The '90s Basketball Star Michael Jordan Admired Most

Is there anything about Michael Jordan and his greatness as a basketball player that hasn't already been said? He's been a winner practically everywhere he's played — the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, Team USA in the Olympics (both as a college star and as a pro), and of course, the Chicago Bulls. As a 6-foot-6-inch shooting guard who could also moonlight as a small forward or point guard and be just as dominant, Jordan revolutionized the game of basketball on both ends of the floor and has six NBA championships to show for it. Making that more impressive is how he played in an era that many consider being the greatest in league history (at least as of 2013) – Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and John Stockton were all in their prime in the 1990s, and Jordan won more championships than all those men combined (zero — that's right, zero). 

Like any iconic athlete worth their salt, Jordan made sure to give credit where it's due, and he hasn't shied away from giving glowing praise to many of the legends he played with, especially during the 1990s when his Bulls were nigh unstoppable. However, there's one player who also had his best playing years in that decade who just might stand out as the individual who MJ admired — and maybe even feared — the most during his heyday.

Jordan has always had a lot of praise for Hakeem Olajuwon

This should be common knowledge for the average hardcore basketball fan, but Michael Jordan was not the first overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. That distinction went to Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon, who was selected by the hometown Rockets en route to a Hall of Fame career. And if former Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich is to be believed, Olajuwon was a player who Jordan and the Bulls had an especially hard time containing during their matchups. "He gave our team great respect," Tomjanovich told The Athletic (via Essentially Sports). "He didn't feel that they could contain Hakeem. They just didn't have the personnel to do it. And he said he thought we were the team that gave them the most trouble."

Jordan himself had nice things to say about Olajuwon, though it may not have been obvious at first glance. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1996, the Chicago Bulls legend described his team, which would go on to win a then-record 72 games in the 1995-96 NBA season, as "just a bunch of small, versatile guys playing different positions" before hinting at how traditional, back-to-the-basket centers who did little beyond scoring and defending inside and grabbing rebounds, were going out of style. "You haven't had a dominant center win a championship in eight years, and don't talk about Olajuwon," he added. "He's a small forward playing center."

Again, those comments should not be misconstrued as shade. Olajuwon was a truly versatile and athletic center who, after starting his professional career as one of those classic old-school men in the middle, developed superb passing and ball-hawking skills, two attributes that are mostly associated with guards. That was something Jordan focused on many years later when talking about Olajuwon for a promotional video for the "NBA 2K14" video game.

MJ's brief first retirement may have deprived fans of a Bulls vs. Rockets Finals

The 1990s Chicago Bulls were, hands down, one of the most dominant dynasties in NBA history, but there's arguably a reason why they had two non-consecutive three-peats that decade instead of potentially going the way of the 1950s/1960s Boston Celtics and winning eight straight championships. That's because Michael Jordan shockingly retired from basketball in 1993, taking a nearly two-year sabbatical from the NBA and trying his luck in professional baseball.

In the meantime, Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets stepped up as the NBA's best team, winning two straight titles in 1994 and 1995. But would they have pulled that off if ol' No. 23 was still dominating (basketball) games over at the Windy City? It's an interesting what-if situation to ponder, particularly if you take into account how the Rockets (13) won more games than the Bulls (10) in the 23 games "The Dream" and "His Airness" played against each other when they were with their respective teams. (Obviously, Olajuwon's one-year stint with the Toronto Raptors and Jordan's spell with the Washington Wizards don't count here.) Furthermore, Olajuwon had 14 double-doubles in those matchups — another day at the office for the Nigerian-born big man, but quite telling in the context of a rivalry against a player many consider to be the greatest of all time.

Hakeem has also shown a lot of love for Jordan

The respect between Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon is definitely mutual, and that was evident when the latter was asked by CNBC to share his thoughts on who's better — MJ or LeBron James. He left no doubt on who he felt was the NBA's G.O.A.T., seemingly adding a subtle dig at today's generation of NBA players while at it. "That's not a fair comparison," Olajuwon explained."Jordan was a far more superior player in a very tough league, and he was very creative. That's not taking away anything from LeBron because he is a great player, but it is not a fair comparison because Jordan is a far superior player."

On the other hand, Olajuwon also believes it isn't fair to say that the Houston Rockets only won their two championships in the mid-'90s because Jordan was chasing his baseball dream. The Hall of Fame center pointed out that Jordan wasn't technically gone for two years — he returned late in the 1994-95 season and while he came fairly close, he and his fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls weren't able to get past Shaquille O'Neal's first-seeded Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

"You know, a lot of people, they say that and it's amazing because they act like (a Bulls-Rockets Finals) couldn't have happened. Orlando beat them," Olajuwon told The Athletic, as quoted by Sportscasting. "He was playing (in 1995). He missed a year. They say he missed two years, but he lost in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference. Against a tough Orlando team. You have Penny Hardaway, (Nick) Anderson, and Shaq. That's a monster. They beat them!"