Sports Spotlight: Pro basketball - HAKEEM Vs. BARKLEY - Poll has pair nearly even for MVP . . .
Houston Chronicle - Wednesday, MARCH 31, 1993
When Charles Barkley returned to Philadelphia last weekend for the first time since being traded to Phoenix, he was met with ovations and chants of "MVP, MVP."
Barkley is having a whopper of a season, but there may yet be one huge obstacle standing between him and the top individual honor the NBA offers.
According to players and coaches around the league and a sampling of voters for the award, Olajuwon is waiting for Barkley like he waits for incoming drives down the paint. Barkley is rising up with a full head of steam. Olajuwon is looming, ready to swat away Barkley's best shot.
It's one-on-one for the Most Valuable Player award.
For Olajuwon and Barkley, the best advice about the MVP trophy should be that there is no disgrace in finishing as the second-best player in the world. One of them likely will come in second when the award is announced in May. The other will win it.
Michael Jordan, Chicago's wondrous star, has won the past two MVP awards and cannot be counted out this year. But his otherworldly ability seems to have numbed voters and peers. After expecting Jordan to be the best player on earth for years, it's easy to take him for granted just because he still is.
This year, as the season chugs into April, the sentiment is firmly on the side of Olajuwon and Barkley. And the next month could decide who wins and loses. That's how close it is.
"Hakeem and Barkley, you could throw their names in a hat and draw out either one for MVP," Charlotte's Kenny Gattison said recently. "And no matter which one was drawn out, nobody would be able to argue against him."
Not that there aren't some biased opinions out there. Everybody from top to bottom in the Rockets organization is confident Olajuwon is having the best season of anybody in the NBA.
Of course, the award isn't for best player. It's for whoever is deemed most valuable.
On Tuesday, the Chronicle took an informal poll of 20 media members around the country, most of whom are on the panel to vote for the award next month.
Voters were asked to list their top three choices for MVP. A first-place vote was worth five points, second was worth three, and third was worth one point.
Olajuwon was the only player named on all 20 ballots. He gathered seven first-place ballots and finished with 66 total points.
Barkley gained more first-place votes (11) than Olajuwon but was left off three ballots completely. There still seemed to be sort of a love-hate relationship between Barkley and media members as he received only two second-place votes and finished with 65 total points.
Jordan was third with 34 total points, including two first-place votes. Nobody else had more than seven points.
Olajuwon has maintained throughout the past month that the MVP isn't his overriding ambition.
"What is important is to keep winning," he says. "If we do that, individual awards will take care of themselves. We have to worry about winning our division first."
Olajuwon is absolutely correct. The last eight MVP awards have gone to Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. This seems to be the year that somebody else will step into that elite group.
The Rockets certainly have their idea of how the rating system should go.
"I've got to go with Hakeem," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "The guy has done so much. I'd hate to think where we'd be without him."
At the very least, says guard Kenny Smith, Olajuwon is leading as the field turns for the finish line.
"Our guy is the front-runner," says Smith. "From where we've come from, Hakeem deserves it.
"It's one thing to sustain your play from season to season. It's a bigger feat to elevate your play from one season to the next. Hakeem has done that.
"And our team came out of obscurity. That's the big thing in determining the MVP -- how well a team is doing."
The Rockets, who were 42-40 last season, have surpassed every preseason expectation that was placed on them. Olajuwon has been the main reason the team has compiled a 44-25 record. Phoenix (52-15) has been the best team in the league since the first month of the season. Barkley's addition obviously has turned a good Phoenix team that won 53 games last year into what will be a 60-plus-win team.
"They should be co-MVPs," says Scott Brooks, one of the few players who has had the opportunity to team with Barkley and Olajuwon. Brooks was with Philadelphia when the Sixers won the Atlantic Division title in 1990.
"Hakeem and Charles both have helped their teams play well this year," Brooks said. "They worked hard for so many years when they didn't have a chance for the MVP because their teams weren't very good.
"Hakeem is unbelievable in the things he does.
"But I don't want Charles to get mad at me. He deserved it the year we won the division."
That year, Barkley gathered more first-place votes (38) than Magic Johnson (27). Yet there was a certain amount of disdain for the controversial Barkley, and he still finished second to Johnson 636-614.
The official MVP balloting consists of about 95 voters who rate their top five players. The voting is done with about two weeks left in the regular season.
There will be other things that enter into the final tally besides statistics. Put Barkley, Olajuwon and Jordan side-by-side statistically, and it would be like choosing between a Corvette, a Jaguar and a Porsche.
There are at least three other key departments.
... How strong a player has made his team.
In many respects, this may be the reason Jordan is lagging in the early returns.
"You can give Michael the trophy every year if you go on who is the best player," Brooks says. "You can argue that point, and it would be a fair argument.
"But I think other guys are deserving. This year, it's Hakeem and Charles."
Jordan's greatness, says Washington coach Wes Unseld, tends to become boring.
"I think people sometimes expect too much from Michael," Unseld says. "He's on such a high plane, people expect him to do it every night. That's tough to live up to."
As Tomjanovich said: "Michael is one of the greatest players of all time. Maybe the greatest player of all time. I'm sure that works against him."
Rockets forward Matt Bullard said the fact that there are no other All-Stars on the Rockets this season helps Olajuwon's case.
"In Chicago, Jordan has got guys around him who are All-Stars, like Scottie Pippen. In Phoenix, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle are All-Stars.
"But we don't have any other All-Stars."
It is universally agreed upon that Olajuwon has done more with a weaker supporting cast than rival centers Patrick Ewing in New York and David Robinson in San Antonio.
Barkley's team has a much better record than that of the Rockets, but he also has a much better group of players around him.
Of course, Jordan has an excellent support group in Chicago, but the Bulls' world still revolves around him.
"If you take any of those guys off those teams, they don't win 50 games," Smith says. "In that respect, they are all valuable."
... The Dream Team factor.
Barkley, Jordan and the rest of the U.S. Olympic basketball players have been in the sport's limelight since July. That notoriety has done nothing but help Barkley's case for the award.
While Barkley was draping gold around his neck in Barcelona, Spain, Olajuwon still was involved in a bitter dispute with management in Houston. He wasn't even sure then if he was going to be a Rocket this season. He certainly did not want to be.
Barkley got his wish when he was traded to the Phoenix Suns from Philadelphia. It took away another reason for voters to overlook him. No longer was Barkley a great player on a poor or mediocre team.
... Fan appeal. MVP sometimes can stand for Marketing Via Performance.
There is a reason why Chicago sells out every road game. That reason is Michael Jordan.
The same goes for Phoenix. The Suns have one of the highest road-attendance averages in the NBA.
Olajuwon? He still suffers in the public-relations business by not having a major endorsement contract that includes television spots or billboards or whatever.
It is one of those obstacles Olajuwon has had to sidestep this season. He has done so by becoming an MVP candidate on productivity alone.
" Hakeem is as good as anyone in the entire league right now," says Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean. "When you analyze low-post play, if you can get a dominant big man to take baseline jumpers similar to the days of (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, that's what you're striving to do. If a man makes those shots, so be it.
"And Olajuwon makes those shots."
And he rebounds. And plays defense. And wins games.
If Olajuwon isn't having an MVP season, it's only because Barkley is.