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The new, improved Hakeem

He once was an emotional powder keg and when _ not if _ he went off, no one within earshot was safe.

He lashed out at teammates he deemed selfish or lazy. During a contract dispute, he called management cowards and fools. He argued with the media. He had little time for fans.

But that was the old, unhappy Hakeem Olajuwon.

He's long gone.

Two years ago, Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets' All-Star center and MVP candidate, re-embraced the teachings of Islam and realized he had lost sight of what's truly important.

"You have to separate life from basketball," he said.

"He really looks like a man who's at peace with himself now," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

Tree Rollins, a former teammate and current Orlando Magic player/coach, said Olajuwon is more cordial and polite to everyone.

"He's just a joy to be around," said Rollins, whose Orlando team plays at Houston tonight. "He's put things in the proper perspective."

In Olajuwon's defense, it's easy to see how basketball might have consumed him. Since he left Nigeria for the University of Houston in 1980, his life was basketball.

Blending strength and uncanny speed and agility for a 7-footer, he burst into national prominence as the Cougars reached three straight NCAA Final Fours (1982-84). They lost twice in the final _ in 1983 on a dramatic last-second dunk by North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles and in 1984 to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown.

The Rockets selected him with the first pick in the 1984 draft, two spots ahead of Michael Jordan, and paired him with 7-4 Ralph Sampson in their "Twin Towers" attack. In Olajuwon's second pro season, the Rockets reached the NBA Finals for just the second time in franchise history, losing to Boston 4-2.

But several key players, including Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd, succumbed to drugs and alcohol, and the Rockets' sparkling future fizzled out. The next five seasons, they did not advance beyond the Western Conference semifinals, including four straight first-round losses. Two seasons ago, they didn't make the playoffs.

Through it all, you'd be more apt to find Texas chili missing hearty chunks of beef than to see Olajuwon play poorly. He never averaged fewer than 20 points and 11 rebounds in a season. But he was frustrated and he vented it.


That is until Olajuwon, 31, who was raised a Muslim but had stopped practicing, made a pilgrimage to Mecca and rediscovered his faith.

"I matured," he said softly.

"Islam puts everything in perspective," explained Olajuwon's brother Afis, a senior at the University of Texas-San Antonio. "Basketball is just a game. Hakeem understands that.

"The most important thing people don't really know about him is how much he cares for people. He's always calm. He doesn't criticize. And if he sees someone in need, he will try to help. He's changed 100 percent."

Well, not exactly.

In contrast to his gentlemanly demeanor off the court, Olajuwon remains a towering terror on it.

"It's maturity and a constant effort to improve and work on different moves," he said. "You're forced to improve to stay ahead of the competition."

Olajuwon always has had the power, but added a baseline jumper and the so-called "Dream Shake," in which he hip fakes and rolls to the basket. He's also more adept at passing out of double teams to the open shooter.

It shows.

He had his finest season a year ago, averaging a career-high 26.1 points and 13.0 rebounds per game _ both fourth-best in the NBA. He led the league in blocks (342, 4.2 per game) and had a career-best in assists (291, 3.5 per game).

Houston won a franchise-record 55 regular-season games and reached the conference semifinals. Seattle beat Houston 4-3, winning the decisive game at home 103-100 in overtime.

Tomjanovich said _ and still maintains _ that Olajuwon should have been the league MVP, not Phoenix forward Charles Barkley. Olajuwon politely sidesteps the issue.

"For me to say that would discredit Charles Barkley, and he had a great year," said Olajuwon, who gained his U.S. citizenship last year. "In this league, there's always three or four players that will say the same thing. You can only choose one. Maybe this year."

He stops short of lobbying for a personal award. He speaks only of team goals. Still, he's among the favorites for the MVP, along with San Antonio center David Robinson and Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal.

The Rockets burst to a league-tying 15-0 record and were 38-14 entering Monday night's game at Utah. Olajuwon was averaging 26.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks.

"I think he's the best player in the league," teammate Kenny Smith said. "A lot of guys are really versatile and can do a lot of things that are good. He does a lot of things that are really great. That's the difference."

And yet, some contend he must win a championship to be recognized as an all-time great in the game.

"That's what every player wishes for," Olajuwon said of a title. "But this is a team sport. You have to have perfect timing. So, it's out of your control. You can't worry about it. The only thing you can do is make the best out of the situation, give it your best shot."