Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler Turned Phi Slama Jama Failures Into NBA Glories: ‘Man, Can You Imagine If We Ever Got Back Together?’

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Hakeem Olajuwon (L) and Clyde Drexler (R) with Houston Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta in March 2019

The relationship between Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler dates back to their collegiate days at the University of Houston, when the two headlined the Cougars’ famous Phi Slama Jama squads of old. The two Hall of Famers also long desired to become teammates in the NBA.

One year after the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Drexler, the Houston Rockets made Hakeem the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Just over a decade later, The Dream and Clyde the Glide eventually found themselves with a welcome opportunity to rectify past failures, something they’d both dreamed about for years.

The Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars dominated college basketball but also failed to win an NCAA title

The Houston Cougars revolutionized college basketball in the early 1980s.

Head coach Guy Lewis bought into the hyper-athletic nature of his roster by playing at an up-tempo, high-flying pace unlike anything seen in the collegiate ranks before. The run-and-gun style christened the Cougars as a so-called “dunk fraternity” that went by the name Phi Slama Jama.

Both Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler played important roles on those Cougars teams. Drexler was a slashing guard who dazzled with aerial acrobatics, while Hakeem immediately showed his tremendous potential as a big man who ran the floor and could finish at the rim or step out and shoot midrange jumpers.

Houston dominated during the 1982-83 campaign, winning 31 games and capturing the national spotlight. But their notoriety became a detriment when they shockingly lost to Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State team in one of the most famous finishes in college basketball history.

Drexler departed for the NBA that summer, but Olajuwon had one more opportunity at an NCAA title. The Cougars came up short again, losing to Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas in the national title game.

While Olajuwon and Drexler ultimately led their respective Rockets and Blazers teams to multiple NBA Finals appearances, both men constantly thought about what might happen if they ever teamed up again.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler dreamed of being teammates in the NBA

Hakeem Olajuwon (L) and Clyde Drexler (R) with Houston Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta in March 2019
(L-R) Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, and Clyde Drexler pose during a game at the Toyota Center on March 28, 2019 in Houston, Texas | Bob Levey/Getty Images

Although they found themselves on different Western Conference contenders, Olajuwon and Drexler could only reminisce on past days and the salivating thought of playing on the same NBA squad.

Olajuwon said in 2000 (h/t ESPN) that the former Phi Slama Jama stars constantly talked about reuniting in the professional ranks. Both stars seemed to feel they could reach the pinnacle of the sport together, if given the opportunity.

“We would get together and it would be like, ‘Man, can you imagine if we ever got back together? I’ll bet we could win it all if we did.”

–Hakeem Olajuwon (2000), via ESPN

The Dream captured his first championship during an MVP season in 1994 after past failures in 1984 and 1986, thanks in part to a clutch block in Game 6. Meanwhile, Drexler suddenly found himself as an aging star on a Blazers team gearing up to rebuild.

However, Portland’s downward trajectory soon afforded The Glide to fulfill his wish of playing with Olajuwon and redeem their failures as college teammates.

Olajuwon and Drexler helped lead the Rockets to the 1995 NBA championship

The Portland Trail Blazers still looked like playoff contenders early in the 1994-95 season, going 25-20 before the All-Star break. But management wanted to tear things down, and Drexler wanted out. He knew exactly where he wanted to go.

Portland sent Drexler and Tracey Murray to the Rockets for veteran big Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola, and a first-round pick. Clyde and Hakeem were teammates once again.

Initially, the trade didn’t exactly look like a winner for Houston. Drexler excelled, averaging 21.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.4 assists while shooting over 50% from the floor in 35 games. But the Rockets went just 18-18 and entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. No matter, the Phi Slama Jama boys were only just getting started.

The Rockets launched a remarkable playoff run. They survived a seven-game series with the Phoenix Suns in the second round before Olajuwon’s dominance of San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson powered Houston to the Finals.

Unlike their time at Houston, Dream and the Glide would finish the job. The Rockets swept the Orlando Magic, as Olajuwon averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. Drexler gave Houston necessary scoring and playmaking in the backcourt, averaging 21.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 6.8 assists and winning his first ring in the process.

At long last, Olajuwon and Drexler shared the stage as NBA champions and eradicated the heartache of their Phi Slama Jama defeats.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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