ROCKETS Send Olajuwon to Raptors

Friday, August 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ For the first time in 17 years, the Houston Rockets are planning a season without Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Rockets completed a sign-and-trade agreement Thursday night that sent one of the city's greatest sports heroes to the Toronto Raptors for first- and second-round draft picks.

Olajuwon came to Texas at age 17 and spent the next 20 seasons leading the Houston Cougars to three NCAA Final Four appearances and taking the Houston Rockets to NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.

His absence is going to take some getting used to for everyone, including general manager Carroll Dawson.

``People say did we do everything we could to keep him,'' Dawson said. ``I hope we did. I stayed up night after night trying to think of things to make it work. People ask if I have regrets, but I can't think of anything that we didn't do or try to do to keep him here. We tried our very best.''

Olajuwon turned down the team's final offer of $13 million for three years. Toronto reportedly offered him $17 million for three years.

``I feel like a rookie again,'' Olajuwon said in Toronto late Thursday. ``I'm excited. It's a new opportunity to establish myself.''

Olajuwon hinted that he felt more wanted by the Raptors.

``Toronto realized I have value to their organization,'' Olajuwon said when asked if he felt Houston's interest in him was genuine. ``This is a team that has a chance of winning an NBA championship.

Olajuwon has two NBA championship rings from the Rockets' back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.

``For the 17 years he's been here, we had a good relationship,'' Dawson said. ``We had a lot of inside jokes. We'd laugh and everyone thought we were crazy because we were the only ones who knew what was gong on. It was fun.''

Olajuwon was not at the news conference announcing the agreement, but his agent, Dan Fegan, said his client just thought it was time to move on.

``This wasn't an antagonistic parting,'' Fegan said. ``It was Hakeem realizing it was time to pass the torch. It was not about money. It was not about respect. Hakeem is truly grateful for the years he's had there.

``In his heart, he didn't want to be paid for what he did in the past. He wanted to be paid for what he does now. There was a feeling that he might be getting paid for past accomplishments.''

Olajuwon led the University of Houston to three straight trips to the Final Four. The Cougars were 88-16 in Olajuwon's three seasons before the Rockets drafted him in the first round in 1984.

In his 17 seasons with the Rockets, Olajuwon averaged 22.5 points and 11.4 rebounds. He is the NBA's career leader in blocked shots and is a 14-time All-Star.

Olajuwon was named as one of the NBA's 50 greatest players and was on the 1996 gold medal-winning Olympic basketball team.

Olajuwon played in 58 games for the Rockets last season, averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds and making 49.8 percent of his shots.

``It's just one of those situations in life you have to deal with,'' Rockets guard Cuttino Mobley said. ``Dream did what he thought was best for himself and his family.''

The addition of Olajuwon and the signings of Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams and Vince Carter have made Toronto one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors advanced to the seventh game of the second round in the playoffs last season before being eliminated by Philadelphia.

The Raptors gave up their own lottery-protected No. 1 draft pick in 2002 and a second-round pick in 2002 acquired earlier this summer from Detroit.

``He is a proven winner with solid leadership skills,'' Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald said of Olajuwon. ``We are confident he will be a valuable asset to our team, not only for his individual abilities, but also because he's the type of player who makes his teammates better.''

With Olajuwon gone, the Rockets' next move will be to sign their free agents, Shandon Anderson, Maurice Taylor, Moochie Norris and Matt Bullard.