Last week I wrote a brief piece on Manu Ginobili’s 15 assists in 23 minutes of play. And previous explorations of statistical oddities have included Al Jefferson playing +50 minutes and attempting zero free throws, Isaiah Thomas scoring 27 points in under 16 minutes and Rajon Rondo’s 3×15 triple double. Through the research of these anomalies, I always learn a little something like Bob Cousy never shot over 40% from the field for his entire career (it was a Jamal Crawford stat that led me there). Last night I was digging through box scores looking for stories I had missed during the evening and despite Deron Williams’s immaculate night from three (11-16 from deep) and Kobe’s much-needed heroics, the oddball line of the night went to the University of Iowa’s own Reggie Evans who got to the line 16 times and grabbed 24 rebounds.
That line put him in the company of some of league’s best and most dominant big men of the past 30 years:
It’s no surprise to see Shaq, Dwight, Hakeem or Charles Barkley on this list. Lorenzen Wright and Joe Barry Carroll are more of the Reggie Evans variety, but Wright played 44 minutes and Carroll (aka Joe Barely Cares) played 55 minutes so it’s a bit more of a volume play. Evans played just 32 minutes (the only guy on the list under 40 minutes) and is also the oldest player at nearly 33 years. He grabbed just under 35% of the total possible rebounds while he was on the court. By comparison, Evans leads the league in this stat at 24.9%.
This is where these little weekend posts typically end. I’ll throw a youtube clip on the end of it and put it out into the world for consumption, but not this time. If you look back up at the table above and find #4 on the list: Hakeem Olajuwon’s 32-point, 25-rebound, 20-free throw attempt, 10-block performance against a hapless Magic squad on a chilly Sunday night back in December of 1989. I was nine years old at the time and most likely completely oblivious to The Dream’s ridiculous performance what with my age and the fact that Christmas was a week away.
This game sent me on a bit of search today; a search to have some context and understanding around Olajuwon’s game. The quest took me from the Houston Chronicle’s archives to the Orlando Sentinel’s archives to USA Today’s archives, then the SI Vault, onto reviews of newspaper database sites and finally to what felt like the grail of news of resources: NewsLibrary.com which has an easy-to-use/search database of hundreds of millions of articles and stories. Throughout this search, I was continually appalled by the lack of quality, the lack of results and terrible usability on some of the aforementioned sites. Most notably, the Houston Chronicle and USA Today have truly pathetic archive sections that either don’t work as intended or are impossible to find.
Media critiques aside, what Olajuwon accomplished in Orlando that night hasn’t been done by another player in the league in the 28 years covered by Basketball-reference’s box score database. In digging through the stories and recaps of the game, it’s plain to see the Magic were overmatched from the get go. This was Orlando’s inaugural season in the league and their roster reflected it with a group of pro basketball rejects; unwanted and unloved by the rest of the league’s General Managers. The team featured Scott Skiles, rookie Nick Anderson, Reggie Theus and other guys you likely haven’t heard of unless you’re around my age (32) or older. On the night Olajuwon crushed them, they started Mark Acres at center and Sidney Green at power forward. Missing from the lineup was their scoring leader and rugged PF, Terry Catledge. So it was Acres, Green and rotation guy Jeff Turner (owner of a 6ppg career scoring average). To compare the post mismatch in today’s terms, it’d be like sending Mark Madsen, Shelden Williams and Reggie Evans to war against well … no one in today’s game compares to the 1989 Olajuwon, so just imagine those three guys I just mentioned trying to stop the Dream.
I don’t mean to put down Turner, Acres and Green, but rather to show how outmatched the Magic were. The Orlando Sentinel’s write-up (written by Barry Cooper) praised the bench group (which Turner was a part of) for their hustle while spelling out the facts simply: “…Acres played hard against him (Olajuwon), but most of the rebounds Olajuwon grabbed were nearly uncontested.” As for Green who started in place of the ailing Catledge, “perhaps the Magic’s best post-up defender, didn’t take a shot and had only two rebounds in 10 minutes.”
Here’s the box score where we see Olajuwon had a ridiculous D-Rating of 72 for the game. It was his second triple double of the season and the fifth of his career. The 25 rebounds tied his career-high at that point and the 20 free throw attempts set a new career-high. In calling out that Olajuwon hit just 12 of his 20 FTAs, Houston Chronicle writer Eddie Sefko interestingly wrote “But for a change, not everybody jumped on Olajuwon’s back.” Given that he averaged over 24 points while leading the league in rebounding at 14rpg and blocks at 4.6bpg, played 39mpg while appearing in all 82 Rockets games; it’s intriguing that Sefko mentions this and reminds me of the Olajuwon section in Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball where he references some of the less desirable traits of Olajuwon’s. While Sefko’s message is partly referring to his poor free throw shooting, you can piece together something of a love/hate relationship that existed between Houston fans and Olajuwon during this period.
The Chronicle’s recap also includes a quote from Orlando coach Matt Guokos that was left out of the Sentinel’s home town recap: “The discouraging aspect of going to the basket and getting shot after shot blocked kind of got to us.” Imagine the psychological impact of Olajuwon patrolling the paint that night. Your leading post scorer is out for the game, you’re an expansion team that was thrown together with spare parts. It’s almost Christmas and the excitement of being part of a new franchise has worn away and the reality that you’re playing against the best center in the league is wholly evident. You try to get in the paint for high percentage shots, but every time you turn a corner or beat a defender, there’s Olajuwon, crouched in his defensive position, but he’s a predator, he’s the hunter. He waits and times his jumps perfectly. Sure, he blocks 10 of your shots, but how many does he alter? How many times do you second guess penetrating? And at the end your coach finally admits what you and your exhausted teammates had been feeling all night long: It’s discouraging. He was just too good.
Olajuwon himself acknowledged the mismatch: “In a game like this, they really don’t have a legitimate center in the middle, so we have to take advantage of that.”
The Rockets underachieved in this game and it led to Olajuwon playing big minutes (43) out necessity more than anything else. Despite winning by 15, Houston was up just one point heading into the fourth quarter. By that point, the Magic were done driving into the paint and settled for jumpers which Olajuwon presumably tracked down on his way to the 25 boards. It was the perfect setting for Akeem to have a big game and he took full advantage.
My journey into the rabbit hole of box scores and recaps today is just an extension of the box score readings I used to do when I was a kid. I’d find the Sports section in the Des Moines Register, flip to the back to see the box scores and look for the explosions, the inconsistencies, the triple doubles, the 50-point outbursts and find some sense of satisfaction in the deviations. So many years later and years removed from reading box scores and getting dark ink smudges on my fingertips and thumbs, I’m still intrigued by the abnormal accomplishment and appreciate it for being one of the few things in sports that’s still so unpredictable; just like it’s unpredictable that a Reggie Evans 24-rebound, 15-free throw attempt on a Friday night in March in 2013 would lead me to contemplating Akeem Olajuwon’s relationship with Houston fans in the winter of 1989.
Twin Tower days prior to Olajuwon’s obliteration of Orlando