HOUSTON -- The night began with Hakeem Olajuwon holding high the Most Valuable Player trophy he had just accepted from NBA commissioner David Stern.
It ended with Olajuwon holding aloft the Houston Rockets.
Olajuwon -- the 7-foot Nigerian center who starred in college at the University of Houston shortly after learning to play the game -- engaged in a fourth-quarter duel with fellow billboard Karl Malone and left the Utah Jazz power forward far behind.
The Houston center scored 41 points last night, including 14 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Rockets to a 104-99 win and a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.
"What a fitting performance," Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "It's just amazing when you look at his background, how he came here from another country not having played organized basketball, and the development he's had. It's like a fairy tale, something you can make a movie about. And then on the day he gets the award, to have a performance like that. . . . Rarely do all the things fit together like that."
Olajuwon also had 13 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots, but it was his personal offensive attack that buried Utah. He made soft jumpers; he made hard dunks. He made shots falling down; he made free throws, all 13 of them.
"It was a very emotional and exciting night for me, but I wanted to stay focused on the game," Olajuwon said. "The concentration level was so high because the game was always on the line."
This was an amazing back-and-forth game that featured 21 lead changes. Neither team was able to build a double-digit lead.
Malone would finish with 32 points, a very good night, but not nearly enough to offset Olajuwon.
"Olajuwon . . . well, he's just the MVP," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "All you can say is, he deserves it."
The Rockets led by four when the fourth quarter began but lost that lead as Otis Thorpe, given the task of guarding Malone, picked up his fifth foul early in the period and got a technical foul for showing his displeasure.
With Thorpe on the bench, Malone started to roll. He and Olajuwon dueled for several minutes, before the biggest shots went to the Rockets and the biggest misses to the Jazz.
Mario Elie stepped up and scored 11 fourth-quarter points, with the most crucial of those coming on a three-pointer with 1:55 left to break a 93-93 tie and put Houston ahead to stay.
Those were the only points not scored by Olajuwon in a crucial four-minute stretch during which he scored 12 points.