Basketball: Dream king on a global mission

Owen Slot looks at a game whose players are its salesmen
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THE plastic covers told the story. They had been put on the lockers of the home dressing room at The Summit arena in Houston, and when the Rockets arrived before what turned out to be the last game of last season, it was clear that they were expected to be spraying the champagne afterwards. The Houston Rockets were 3-0 up on Orlando Magic, but before they went out to make it a 4-0 victory in the NBA finals, Hakeem Olajuwon, the captain and star player, sat the team down and reminded them of their extraordinary mantra: "Be hungry, stay humble."

Houston won that game 113-101 and, against all expectations, a second consecutive NBA championship. And in completing one of the cleanest ever final series against Orlando, they took as much credit for their dignity in victory as for the talent which delivered it. Before the final game, Rockets fans were asked to leave outside the brooms they had brought to exacerbate the humiliation of Orlando's clean-sweep defeat, and after, the tributes rained in on Olajuwon, the man who embodied the Houston's triumph. "In my book he's the best in a long time," Horace Grant, one of the beaten opposition, said. David Stern, the NBA commissioner, concurred. "He is a gentleman of extraordinary grace and extreme talent. I'm not allowed to root, but I've become a Hakeem Olajuwon fan."

Olajuwon had just completed his 12th NBA season yet superstar status was only just being conferred. This explains why in England, where the Houston Rockets will be playing this week in the McDonald's Championship, their superstar's profile has not been as high as his achievements merit. Lesser players have landed huge sponsorship deals but not so Olajuwon, as his business partner Ajamal Khan explains: "If you're bad, you're recognised - that's the way it's been over the last 10 years and maybe that's why Hakeem has missed out."

However, the manner in which he has led the Rockets to successive championships has made him impossible to ignore. On the eve of winning the 1994 title, when Olajuwon was due to be presented the MVP award for the season, he refused to attend the ceremony unless his team-mates accompanied him and he insisted on being photographed with all of them putting a hand on the trophy. As Khan said: "Hakeem won't sing rap, he's not a taunter or a trash talker, he's just a tremendous role model."

This, however, was not lost on the NBA, whose policy has long been to use their players - who the administrators describe as their greatest asset - to sell the sport. In all 29 NBA cities, the players promote educational programmes - "Stay in school" and "Say no to drugs" for instance. Before the Rockets had won either championship, the NBA gave Olajuwon a paid role that only Magic Johnson had previously held, as their International Spokesman.

Olajuwon, a devout Muslim who is Nigerian born and bred, is deemed particularly useful at a time when the NBA seeks to spread the word abroad. Paul Ziek, chairman of NBA Europe, explained: "Hakeem represents the best of what we hope NBA players can be like. Magic was chosen because he was recognised and loved worldwide, Hakeem didn't have that but his added dimension is that he isn't originally American."

With the fingers of expansion stretching around the globe - 160 countries now take NBA coverage - Stern has talked about a World Championship on a par with the football World Cup. "That may be a pipe dream," he said, "but take the UK - we're seeing what happened in America 15 or 20 years ago. The signs of growth are there and that is why we are holding the McDonald's Championship in London."

The latest news from Houston is that Olajuwon has injured an elbow and might have to withdraw. Either way, completely in character, he has insisted on attending. They call him Hakeem the Dream - and that now goes for the NBA people as well as the happy hordes of Houston.