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THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orlando, Fla. -- It's a little more than seven hours until tip-off of the much anticipated meeting between the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets. And under the dimmed lights of the Orlando Arena -- void of the 15,291 screaming fans that will fill the stands this night, void of the officials, void of opponents challenging every movement -- the beauty of the game of basketball is being broken down.

You could liken it to a dance lesson, with Houston's 10-year veteran Hakeem Olajuwon as the choreographer, and rookie center Eric Riley the student. At times they shift from one side of the lane to the other, with Olajuwon demonstrating his intricate array of low post moves, and Riley attempting to follow. At times they move in unison, two 7-footers maneuvering through steps of fancy footwork, totally in sync, athletes in art.

"Isn't it incredible?" said guard Scott Brooks, whose Rockets face the Washington Bullets tonight at USAir Arena. "Practice is nearly an hour over, and he's still out here. That's Olajuwon right there -- just constantly trying to improve."

Improve? It's a scary concept for a player such as Olajuwon, clearly one of the top centers in the game, if not the best. Check out the numbers, even before his 37-point, 11-rebound, four-block effort against the Celtics last night: his 26.0 points a game ranked third in the league, his 12.5 rebounds were fifth, his 4.0 blocks were second, and his 1.78 steals were 20th (first among centers). Yet the eight-time All-Star approaches each day with the feeling that there's something more to learn, something else at which to excel.

"There is so much to learn," Olajuwon said. "You can never be perfect."

But that doesn't stop him from striving. Game day shoot-arounds are considered a drag for many players. While watching Monday's shoot-around, one broadcaster recalled the story of Wilt Chamberlain, once calling his coach after missing that day's shoot-around.

"I only play once a day," Chamberlain reportedly told the coach. "So when do you want me?"

For the Nigerian-born Olajuwon, whose last name translates to "always on top," the shoot-around is part of the daily plan to be the best. Some of his teammates probably were in their hotel rooms sleeping while Olajuwon was still working.

"It's great to see our leader work so hard, because it just motivates everybody else to keep up with him," Brooks said. "He's very unique in this league."

Stats on his side

You'll get many arguments when debating the top center in the league. Olajuwon, New York's Patrick Ewing, Orlando's Shaquille Neal, San Antonio's David Robinson and Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning all would get some mention.

With the possible exception of Mourning, Olajuwon (255 pounds and an admitted 6 feet 11, although he's listed at 7 feet) is perhaps the least physically imposing of the group.

Yet over the years, this former handball player has outplayed them all and his team has a winning record against each of those noted big men. (Olajuwon is 2-1 this season, with the only loss to O'Neal and the Magic on Monday.)

Among big men, his spin moves, speed and mental alertness (when to go after a shot, when to hold back) are hard to match.

"He's a great player," said O'Neal, who averaged 14.0 points against Olajuwon in two games last season before scoring 28 Monday. "Any time you play against a guy like him, you know you have to do well."

Ewing was embarrassed when he hit just four of 20 shots in a 94-85 loss on Dec. 2 that extended the Rockets' season-opening winning streak to an NBA record-tying 15 games (Olajuwon scored 37 that night).

"If I kept getting the ball I probably would have shot 4-for-50 instead of 4-for-20," said Ewing, who averaged 23.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in 14 games against Olajuwon going into this season. "Hakeem has had great games against me before."

And now Olajuwon is surrounded by a team that a month ago became the second in NBA history to win 22 of its first 23 games. At 28-5 after last night's 94-84 win over Boston, the Rockets have the second-best record in the league.

The next MVP?

And Olajuwon is once again being mentioned as a serious Most Valuable Player candidate -- this time as the front-runner (last season he finished second behind Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns).

"It's just timing," Olajuwon said of the MVP consideration. "You've been overlooked because people want this guy to be the best, that guy to be the best.

"Now, it's clear that I'm consistent, and the team is winning," Olajuwon added. "Now, people are finally giving me the rTC recognition that has been due from Day One."

At one point, it didn't appear that Olajuwon would get that recognition in a Houston uniform. Two seasons ago, reports from Houston were that Olajuwon was upset with the selfish play of the team, particularly the guards, and an offense that didn't include looking for the star center.

His unhappiness spread to management after Olajuwon -- with the Rockets fighting for a playoff spot -- complained of a sore left hamstring and did not dress for a late-season game. Team tests the next day cleared him to play, but he didn't dress for the next game and was suspended indefinitely by the team.

