Hakeemball will become a hoop fad


HOUSTON -- The playgrounds of America have suffered a terrible setback.

College and high school basketball may take years to recover from this blow.

Blame the Houston Rockets, who won the NBA championship last night and did it with something that disappeared with canvas shoes: dignity.

Starting today, you're going to hear playground-game talk like, "Yo mama is a lovely and intelligent woman."

Out: Trash talk, dirty play, crybabying, showboating and players who can't be bothered to show up for games or keep their shoes on.

In: Hakeemball -- creative, honest, clutch and clean.

Hakeem The Dream Olajuwon set the tone for the Houston Rockets, and for the NBA Finals series, and maybe for all of basketball. He elevated the game and his own already-lofty standing in it by playing four evenings of incredible basketball.

Last night it was 35 points, 15 rebounds and an MVP trophy.

He led an eye-popping sweep over a team that was better than the Rockets, until it ran into Hakeem.

The Magic never knew what hit 'em. Their fall was so tragic it makes MacBeth look like an episode of "Seinfeld."

Horace Grant tried to play it down, say that being swept in the Finals didn't ruin a great Magic season.

"If we had won, it would have been icing on the cake," Grant said.

Instead, it was pie in the face, although if you have to be swept, embarrassed and humiliated by someone, it might as well be Dream and his boys.

"We are a young team and I am a young player," Orlando star Shaquille O'Neal said.

But you know what? So are Hakeem and his Rockets.

Dream and his partner-in-crime, Clyde The Glide Drexler, are both 32, but the way they take care of themselves, they could be good for another five seasons. A couple of old-fashioned guys with youthful legs.

"We're from the old mold, the old tradition," Drexler said, "teams that won quietly, didn't trash-talk. We're a throwback to teams that come to work, put on hard hats and just come to win."

Dream and Glide make a little too much money to fall into the hard-hat, blue-collar category, but there's a basic solid honesty to their game that trickles down to guys like Robert Horry and Mario Elie.

Elie and Horry, two hoop nobodies, actually carried the Houston offensive load through the first part of the fourth quarter last night, when the Rockets pulled away.

Then Hakeem took over, putting his signature on the series with a step-back, fallaway, heart-break, coup-de-gras jumper for a 10-point lead with 4 1/2 minutes to go.

Hakeem was is simply amazing. Scored 31-34-31-35 for the series.

Laughed and smiled through every interview session. Seemed to be having the time of his life.

Before games, he would put on his personal-stereo headphones and listen to readings from the Koran.

At times you almost felt sorry for Hakeem for being so hopelessly out of place in today's game, so uncool in the age of cool, until he would drive across the lane and jump-hook over a gigantic leaping bear named Shaq, and suddenly achieve a higher cool.

Told he had won the MVP award for the second straight time in the Finals, Hakeem said, "I am surprised."

What? He thought it might go to Pete Chilcutt?

"I am grateful and I am just so happy for Clyde Drexler for winning his first championship," Hakeem said. "I am so happy to be a part of it."

This is how far out of hoopdom's mainstream Hakeem is: Despite being the NBA MVP last season and leading his team to the title that year, and then getting them into the Finals again, until this week, Hakeem had only one real product endorsement -- for water. Bottled Hakeem H20.

The label on the bottle reads, "Dream your dream, prepare to accomplish, finish strong."

Compare that with Shaq's frequent admonition to "be young, have fun, drink Pepsi."

L Hakeem picked up a new endorsement contract this week: Rice.

I'm serious. His two big endorsements are now water and rice.

What next for this zany guy? Asphalt? Salt and pepper?

His accomplishment in leading his team to the title is astonishing.

Two months ago, the conventional NBA wisdom was that the Rockets had potential. If they could recover from the loss of their point guard and their leading rebounder, if they could work hard and jell, they had a chance to achieve mediocrity.

In a pre-playoffs poll of NBA people to choose "The team to win it all," it was Spurs with 78 votes, then the Magic with 44, and the Rockets were ninth with six votes.

What happened? Well, Clyde happened. And Robert (I'm Taking My Game Up Two Notches) Horry. And Mario (I Don't Think We're In The CBA Anymore, Toto) Elie.

But mostly what happened was a Nigerian-American basketball player and former soccer goalie appropriately named the Dream.

Shaq and Penny Hardaway have talked about how they are the new Kareem-and-Magic-Johnson dynasty makers.

But if you're looking for a good bet for a dynasty for the next half-decade, you might want to check out these two Houston kids,the Glide and the Dream. It's a strange style of ball they play, but it might be catching on.

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