During the early portion of Shaquille O’Neal‘s illustrious career, he had his fair share of struggles getting past fellow Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. That may have been the case, but there it was established early on that he was one of the best centers and players in the league, which drew more intrigue to their matchups on the court. During that time, it nearly saw the two nearly compete in a setup 1-on-1 game for $1 million.
Shaq and Hakeem Olajuwon rivalry
It was quite clear from the get-go that O’Neal was a unique talent as he immediately produced at an elite level while helping guide the Orlando Magic toward being one of the top teams in the league.
He was a spry and extremely athletic big man that an explosive factor on both ends in the paint. However, the early stages of O’Neal’s career saw him have to deal with the Houston Rockets’ star big man, who was in the prime of his career.
Olajuwon was hitting his stride as his counterpart was working his way up in the league. He was a dominant big man that gave headaches to many opposing big men that couldn’t handle his “Dream Shake.”
During that time, O’Neal was able to hold his own, but Olajuwon still had the upper hand. It was at this juncture that the two star big men nearly faced each other in a 1-on-1 setting away from the NBA.
Shaq and Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1-on-1 event
Although O’Neal found tremendous success later in his career, Olajuwon played a significant part in his reputation in his first few years.
The Rockets star big man had helped guide Houston past Orlando in the 1995 NBA Finals that saw him get the better of his counterpart. It’s something that O’Neal has acknowledged to this day as Ojawon averaged 32.2 points and 11.5 rebounds in that series compared to his 28.0 points and 12.5 rebounds. However, it almost led to the two competing a Taco Bell sponsored 1-on-1 game in September 1995.
It was an event that had gathered steam after the Finals as the battle between the two had garnered plenty of attention. O’Neal was motivated to prove that he could get the better of Olajuwon in a one-on-one setting. It was all set by Donald Trump for a matchup that would be played at his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The idea for the event was sparked by Leonard Armato, who as the former longtime agent for both the star big men. Armato was the one who garnered the deal with Taco Bell to advertise the event. Movie director Spike Lee was even in the mix as he directed and starred in a Taco Bell commercial campaign for the $19.95 PPV event.
Hakeem Olajuwon unable to play due to back injury
The cards were lined up for them to face off against in September after a couple of months of build-up. However, things hit a disappointing turn the night before the scheduled 1-on-1 as Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler informed Armato that Olajuwon had hurt his back earlier in the week and was hoping to get well enough to play.
He was examined by a physician, which led to the matchup being canceled the night before the event. According to Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports, O’Neal looks back at that with the conviction that Olajuwon had suffered a back injury and wasn’t looking for a way to back out.
“When Leonard called me and told me Hakeem can’t do it, I was like, ‘Cool.’ Hakeem’s not the guy who I’d say, ‘Aw, he’s scared!’,” O’Neal told NBC Sports. “One, I know he’s not scared. Two, I know if he could do it, he would do it. But if it was Christian Laettner, I would have said he’s scared.”
Nonetheless, it will always be looked back upon as what could have been as it had the chance to be something quite special. It’s one of those “what-if” scenarios that we’ll never know who would have won.