Olajuwon, who missed four games, didn't touch on the problems with management. But he did say that the mentality of the players is different.

"Individual players realize that winning is the key, so everybody is willing to sacrifice individual goals for team goals," Olajuwon said. "Now, we win as a team, everybody's getting credit and everybody's happy. We play smart, and play to our strengths.

"Last year, we had a meeting before the All-Star break . . . and we said, 'Let's make a commitment,' " Olajuwon added. "It was a commitment as a team. Instead of saying, 'Why doesn't he pass me the ball?' we encourage each other."

While winning has soothed Olajuwon on the court, off the court he has found an inner peace in embracing his Muslim religion.

"I was born a Muslim, but when I first came here I wasn't practicing," Olajuwon said. "I was living the way I wanted to live.

"Now, you get all this recognition, and you feel humble. You make all this money, you feel humble," said Olajuwon, rare among superstars in that he'll stop to talk to fans and doesn't hesitate to sign autographs. "[My belief] has become a way of life. You have a strength inside. Because you put your trust in God, you have no fear."

Although he has spent his past 13 years in Houston [he played three years at the University of Houston, going to the Final Four all three years], Olajuwon is not sure it's where he'll end his

career.

"Even if I go someplace else, I will still go back to live there," Olajuwon said. "But basketball is a business. Our owner might feel, 'Hakeem is going down, we can still trade him for younger players and draft choices.'

"It's a business decision. I would not be upset."

A guard's quickness

It would upset Riley. A rookie who played college ball in the shadows of Michigan's Fab Five, Riley has played sparingly for the Rockets. Still, from his spot on the bench, he gets to watch one of the most versatile big men at work. And then there's the benefit of the personalized workouts.

"He's one of the greatest centers," Riley said, dripping with sweat after his one-on-one session. "I'm just trying to learn from him. He has the quickness of a guard, but he's 7 feet."

Riley was surprised at the level in which Olajuwon has been willing to assist him.

"He's an All-Star. He doesn't have to do this," Riley said. "He could just say, 'Forget this rookie.'

"I want to learn his moves, but I don't think he wants to show them all," he added, laughing. "He's got a lot of tough ones."

On Monday, Riley got one of his rare chances to play in the lopsided Orlando victory. With 1:51 left he got the ball on the right block, pivoted toward the middle, pivoted back to the baseline and lofted a fadeaway jumper that hit all net.

It was an Olajuwon move, one he practiced earlier in the afternoon. As he ran down court, Riley gave a little pump with his right hand.

From the bench, an admiring Olajuwon clapped and smiled. Just like a proud teacher.

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BULLETS TONIGHT

Opponent: Houston Rockets

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:30

TV: HTS

Radio: WXZL (103.1 FM), WTEM (570 AM)

Outlook: This is the first meeting of the season between the teams. This is the third of four straight road games this week for the Rockets, who, after Saturday's game in Chicago, will play seven of their next nine at home. Washington (10-22) is coming off of Tuesday's 115-100 win against the New Jersey Nets. G Rex Chapman (17.9 ppg) and F Don MacLean (17.4) lead the Bullets, who split games against the Rockets last season.

HAKEEM'S DREAM

Since entering the league in 1984, Hakeem Olajuwon has established himself as one of the most consistent centers in the league, averaging over 20 points and 11 rebounds in each of his first nine seasons -- only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (12), Wilt Chamberlain (12) and Bob Pettit (11) have started their careers with better streaks. Here's how Olajuwon, last year's Defensive Player of the Year, has fared head-to-head against some of the league's top centers:

vs. Patrick Ewing (Olajuwon leads head-to-head, 9-6) .. .. .. .. Olajuwon .. .. .. .. Ewing

Pts. ... Rebs. .. Blks. .. Pts. .. Rebs. .. Blks.

21.8 ... 11.8 ... 2.3 . .. 16.9 .. 9.1 . .. 1.2

vs. Shaquille O'Neal (Olajuwon leads head-to-head, 2-1) .. .. .. Olajuwon .. .. .. .. .. O'Neal

.. 14.0 .. 4.5 ... .. 18.6 .. 12.3 .. 2.0

vs. David Robinson (Olajuwon leads head-to-head, 9-8) .. .. .. Olajuwon .. .. .. .. .. Robinson

.. 13.1 .. 3.8 ... .. 20.6 .. 11.5 .. 3.6

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