At the time, the arrival of Hakeem Olajuwon seemed like the icing on the cake.
It was August 2001 and the Toronto Raptors had recently agreed to long-term deals with Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams, and Alvin Williams.
The only piece missing was a true center to play next to Davis, who was really a better fit at power forward, despite being named to the All-Star team in 2000-01 while playing out of position at the No. 5 spot.
So when it was announced that Olajuwon would be joining the Raptors by way of a sign-and-trade agreement with the Houston Rockets, there was a great deal of excitement north of the border. Not only had the Raptors secured Carter heading into the prime of his career, now, in Olajuwon, they had signed someone who had been a household name in NBA circles since he was drafted first overall in 1984.
As per the Associated Press, the possibility of Olajuwon joining the Raptors had been discussed a day earlier, on Aug. 1, at the press conference to announce Carter’s six-year, $94 million extension. Carter was not shy when expressing his thoughts on the potential of teaming up with the future Hall of Famer, implying that he would handle the contract negotiations himself if that’s what it would take to get the deal done.
Controversial exit from Houston
At the other end of the spectrum, the Rockets were extremely sad to be letting go of a player who has spent his entire career with the franchise and won two championships, in 1994 and 1995.
Also known as The Dream, Olajuwon reportedly balked at a three-year, $13 million offer from the Rockets, which triggered the move to Toronto.
In the aftermath of the trade, which brought Olajuwon to the Raptors on a three-year, $17 million deal, here’s what Rockets owner Les Alexander had to say:
“Hakeem’s decision is disappointing for the entire Rockets organization. Hakeem Olajuwon has meant more to this franchise and this city than any other athlete in Houston history.
”We desperately wanted to keep him in a Rockets uniform for the remainder of his career and made every attempt to do so. It is with a heavy heart that we have agreed to his request.”
(Associated Press, Aug. 2, 2001)
The 7′ center was 39 years old and had played 17 seasons when he arrived in Toronto looking to prove that he had something left in the tank.
However by then, he hadn’t logged anywhere close to a full season of work since the 1996-97 season, when he appeared in 78 contests and posted averages of 23.2 points and 9.2 rebounds.
As Father Time and back problems began to catch up with Olajuwon, his scoring average dipped to 11.9 points over the course of 58 games in his last season with the Rockets.
Toronto was on the rise
The ability of general manager Glen Grunwald to lure Olajuwon to Toronto was a sign that Toronto was becoming a destination for NBA players. The Raptors’ popularity was at an all-time high both because of Vinsanity and because the team had just won its first playoff series in franchise history.
It made sense that a player would want to join the Raptors while they were trending upwards. The only downside was that the Raptors were going to be relying on a player at the tail end of his career to help them get to the next level.
The decision to take Olajuwon on a three-year contract proved costly for the Raptors. It became apparent very quickly that he was just a shell of what he had been in his prime.
The expectation wasn’t that Olajuwon would display the all-worldly talent like he had as a 27-year-old in the 1989-90 season, when he averaged 24.3 points, 14 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks, but the hope was that he would somehow turn out to be that missing piece.
In the blink of an eye
Olajuwon lasted just one season in Toronto. In 61 games (37 starts), he averaged 7.1 points and six rebounds in a career-low 22.6 minutes of action. Early on, he showed signs of what the Raptors were hoping to get for the entire season. On Nov. 20, 2001, Olajuwon scored 14 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, and swatted away five shots.
He would gradually fizzle out, though, never really finding a groove because of nagging injuries.
The Dream did appear is the team’s five playoff games and averaged 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17 minutes as a reserve, but without Carter in the lineup the Detroit Pistons were too much as they prevailed 3-2 in the best-of-5 series.
Ultimately, the Raptors needed more than just veteran leadership from Olajuwon to help them succeed. They also needed him to be productive.
The following season, Olajuwon was excused from training camp because of back problems (as per USA Today) and soon afterwards confirmed his plans to retire in front of the crowd at a Houston Rockets game on Nov. 9, 2002, clearly showing no lingering bad feelings between him, the Rockets’ organization, and the fans.
In 2008, Olajuwon was inducted into the Hall of Fame, his time in Toronto but a small footnote — a splash in the pan in an otherwise illustrious career.
The Dream in Toronto? It almost feels like it never even happened.