HOUSTON — He still remembers the last time it happened, three years ago, when North Carolina State tried a last-second shot that fell so short it landed in the hands of another Wolfpack player, Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it to steal away the NCAA championship.

“How long did that frustration stay with you?” someone asked Akeem Olajuwon, who played for Houston, the team that lost.

“It stayed for months,” he said. “Everywhere I went people asked me about it. Everywhere I went people wanted to talk about it.” He passed a basketball back and forth between his large hands. He shrugged his shoulders. “It was a long summer,” he said. Now Akeem the Dreem is on the lip of losing it again. Another championship. In another Houston uniform. It’s a slower process this time, a best-of-seven NBA final series between the Rockets and the Celtics, which the Celtics lead, 3-1. Game 5 is tonight. Which means by Friday

morning, the long summer could begin again.

It’s unlikely Houston can come back. Boston is too strong, too deep, too experienced. But if nothing else comes out of this series for the Rockets — who until last week, were the tall strangers who played second fiddle to the LA Lakers — insiders here have come to realize these two facts:

This team is no fluke. And Akeem Olajuwon is one of the best things to hit the NBA in a long time.Whip, not ice cream

It is as if Alice laced up a pair of Converse shoes and jumped down the rabbit hole all over again. Olajuwon, 23, a Nigerian who has been in America all of six years, has such a healthy fascination with the sport, coupled with a shrewd understanding of how it works, that he walks head and shoulders above many of his NBA peers — and not just because he stands 7 feet tall. He has come a long way for a guy who used to bow when introduced, and who once ordered a bowl of Redi-Whip, then asked the waitress, “Why is this ice cream not cold?”

Today, it is true, Olajuwon’s annual income is in seven figures. But it is also true that a six-year-old girl called his hotel room last week and he wound up taking her out to dinner. True, he owns an expensive sports car with a “DREEM” license plate. But when he passes a Taco Bell drive-thru he is still fascinated. “People talking to a box from their car window,” he said, laughing. “This is too much.” His name translates to “always being on the top,” an accurate description of his inside basketball style: a spinning, leaping, jump-hooking game that few teams have been able to stop. Boston has double-teamed him as often as it can and he still is averaging 24.3 points and 11 rebounds a game. But it is the total package of Olajuwon — the explosive basketball skill combined with the one-eyed-cocked approach to American life — that makes him such a welcome addition to the NBA. He is powerful, yet never rude, respectful of tradition, yet ignorant of a lot of it
— “I’m not from around here” he said when asked what he thought of the Boston Garden mystique. He is popular with his peers, yet independent enough to criticize the way many of them butcher the English language.

And he is still waiting to see what this championship ring business is all about.

“What do you think when you see the champagne and the trophy being brought here in case the Celtics win tonight?” someone asked him.

“Take it back to Boston!” he said, laughing. No space in the lane

Maybe the highest compliment you can pay Olajuwon is that nobody here — except maybe the Celtics — wants to see him on the losing team, even though that seems inevitable. The Celtics have “taken away my space,” he said, by double-teaming him. And their experience with championship pressure showed in Tuesday night’s 106-103, last-minute win. “I have to play (tonight) without any fear, with no worry about fouling out,” he said. “I know the chances are small we can win the series, but we can win this game and go back to Boston. That’s what we want.”

He squeezed the basketball. “It is not over until it is over,” he said. The crowd chuckled. Olajuwon looked at it with that curious “what did I do?” smile. “Yogi Berra said that,” someone said. “What?” Olajuwon said. “It ain’t over till it’s over.” “Nah, man, he said it?” he asked, stepping back and laughing like a kid watching a cartoon. “Well that’s right, you know. It isn’t.” Not for a few more hours anyhow. Win or lose tonight, this Dreem still will be around when Houston fans wake up Friday morning. For that, at least, they can count themselves fortunate. CUTLINE Akeem Olajuwon

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