Houston -- Clyde Drexler still can remember that day in 1980 when he was asked to meet the cab carrying the University of Houston's latest recruiting prospect.

The kid definitely had the height, Drexler recalled thinking as the Nigerian unfolded his lanky frame while stepping from the vehicle. But the big question was, could he play? The test would come quickly.

"We went to the gym, and right off you could tell he was very, very raw," Drexler said. "But then he came through the middle, went up high and made this one dunk that was just astonishing.

"We just couldn't believe anyone could do what he had just done," added Drexler, the astonishment still on his face as he recalled the play 15 years later. "From that move, we knew he had the potential to be a good player."

That kid, Hakeem Olajuwon, has developed into more than just a good player. With those raw skills at the University of Houston, he was the backbone of a national power that twice played in the NCAA championship game. He was the top pick of the 1984 NBA draft, selected ahead of Michael Jordan, and has been a 10-time all-star with the Rockets.

Tonight, Olajuwon can lead the Rockets to a sweep of the Orlando Magic. And his dominant play has many mentioning him in the same breath as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of the greatest centers in NBA history.

"Hakeem," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, "is right up there with some of the best who have ever played the game."

Added Drexler: "He's the best player on the planet, any planet."

"THE BEST . . . EVER?" was the screaming headline that ran next to a photo of Olajuwon, 32, in the Houston Chronicle last week. Olajuwon said he finds it an honor just to be mentioned among the best big men.

"I don't like to be compared to others," said Olajuwon, 7 feet, 255 pounds. "Someone is always better than you. What I want to do is to improve my game and just play to the best of my abilities."

That ability has resulted in an 11-year career in which Olajuwon has averaged 24.0 points and 12.4 rebounds. But only in the past two seasons has he stepped up as one of the league's dominant players.

Among the great centers, Russell won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics, including one in his rookie season. Abdul-Jabbar was a part of six championship teams (one with the Milwaukee Bucks, five with the Los Angeles Lakers) and retired as the NBA's all-time leading scorer (38,387). And Chamberlain won two NBA titles, earned seven straight scoring championships, averaged 32.1 points and 22.9 rebounds and is the top rebounder in history (23,924).

"He's definitely going to be one of the great ones, but is he one of the top three?" said Wes Unseld, Washington Bullets vice president and a Hall of Fame center. "That's a tough nut to crack when you consider Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell started from Day 1 being on the top and stayed there for 15, 16, 17 years.

"Hakeem has proven to be one of the greats over the last three or four years, even though he's had great numbers all along," Unseld said. "But he wasn't considered at the top right from the beginning."

He wasn't at the top, but he always was good. Olajuwon never has averaged fewer than 20 points and 10 rebounds in his career.

On the way to the Rockets' first title last season, Olajuwon became the only player in NBA history to win the regular-season MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. The expected battle of the big men against New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing proved to be a one-sided affair.

In this year's impressive playoff run, Olajuwon has played back-to-back series against centers who were considered the two best players in the game today, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson, and outperformed both.

In three games against O'Neal, the runner-up for this year's MVP, Olajuwon is averaging 32.0 points and 10.3 rebounds (O'Neal is averaging 29.0 points and 12.7 rebounds). Olajuwon was even more impressive in the Western Conference finals, averaging 35.3 points against league MVP Robinson.

"He's had so many great stretches," Tomjanovich said. "But when it comes to more meaningful stretches against a great player and a great team, no, he's never played better. It was a legendary performance."

Compared with those considered today's great centers, Olajuwon is a composite of what O'Neal, Ewing and Robinson aspire to be.

There isn't a player in the league who can match O'Neal's strength, but, though he has improved his low-post moves, he's still a limited player more than 5 feet away from the basket.

Ewing's strength is his jump shot, but Olajuwon can match his range up to about 18 feet and provides what the New York center lacks -- agility and a low-post game.

Robinson runs the floor as well as any big man in the league, but Olajuwon can match him step for step.

Olajuwon's edge is his footwork, picked up from his childhood days of playing soccer and team handball.

"The difference is great lateral quickness, because some centers don't have lateral quickness," Unseld said. "He can move like a small forward, he's strong, he's able to jump. The things he's able to do are unbelievable."

And then there are his dazzling moves, which leave opposing centers shaking their heads. Olajuwon often studies tapes of guards and forwards to pick up some of their footwork.

"I've never seen a big guy do the things he does. He's like a point guard in the low post," Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens said. "He has really elevated his game."

At times in this series, the Magic has attempted to play O'Neal on Olajuwon one-on-one, usually with disastrous results for Orlando.

"We haven't proved we can stop him," Magic forward Horace Grant said. "He's such a great talent."

Among the greatest ever? Maybe, but not just yet. But Olajuwon has showed no signs of slowing, and maybe a few more championships will secure him a spot among the game's elite.

"To hear some of those names, you don't think of yourself as being compared to the legends," Olajuwon said. "To me, that is a great compliment."


* (Rockets lead series, 3-0)

Game 1: Rockets 120-118, OT

Game 2: Rockets, 117-106

Game 3: Rockets, 106-103

Tonight: At Houston, 9

Friday: At Houston, 9 p.m.*

Sunday: At Orlando, 7:30 p.m.*

June 21: At Orlando, 9 p.m.*

*-If necessary. TV: Chs. 11, 4.

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