From a man as close to eight feet tall as he is to seven with a feathery touch to 18 feet, to one that made offensive rebounding a spectator sport, to a pair that exhibited more guardlike agility and skill while still dominating in the frontcourt- top to bottom, no collection of NBA bigs has been more enjoyable to watch over the past 30 years.
Heading this group is one of NBA history’s five greatest centers, and my pick for the most enjoyable to watch, Hakeem Olajuwon. This is man with whom virtually all discussion of Rockets’ history begins and ends. In the interest of staying true to the theme of this series, I’ll keep the words to minimum, but I must say this- in terms of sheer skill and the ability to command the game while simultaneously transforming it into a work of artistry, Hakeem sits at the head of the class.
Hakeem summarily dismisses a Jazz double-team in 1995
No big man in NBA history has ever used a greater arsenal of fakes to greater effect than Hakeem Olajuwon.
It seems criminal to eschew his signature Dream Shake- particularly when it was deployed so beautifully against Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. However, there’s faking dudes out, and then there’s this. Any time your plan to split a double team involves getting both defenders airborne and turning the league’s all-time steals leader into Andray Blatche, you’re on to something.
Ralph Sampson punches the Rockets’ ticket to the 1986 Finals
Had this twisting, backward, over-the-shoulder volleyball set from 12 feet out ended a meaningless mid-March matchup in Milwaukee, it would rank among the NBA’s history’s most memorable moments. That this is the manner in which one of the best young teams of the 1980s clinched a Finals berth, bouncing the preeminent team of the era- on its home floor- is nothing short of absurd.
Tracy McGrady destroys Shawn Bradley in 2005
This is just nasty.
Given Bradley’s legacy in the dunk world, McGrady didn't join the most exclusive of clubs here, but I'd argue that at no point in his decade-long career was Shawn Bradley more comprehensively owned by a would-be dunker. I mean, any time your groin is level with the nameplate on a 7-foot-6 dude’s jersey…
T-Mac scores 13 in 35 seconds
Reggie Miller’s eight points in nine seconds. 16 in 94 by Isiah Thomas.
In the annals of NBA history, a handful scoring binges stand out not only for the individual brilliance through which they were authored, but also for the blinding speed with which they alter the very complexion of a game. This is one such binge.
If the title above hasn’t already piqued your interest, there’s probably not a lot I can do in a couple dozen words to sway you. But for those of you that (wisely) opt to watch Tracy McGrady erase a 10-point Spurs’ lead in under a minute, notice the physical dominance, how easily he is able to command any sot he wants. It’s funny, as much as any dunk or drive to the hoop, for me the case for McGracy as one of the NBA’s most awesome physical specimens is made by a sequence of jump shots.
Hakeem makes a bad pass, the chases down Rod Strickland
Begins and ends, right?
I’d planed to dub this “the poor man’s Russell-on-West in 1963,” but it occurred to me- it’s not Hakeem’s fault this opportunity presented itself in Round 1 against Rod Strickland and not in the Finals against Jerry West. So maybe “low stakes Russell-on-West in 1963?” Either way, in terms of athletic prowess, this is as great a display of speed and open court defense as we’ve seen from a big man.
Olajuwon is 50 feet from the opposing basket and leaning the wrong way at the time of his errant pass. By the time he reacts and crosses halfcourt, a streaking Strickland is at the 3-point arc. At this point, all but a few big men would have packed it in. And of the valiant souls that continued the pursuit, most would probably have been better served saving the energy.
Olajuwon, however, possessing the ideal combination of “want to” and “can,” finds a special gear from 3-point line to rim, catching Strickland when he had no business doing so. This alone would be enough to land this clip on a highlight reel. Combined with a clean swat that resulted from Olajuwon’s elite athleticism and body control, this is a defining defensive moment from the greatest center since Kareem, at the peak of his powers.
As always, I'd really love to hear from you. Let me know what you think by chiming in on the highlights I’ve put forth, or supplying your own. I not only welcome your feedback, I eagerly await it.