It might be easy to forget that Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the NBA’s all-time greatest centers, suited up for the Toronto Raptors. Olajuwon played 18 seasons in the NBA, earning a pair of championships and 12 NBA All-Star appearances. Seventeen of those seasons were spent with the Houston Rockets. He capped his career by playing 61 games for the Raptors, and it’s a situation where both player and team likely wished it never happened.
Is Hakeem Olajuwon a top-five center of all time?
Forget position for now, but Olajuwon proved to be one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA. The versatile 7-foot center led the league in rebounding twice and was tops on blocks for three seasons while showing he could also score. Through his 18 years of professional basketball, Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds and earned himself a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
While he was one of the all-time greats, where does Olajuwon rank among centers? He was part of the final group of traditional back-to-the-basket centers. As his career progressed, the NBA changed. Those dominant centers were being phased out of their normal in-the-paint roles as they relied more on their athleticism and mastered the mid-range jump shot.
Comparing centers from different eras is tough, but it’s fair to say Olajuwon cracks the top five centers in NBA history. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell would likely be the top three centers placed on most lists. Shaquille O’Neal is next, and then Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Moses Malone would probably follow, not necessarily in that order.
In today’s game, those pure centers are gone. Olajuwon did make his mark and goes down as one of the top five centers of all time.
Hakeem Olajuwon finished his career with the Toronto Raptors
Olajuwon will always be tied to the Rockets, and rightfully so. He spent 17 of his 18 NBA years with the team that drafted him and went on to guide them to two championships and have a Hall-of-Fame career. He’s also one of those guys who you can’t picture in another team’s uniform. It’s kind of like Pete Rose playing for the Montreal Expos. It happened, but it’s tough to recall.
Olajuwon left the Rockets after 17 years and closed out his career with the Raptors. The center rejected a Rockets deal that would’ve paid him $13 million over three seasons. After that rejection, the Rockets traded their big man to Toronto, getting a first- and second-round pick in return.
The move was not one the Rockets had hoped to make. They wanted Olajuwon to finish his stellar career in Houston.
“‘Hakeem’s decision is disappointing for the entire Rockets organization,” Rockets owner Les Alexander said at the time, according to USA Today. ”Hakeem Olajuwon has meant more to this franchise and this city than any other athlete in Houston history.”
Olajuwon’s stay in Toronto was ugly and short-lived
In 17 seasons with the Rockets, Olajuwon put up 22.5 points per game and pulled down 11.4 rebounds. Houston beloved him, but he decided to start anew after averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in the 2000-01 season. Things didn’t go quite as planned for either party.
Olajuwon played 61 games in his first year with his new team, starting 37 of them. He averaged 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Raptors in that first season. Unfortunately for both Olajuwon and the Raptors, his time in Toronto consisted of just those 61 games. A back injury forced him out of the game.
”It was a gamble, and I think we lost on it,” Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald said at the time. “It didn’t turn out the way we had hoped.”
Olajuwon was also disappointed but chose to look ahead.
“I don’t look at this as the end, it is the beginning of the next phase of my life,” Olajuwon during a halftime ceremony in Houston in 2002. “You know what you accomplished over the years, and now it is time to sit and watch.”