View Full Version : Poll: Lots of choices, but "Hakeem the Dream" above rest

11-23-2002, 11:35 AM
The details of his first appearance have grown apocryphal through the years.

Did he really make his landing in New York for the start of an American tour, feel the chill in the air and get right back on the next plane to the next stop in a warmer place? Was he really dropped off by a taxi smack into the lap of Guy V. Lewis?

Does it matter?

Hakeem Olajuwon's is a Houston story like so many others, one of arrival, of putting down roots, of making a career and life that has come to full bloom in this hothouse climate that has always been so welcoming and nurturing to strangers.
In a place where being Texan means so much to so many, his is the classic immigrant's tale, whether that means coming from the Yankee north, the beaches of California or as far away as Lagos, Nigeria.
It is then odd and fitting that in a place where there is such an abundance of home-grown talent, Olajuwon's is the singular name and face that represents our corner of the map to the sports world.

Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken Jr. are Baltimore. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle are New York. Chicago is Michael Jordan and Mike Ditka.

Hakeem the Dream is Houston.

That is saying quite a lot. For when you begin to go through the pages of the archives, take time to stop and examine the landscape, you find this upstart burg on the bayous has a richness of sports names -- and true icons -- that is amazing for its depth and its breadth.

Go ahead, try to make a list of the top 10 all-time athletes who are from the Houston area or whose famous reputations were made here and see how many you offend when they don't make the cut.

Basketball, baseball, football and hockey. Golf, auto racing, boxing, track & field and the rest of the Olympic sports.

If we're talking accomplishments and worldwide recognition, Olajuwon's only real competition is Carl Lewis, perhaps the greatest Olympian ever.

Lewis not only equaled Jesse Owens' feat of winning four gold medals in 1984 at Los Angeles, but expanded the boundaries of his sport. He won gold in the long jump in four straight Olympics. He was the pioneer in proving sprinters don't have to flame out at a young age and was the first to set the world record in the 100 meters in his 30s.

But Lewis, for his global notoriety, was more frequently seen representing the Santa Monica Track Club and the United States. Hakeem's greatest achievements -- in college and the pros -- always came with the word "Houston" printed across the front of his jersey.

In terms of pure icons, the discussion is, of course, limited to the No. 34s -- Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Olajuwon. A flamethrowing pitcher, a Brahma bull of a running back and a big man who played with uncommon grace, agility and a warrior's commitment. Each one embodied the traits that are associated with Houston -- independence, relentless determination and humility.

We don't brag. We're not Dallas.

But don't forget that toughest, orneriest, greatest driver ever to sit behind the wheel of a race car and the world's oldest heavyweight champion come from these parts. Yes, A.J. Foyt and George Foreman live here.

This is a big city that, in a lot of ways, is like a college campus, opening its arms to the outside world and willing to make anyone a favorite son -- or daughter -- if they show the right stuff. Once you belong to Houston, it will never let you go.

In his own world of basketball alone, Olajuwon stands out among so many greats of the game who have played and stayed here. Moses Malone, his mentor in the early days, and Elvin Hayes, his predecessor as a bellwether at the University of Houston, would be on the short list of anyone's all-timers.

Clyde Drexler's star rose at Sterling High and UH before he finally returned home from Portland for the end of his NBA career and won a championship with Olajuwon in 1995. Calvin Murphy, the little engine that could, is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as much for his attitude and inspiration as for his skills, which were considerable. There is also Rudy Tomjanovich, a lifer as a Rocket, who will always have a special place here.

Go back to the '50s, and Houstonian Slater Martin played on a pair of NBA championship teams. If you want to be liberal, another pair of NBA Top 50 players -- Rick Barry and Charles Barkley -- laced up their sneakers in Houston for a while, though their reputations were earned elsewhere.

The Comets, in their brief existence, have had Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes to admire as champions.

Before the Texans brought the sheer fun of the NFL back to town this season, the Oilers laid down the foundation of history. Prior to Campbell there was George Blanda in the infant days of the AFL. Joining him and Earl in the Hall of Fame eventually was Mike Munchak. Bruce Matthews and likely Warren Moon are not far behind. Though his NFL career never bore fruit, Andre Ware won the Heisman Trophy in a magical season.

The Ryan Express, of course, begat Roger Clemens in the tradition of the Texas power pitcher who has gone out to conquer the world, while keeping his roots in our back yard. The Astros brought to the majors a 19-year-old named Larry Dierker, who became a local icon for so many reasons. There have been the heat-seeking missiles of J.R. Richard and the baffling pitches of Mike Scott. Jeff Bagwell, the workingman's slugger, is a future Hall of Famer, and Craig Biggio has endeared and become part of the fabric with his dirty face and his fire inside.

In a haven for golf, so many of the great names have roots or connections in Houston -- Jack Burke Jr., Jimmy Demaret, Carol Mann, Doug Sanders, Fred Couples and Steve Elkington. We can even claim Colin Montgomerie, when he's not being grumpy, for his brief stint at Houston Baptist.

His legend always will be with the Detroit Red Wings, but Gordie Howe played for the original Houston Aeros and won a pair of World Hockey Association titles.

With the backdrop of the Olympics, Lewis has had considerable company. His running mate -- and current UH track coach -- Leroy Burrell was ranked No. 1 in the world and held the world record in the 100. Carol Lewis, Joe DeLoach, Kirk Baptiste, Frank Rutherford and Andre Action Jackson are other former Cougar tracksters who finish off this distinguished list.

Gymnast Mary Lou Retton tumbled into Houston to train with Bela Karolyi and became America's sweetheart with her perfect 10 at the LA Olympics in 1984, married former University of Texas quarterback Shannon Kelley and lives here with her family. Tara Lipinski whipped across the ice at Nagano in 1998 like a twister out of Sugar Land and soared like a NASA rocket to the top in figure skating. Laura Wilkinson of The Woodlands dove to Olympic glory at Sydney in 2000. The late Flo Hyman was a world-class volleyball player. Olympic gold has glittered in all their reflected talents.

Yet when the lists are stretched so far out, when there are other accomplishments added and other names remembered, when the bar room debates and the living room discussions continue, there no is disputing the name that belongs at the top.

Listen to one who might someday join the icons.

"He is the biggest athlete ever in this city," Steve Francis said.

Hakeem is Houston.

Always will be.i/expressions/face-icon-small-wink.gif