When I saw this week's open-mic topic in my inbox, finding the inspiration to write something was a cinch.
Picking a player that encapsulates and represents the Houston Rockets' near 37-year history (I'm not counting the four-year stint in San Diego) was even easier.
Perhaps no image better enshrines and illustrates what Hakeem Olajuwon meant to the city of Houston better than him standing next to a statue outside the Toyota Center that will forever memorialize the gift that was his career.
Olajuwon spent his entire career in Houston, his few-month tenure in Toronto notwithstanding, and continues to serve as a hopeful beacon. Houston sports fans grip his image as proof that a sports team can in fact win a championship in this urban abyss.
The Houston Dynamo nabbed a second-straight MLS crown last season, but with no offense intended to a team I enjoy watching, the impact of those titles pales in comparison to what a Rockets, Astros, or Texans championship would mean.
Recalling the one they called "The Dream" means revisiting an important chunk of my youth. I still remember the vehement, paralyzing rivalry between the Rockets and the Jazz.
Taking a page from Michael Jordan's book of taunts, my mother and I would hang up signs on our front porch declaring "the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays" and "John Flopton needs an ambulance."
I will always remember: Stockton's horrific series-winning trey, Olajuwon stuffing a potential game-winning three from John Starks in Game Six of the 1994 NBA Finals, my years of despising Dikembe Mutombo and his "Chicken McNuggets," staying up late to watch the Rockets battle Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, and the Seattle Sonics, overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns, and "How Sweep it is!"
Hakeem's presence made this all possible.
Even if he didn't, I likely would never have watched had not he not been there.
I still have a photo of me in my Cub Scouts uniform saluting the Olajuwon cake my mother and I made, carved in his shape, covered in white and brown icing with the No. 34.
We sent a picture of the cake to his foundation's office. It didn't look much like him, as I was not a young Pablo Picasso, but it was my attempt to show my favorite athlete that I admired him.
I knew little about basketball then, even though I played and was, as one coach put it, a "stalker-esque defender". I know a lot more now, and my respect for Olajuwon has grown with that knowledge.
I also reluctantly accept that Stockton and Malone are deserving Hall of Fame players and one of the greatest duos in league history.
Mutombo, in a funny twist, plays for the Rockets now, and has become the team's spark without Yao the last two seasons.
Some things do not change.
I would never do 1984 differently, given the chance. That draft order happened for a reason. I believe it. Michael Jordan became the greatest basketball player of all time, but Hakeem is widely regarded, especially by me, as one of the five greatest centers in league history.
Jordan was meant to wear No. 23 in Chicago. Olajuwon was meant to wear No. 34 in Houston. So many Rockets fans forget that Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to the NBA Finals in the Nigerian center's third season, 1986. Beating the Los Angeles Lakers and losing to the Boston Celtics in a hard fought, six-game series? I'll take it.
Commemorating Hakeem is about more than his signature "Dream Shake," a play that I spent most of my youth trying to copy. It recognizes a special talent who arrived in the United States knowing about 20 words of English. When he arrived at the airport, no one from the University of Houston showed up to greet him. He was not heavily recruited.
He formed the "Phi Slamma Jamma" fraternity with Clyde Drexler and became the immortal face of Cougar basketball. So, the Rockets, handed the first selection in the 1984 draft, made the obvious choice and picked the guy who had already entrenched himself in the Houston community.
And now, in 2008, he serves as the building block of my all-time Rockets team.
You will note that this five does not have a power forward or a small forward. The Rockets have a rich history of big men but few fours or threes who stand out. The players in my starting five all spent the majority of their careers in Houston. I value Rockets lifers, so those who fit that bill permeate this list.
PG: Kenny "the jet" Smith (1990-1996)
OK, so he is not the best point guard in franchise history. I considered putting Cassell here, but decided to bring him off the pine, just as coach Rudy Tomjanovich did for the '94 and '95 championship teams. Smith had a few verbal altercations with Tomjanovich, but he worked hard and nailed clutch three after clutch three. He played for five other teams, yes, but I will never see Smith as anything other than a Rocket.
SG: Calvin Murphy (1970-1983)
Murphy eventually bested the single-season free throw record—94 percent from behind the stripe—set by Rick Barry in 1980 by stroking 95.8 percent of his attempts. He was also a dynamic scorer, swift with the ball, and defended fiercely for his 5'9" frame.
He held the franchise record for points scored until Olajuwon surpassed the mark in 1994. He was also an incredible analyst alongside Bill Worrell. It has always upset me that the Rockets organization did not rehire him as the color guy after a jury acquitted him of bogus molestation and abuse charges. It's hard to call the move racist, considering the team hired Clyde Drexler to fill the role.
PF/C: Elvin Hayes (1971-1972; 1981-1984)
Hayes owes a spot on the team as much for his UH tenure as Drexler does. He threw up career averages of 21 points and 12.5 rebounds a game. He averaged 17 rebounds as a rookie in San Diego—can you say disgusting?
Hayes retired before I was born, but I have studied many a film of his play. He spent only four pro seasons in Houston but they were great years.
