We Reminisce: Hakeem Olajuwon’s Lost Finals

An essential element in the cult of Michael Jordan is the fact that the man never lost an NBA Finals. It’s how we choose to remember him: Perfect. 6-0 in the endgame. Unassailable. In doing so, we place him in the tiniest of circles, that being multiple champions who never lost a title.

On paper, this is perhaps a poor estimator of greatness. Kobe Bryant, for instance, has been to seven different Finals. Kobe receives criticism for his two failed campaigns in 2004 and 2008, as if these deep playoff runs are somehow worth less than the years Jordan was snuffed out in the early rounds by the Celtics and Pistons.

Fair or not, Jordan’s peers in the Undefeated Finals Club remain few. Bird, Magic and the Bad Boys took turns bloodying each other’s reputations throughout the 80s and 90s. The new-wave Pistons fell short of a repeat in 2005. The Second Coming Celtics were beaten back by the Lakers in 2010. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki have each given the other a Finals scar.

Then there is Tim Duncan, who at present is 4-0 in Finals series, and was only ever truly challenged in one of those runs. Duncan’s legacy is an enigma; praised by all as underrated, yet, somehow, still underrated.

The casual basketball fan is likely to nominate Hakeem Olajuwon for the Jordan/Duncan group. After all, it was Olajuwon’s Houston squad who ruled the NBA during the Jordan Intermission. In 1994, the Rockets dispatched Ewing‘s Knicks, and in the 1995 encore swept a young Shaq and his Magic. Nonetheless, Jordan’s club is a group to which Olajuwon cannot claim membership.

It is 1986. A young Hakeem has just destroyed Magic and Kareem in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers had been overwhelming favorites against the upstart Rockets, yet Houston’s post phenom shattered the Hollywood frontcourt. The Rockets advanced to the Finals to face the other side of that legendary rivalry, the Eastern Conference Champion Celtics.

For whatever reason, this has become Olajuwon’s lost Finals. The 1986 campaign seems to have slipped away from popular consciousness, perhaps swallowed up by the glory of the Celtics or the greatness that would follow Hakeem eight years later. 1986 has its own story, though. Before there was a Dream Shake, Hakeem was a young buck, a spring-heeled demon dunking over the waves of green and white and trying to figure out a way to slow down one of the greatest offenses ever assembled.

To watch the 1986 Finals is fascinating. Nine men on the court are playing 80s ball, that odd horizontal game where fundamentals shaped the flow and most of the jump shots were wide open. And then there’s Hakeem, and he’s not playing that way at all — he’s playing vertically, flying up to the rim and dunking violently as the Celtics stare at him quizzically. He’s loose, set free by having big Ralph Sampson behind him, and he’s bouncing off the paint like Tigger, soaring through the air chasing shots.

In the end the Celtics were simply too much. It wasn’t just about talent, although Boston had that: the Celtics fielded approximately 38 Hall of Famers on that squad. The 1986 Celtics were about destiny, about the last stand of white guy mojo, about that lime green floor and how, for some reason, Bill Walton had a ‘fro and Dennis Johnson had freckles. And it was still about the Lakers, about East Coast vs. West Coast and the East Coast winning.

It was all too much for Hakeem to undo. Olajuwon put up giant numbers, numbers that would have carried the series against a lesser team. Sometimes when destiny is stacked against you there’s just nothing you can do. Destiny is funny, though. It has a way of coming back when you’re ready. And eight years later, No. 34 would finish what 1986 started.

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