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Rockets fans honor Olajuwon's career

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2002

HOUSTON -- Hakeem Olajuwon relived a moment from his past, hearing the Houston Rockets' fans chanting ''MVP, MVP,'' just as they did when he won the honor in 1994.

Then, Olajuwon departed to begin his new life away from basketball. And he promised not to look back.

Olajuwon formally announced his retirement before an adoring audience Saturday night, during a ceremony at halftime of the Rockets' game against the Golden State Warriors. The home team retired his No. 34 jersey and hoisted it to the rafters of Compaq Center, where Olajuwon played 17 of his 18 seasons and led Houston to consecutive NBA titles in 1994 and '95.

''It's a wonderful feeling, just to see that you're still so welcome and still so well-received,'' Olajuwon said. ''That was something that was personally satisfying, and I'm very grateful for that.''

Olajuwon was an All-Star 12 times, holds the all-time record for career blocked shots and was named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players when the league celebrated its first half-century in business in 1996.

''I don't look at this as the end; it is the beginning of the next phase of my life,'' Olajuwon said. ''You know what you accomplished over the years, and now it is time to sit and watch.''

Olajuwon appeared most moved when owner Les Alexander told the fans that a life-sized statue of Olajuwon would be placed at the Rockets' new downtown arena, which opens next season.

''My image at the new stadium -- I think that is the ultimate,'' Olajuwon said. ''That is something you can't express your appreciation for, and your gratitude.''

The Rockets won their first NBA title in Alexander's first season as Rockets owner.

''I had the greatest player in the universe on my team; you can't get any better than that,'' Alexander said. ''Without Hakeem, that (title) would have been impossible. Without him, there would be no Clutch City.''

Houston was denigrated as ''Choke City'' when they fell behind Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals in 1994. They made a dramatic rally to win that series, and went on to beat the New York Knicks in a seven-game Finals.

''He's the greatest player in Houston history,'' Alexander said. ''If you had Hakeem on your team, you knew that you were going to win. He's the best all-around center to play the game.''

Olajuwon averaged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds during his career, but he decided to retire after a disappointing final season with Toronto, in which his production slipped to 7.1 points and six rebounds.

One of Olajuwon's finest moments came during the 1995 Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs and their center, David Robinson. It's still a painful memory for Robinson.

''I was in my prime defensively, and I felt I could do a good job, but I really didn't,'' Robinson said. ''I didn't stop him very well, and that was really disappointing for me. I remember sitting there in Game 6 and being really disappointed that I wasn't able to stop him. He just controlled the series.''

Houston's new center, 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, was a quiet observer of Olajuwon's retirement celebration. He's known of Olajuwon since he was a teenager in China. The two players met briefly in the hallway at halftime.

''I've seen him for a long time, and I've learned a lot of things from watching him,'' Yao said. ''I knew this day would come, and I'm sorry that it has. I hope he can come to Houston and become a coach and teach me more.''

Olajuwon, 39, has real estate interests in Houston. He said he'd be occasionally visiting the Rockets to see how his old teammates were getting along.

Olajuwon turned down the Rockets' offer of a three-year contract worth $13 million and signed with the Raptors for three years and an $18 million package. But his heart always remained in Houston.

''I'm happy to be back in Houston to close this chapter in my life -- basketball -- and to have a new beginning,'' Olajuwon said. ''It's something I look forward to.''

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