weekend is a sign, and Dwight pay attention to this, of how teams can mend a wound because Olajuwon once hated the Rockets with almost unrivaled public fury of any player in the last 20 years. Though Olajuwon has little official ties to Houston’s organization now, he’s an ambassador of sorts who will try to persuade Howard to do the thing he didn’t: make good on his promise to leave and build a legacy elsewhere. And yet, Howard could glean a thing or two from the very man tasked to get him to leave about why it makes sense to stay.

These two share more than blocked shots and an aversion to drives by opposing players. They’ve both clogged their respective teams’ best efforts to make them feel like the kings of the town. In many ways, Olajuwon was Howard 1.0.

The similarities with Olajuwon are more obvious than even those to Shaq — whose Magic team of course lost to Houston in the NBA Finals, a loss that helped prompt O’Neal to spurn Orlando for the Lakers. There have been health issues that seemed like fronts. In March of 1992, Olajuwon was cleared to play with a left hamstring injury by a team doctor, then was suspended by the front office when he didn’t. Eight days later, on March 31, he demanded his trade.

“I’m not coming back for them (management),” Olajuwon said Monday. “It’s for my teammates and the fans, but I would not like to play for the Rockets next season. It’s so obvious after all that’s happened.

“Would you like to work for a management like that, that say all these things? It’s better for everybody to pack at the end of the season.”

When Howard claimed a back injury last April — just days after Stan Van Gundy told the press Howard wanted him gone as coach — everyone’s initial thought was that he was faking, just like Olajuwon. That turned out to be real, but what does it say about a player when virtually everyone believes taking the night off is borne out of dissatisfaction?

Olajuwon was even worse if you can believe it, through publicly calling out management for a trade — even the fans, from this 1994 L.A. Times story that’s fascinating to read in hindsight with Howard’s situation as a prism.

“Sure, they could always trade me,” he said. “You know how long that would take the Rockets? (Snapping his fingers), I’d be gone like that. The Rockets would get two or three players and probably some money. And I know that I’d get more money. So I guess everybody could be happy. I could be happy with more money if that’s what everybody wants.”

Olajuwon added that if hard work wasn’t good enough for the man in the street, “He can go to hell.”

Howard hasn’t gone that far yet, but implicitly has told Orlando natives that their town or their love isn’t good enough for him. Together, the atmospheres around both teams is toxic. J.J. Redick has made no secret that Howard’s demands have underpinned the dissent in the locker room. He told the Orlando Sentinel in May: “2010 was my favorite season because we did everything as a team to bond on and off the court. And then, for whatever reason, our culture has changed over the last couple of years, and that certainly affects the locker room. I can’t say there was outright arguing, but there were some issues.”

From 1994’s article, about the ’92 Rockets:

Kenny Smith said the atmosphere was worse than Sacramento’s. Vern Maxwell said it was worse than his season in San Antonio, when the Spurs lost 61 games.

Olajuwon, however, turned back. Lured by a new owner he was given an extension that satisfied his demands. Howard won’t have anyone but Rich DeVos as owner, but he’ll have a new coach and GM prepared to build around him.

Who knows if Howard and Olajuwon shared their gripes during their limited training sessions? It was long before Howard’s trade demand was served to Orlando last fall, but if he didn’t then, Olajuwon has the chance to peddle lessons now. First and most remarkably, that you can actually poison the well and still drink the water. Fans and teammates just want a sincere apology and effort. Only two years later, articles show a different side to The Dream, which underscores our ability to gladly forget.

Much of Howard’s reported motivation for wanting a trade out (preferably to a big market) is for even more visibility to springboard his future earnings. Even though he’s more visible than the Great Wall from outer space when it comes to the NBA, Howard need only look at Olajuwon for why a small market doesn’t preclude a limited future. As of 2006 — before the real estate bubble burst, it should be noted — Olajuwon earned more than $100 million on 25 real estate flips within the Houston metro city limits — more in 10 years investing than he did in 17 years of pro hoops. And that’s on top of the fact that today’s NBA players are much more connected than Olajuwon ever was in Houston with social media and technology. He can do what he wants from Orlando as easily as he could from New York.

Finally, Olajuwon proved you can make up with those teammates to develop a winner. No one would care if Howard weren’t so damn good, but he’s still a cornerstone many would kill to have on payroll. (You know, stifling a belly laugh when Redick falls down can do wonders for teammate relations, too.) Everyone wants wins, respect or money. Winning helps everyone get paid through the respect of being labeled a winner. Just ask J.J. Barea last summer. Orlando’s window is narrower than ever with Miami and Chicago still the two best in the East, but the West in the mid-90s wasn’t the run at your local Y, either. Despite his presence with teammates currently that resembles what it looks like when two magnets repel, his talent’s a drawing force that could bring a Chris Paul to Orlando to win instead of hoping to join another Big Three elsewhere.

“I don’t look at the bad, I look at the good. The good way overrides the bad. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun.”

That was again Olajuwon from 1994. The “bad” he mentions came around then as now, with both stars making much of their own headache. Fun’s out there for Howard still. It just depends whose definition of it he believes: Manifest Destiny Olajuwon in 2012, or Stay Home Olajuwon of 1994.

Should Dwight listen to Hakeem?

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