How a Tokyo plane ride saved Hakeem from leaving the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon
Mandatory Credit: Tim de Frisco /Allsport
Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Mandatory Credit: Tim de Frisco /Allsport /
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Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon (Credit: Tim Defrisco/ALLSPORT} /

There was a period of time in the franchise’s lore where Hakeem Olajuwon’s time on the Houston Rockets almost ended before it really got started.

There have been many stories from the Houston Rockets‘ championship days and prior. From the early 1980s when the Rockets shocked the world and made it to the NBA Finals to back-to-back years of winning the NBA lottery and forming the Twin Towers.

We all know Hakeem Olajuwon‘s remarkable story. He started playing basketball at a late age and became one of the best players in University of Houston history. Drafted by the Rockets in 1984, he became one of the preeminent big men of the 80s.

What is not talked about a lot is the contentious early 90s and how Olajuwon came extremely close to parting ways with the team before even having a chance to lead them to a championship. Of all things, it was a plane ride to exhibition games in Tokyo that saved the Rockets’ legacy.

Turmoil Within the Rockets Organization

On March 23rd, 1992, Hakeem Olajuwon was suspended (subscription required) after refusing to play in a game against the Sacramento Kings the prior Saturday after team doctors cleared him to play.

The star center told the Rockets he was still dealing with an injured hamstring, but Rockets officials believed Olajuwon was faking the injury as part of a negotiating tactic. It had gotten so bad that Olajuwon’s attorney had threatened legal action. The war of words was just starting.

“All we can do is refer to the ongoing pattern of re-negotiation demands,” Rockets General Manager, Steve Patterson, said. “He says he can’t play, therefore he’s suspended. If he gets out on the court and plays, then the suspension is lifted.”

Charlie Thomas, owner of the Rockets at the time, had this to say in regards to Olajuwon: “I’m not trying to build a personal relationship here. If he wants a personal relationship then it’s up to him to come to me. You know who makes people happy? Themselves, people make themselves happy.”

Next: Hakeem's Response