C: Hakeem Olajuwon (1981-2004)
See gushing review of his career above.
C: Yao Ming (2001-?)
Go ahead and bash this selection all you want. It's my list, I want him in my starting five, and I put him there. His career has been lined with injuries and first-round exits, but that is never the bottom line with a player this dedicated.
I love Yao because he cares more than most athletes do. He spent two days roaming the Toyota Center in February, apologizing to everyone he saw for a foot injury that he could do nothing about.
When his teammates sat silently as he announced he would miss the rest of the season and playoffs, they were not just mourning what his absence would mean for the team's playoff hopes. They know how much playing and winning means to Yao.
If you think the Chinese superstar is satisfied averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds on a first-round doormat, try watching him as I do. He has earned the praise of all three coaches for whom he has played and every teammate who has ever shared the court with him. Chronic injury may mar his career, but he will compete and care every minute that he does it. That's good enough for me.
PG: Sam Cassell (1993-1996)
He was cockier than I remember, now that I watch games from those championship seasons, but perhaps that is why he sank those clutch looks so calmly, including a three that buried the Knicks in a critical finals game.
I would never pick him to teach young children about great shot selection, but I will always reserve a spot for him on any all-time Rockets list.
SG: Clyde "the glide" Drexler (1995-1998)
Drexler is a terrible dancer and an even worse analyst. With Worrell still handling the play-by-play duties, he offers such gems as "gotta love the hustle of Luis Scola" and "oooh...that was a dunk by Tracy McGrady." His credentials as a player are self-explanatory.
The funny thing is, if you ask most diehard Rockets fans about Drexler's career, they conveniently leave out his 12 years in Portland. He has joked about it during Rockets broadcasts on several occasions. That says all you need to know about how much fans appreciate what Drexler has done on and off the court for Houston. Now, about that commentary...
SF: Shane Battier (2006-?)
I would not reverse the Rudy Gay trade if you paid me $1,000. Gay is loaded with talent and scores a meaty 20 points per game for the pathetic Memphis Grizzlies. However, I doubt the Rockets would be closer to a championship with Gay than they are with Battier.
A consummate professional, Battier is a lesson in how to keep a job without sporting jaw-dropping talent. He guards the opposing team's best scorer every night and knows that if he does his homework and makes that player's shots tough, he can live with the results.
Great players torch Battier sometimes, but it's never because they are getting easy shots. That people have criticized Battier for not scoring more points shows how flawed the Rockets depth has been the last two seasons.
PF: Robert Horry (1992-1996)
Horry will make a reserve appearance on my San Antonio Spurs team, also. That he would deserve mention on a Los Angeles Lakers list shows how his presence has impacted three locker rooms.
No Horry fan can deny that he has picked his teams well and benefited from playing with sure-fire Hall of Famers. I regard him worthy of Springfield consideration because of the championship expectation he has carried with him.
For some, hip-checking Steve Nash into the scorer's table will be Horry's lasting image. Not for me.
I will never forget standing by the tunnel at a Rockets game during the 1995 season. A timid kid overflowing with self-confidence issues, I hoped at least one player would stop and sign one of my trading cards.
Horry did. He waited graciously while I clumsily fished out his trading card and signed "to my boy Robbie." He patted my shoulder and smiled before walking off.
C: Moses Malone (1976-1982)
Ralph Sampson and Moses Malone were great Rockets big men, but Malone played with the team longer. It also helps that Malone was a big part of Hakeem's development in college. Malone played his best season in a Rockets uniform, winning an MVP trophy and setting a single-season record for offensive rebounds (587).
C: Ralph Sampson (1983-1988)
The original "Twin Towers" experiment worked in the short time it existed. Bill Fitch developed a distate for Sampson in the '87-88 campaign and encouraged management to trade him. His knee injuries worsened and his time in Sacramento was a disappointment. I wish I had been born a few years earlier so I could have enjoyed the Olajuwon/Sampson pairing a bit more. Any student of the game should know about Sampson's miraculous shot. With a second remaining, he hoisted up a prayer from an inbounds pass and it somehow went in the hoop. There is no question Sampson played his finest years in Houston.
C: Dikembe Mutombo (2004-?)
The ageless wonder gulped from the fountain of youth, again, and provided four tear-jerking swats the night of Yao's injury announcement, including a memorable stuff of a Caron Butler drive. How does this guy still do that at age 41? My second favorite Deke moment came against the Lakers. His blocks in that game helped the Rockets squash the Lakersd 102-77 and vaulted him above Kareem Abdul Jabar in the all-time blocked shots list. If Yao plays six to eight more seasons and can stay healthy, the Rockets could conceiveably boast three of the top-10 shot blockers in NBA history. Hakeem sits comfortably in the top spot and I do not see any player overtaking him.
Head Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (1992-2003)
I never saw him play live, though he was a great player, so I picked him as the team's coach. When he uttered a certain famous phrase after the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Finals, clinching a second-straight NBA crown, he did not intend to inspire with his words. He meant it more as a condemnation of those who doubted the Rockets' muscle and grit.
It sounds beautiful either way.
"Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion."