Houston Rockets legend and Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon was one of the NBA’s more soft-spoken superstars. Still, he knew how to send a message, much to the dismay of fellow Hall of Famer and San Antonio Spurs great David Robinson.
The Rockets were bidding for back-to-back titles as they prepared to face Robinson and the Spurs in the 1995 Western Conference Finals. It could have been a crowning moment for Robinson, who was named the league’s MVP that season. Instead, it turned into a nightmare, with Olajuwon making it his mission to embarrass The Admiral.
David Robinson snatched the NBA MVP Award away from Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1994-95 season
The NBA entered a small transition period when Michael Jordan announced his retirement from basketball in 1993. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had won three championships in a row, but his decision to walk away from the game left the door open for another team to claim the “best in the league” title.
Initially, it was Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets who capitalized on that opportunity.
Olajuwon was terrific during the 1993-94 season en route to his first MVP Award. He averaged 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.7 blocks, and 1.6 steals during the regular season and took his play up another notch as the Rockets won the first title in franchise history.
The Dream was every bit as brilliant the following season. He averaged a career-high 27.8 points to go along with 10.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.4 blocks, and 1.8 steals. But this time, the voters chose to set sail with The Admiral.
David Robinson had won the scoring title during Olajuwon’s MVP season and followed that campaign by averaging 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 3.2 blocks, and 1.7 steals the next season. He was the definitive star for a Spurs team that won the most games (62) in the NBA.
The advanced numbers suggest Robinson deserved the award that season. For starters, he played in 81 games, whereas Olajuwon suited up 72 times. Additionally, Robinson led the NBA in player efficiency rating (29.1), win shares (17.5), box plus-minus (9.2), and value over replacement player (8.7).
Olajuwon himself appeared to agree with the voters, at least initially. But the unassuming Rockets star was about to send a giant message.
Olajuwon dominated Robinson on the same night he was awarded the MVP
The Rockets took Game 1 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals, but the Spurs got a morale boost when Commissioner David Stern presented Robinson with the MVP ahead of Game 2.
Robinson thanked the fans, his teammates, and God. But he left out someone of note: Olajuwon. Rockets guard Kenny Smith remembered being miffed by the perceived slight, but The Dream took no issue with Robinson’s speech.
“I’m sitting literally next to him,” Smith said, via the Houston Chronicle. “David is getting the award right before they’re going to introduce the starting lineups. He gets the award and I said, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘He didn’t say your name.’ He goes, ‘No Kenny, no, no, no. He deserves it. He is the best player this year. No problem…'”
But while Olajuwon projected ease on the outside, he was gathering himself to unleash hell on Robinson. The 12-time All-Star torched the Spurs star for 41 points, also finishing with a game-high 16 rebounds to go with four assists, three steals, and two blocks. His virtuoso performance included a patented Dream Shake that had Robinson absolutely bamboozled. Afterward, Olajuwon gave Smith one of the best lines in NBA history.
To his credit, Robinson scored 32 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. But he couldn’t solve Olajuwon, who led the Rockets to a win and a 2-0 series lead.
As it turned out, Robinson never figured out how to piece the Olajuwon puzzle together.
Hakeem torched Robinson as the Rockets made it back to the NBA Finals
The Spurs rallied to win the next two games and tie the series, with Olajuwon shooting just 9-for-24 in Game 4 after erupting for 43 points in the Game 3 loss. But Robinson couldn’t hold the Rockets star down.
The Dream had 42 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and five blocks as part of a dominant performance in Game 5. Robinson’s embarrassment was then complete in Game 6. Olajuwon outscored The Admiral 39-17, also pulling down 17 boards and recording five blocks as Houston wrapped the series up at home.
The Rockets would go on to win their second consecutive championship after sweeping the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. But it’s Hakeem Olajuwon’s decimation of Robinson that still resonates to this day.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.