Ewing-Olajuwon was great in '84, barely memorable 30 years later

Before they were NBA stars, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing squared off the for the '84 NCAA title. (Getty)
Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing squared off the for the '84 NCAA title. (Getty)

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The title game of the 1979 NCAA Tournament, the one featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that set a record for television ratings that'll likely stand forever, is widely regarded as the single most important event that allowed college basketball to become the mainstream behemoth it is today, and the decade that immediately followed the individual showdown that subsequently became a fixture of the NBA is often called the sport's golden era.

We can debate the exact years, if you want.

But there's no denying the 1980s (and early 1990s, to some degree) were an awesome time in college basketball -- most notably because CBS invested in the sport and began broadcasting the NCAA Tournament in an unprecedented way, because ESPN launched as a network and created a stage that didn't previously exist, and because players were allowed to compete as freshmen but hesitant to leave after one season regardless of how talented or dominant they were, which brings me to Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.

Those two, more than all others, symbolize college basketball from that era.

They spent a combined seven seasons in school, which is probably five more than they would combine to spend now given the reality that talented and accomplished bigs rarely stay on campus for more than a year. These days, a coach is considered lucky if he gets a second season out of a Chris Walker, point being that turning a once-a-generation force like Olajuwon or Ewing into a sophomore would be about as likely a playing a Final Four from 1982 to 1985 without at least one of them involved.

In other words, it would be impossible.

But I digress.

Anyway ...

Olajuwon and Ewing enrolled at Georgetown and Houston in 1981 and spent the next three years collectively wreaking havoc on the sport, and such would've been the case for four years if not for Olajuwon entering the NBA Draft after the 1983-84 season. Either way, those four years -- again, from the 1982 NCAA Tournament to the 1985 NCAA Tournament -- did not produce a title game that didn't include at least one of the two future Hall of Famers, and, oddly, the one title game that featured both is probably the most forgettable in that stretch, if only because the three that surrounded it are three of the most memorable.

The 1982 title game? That was the one highlighted by Michael Jordan's jumper in the final 20 seconds that lifted North Carolina past Georgetown. The 1983 title game? That was the one highlighted by Lorenzo Charles' buzzer-beating dunk that lifted North Carolina State past Houston. The 1985 title game? That was the one where Villanova upset Georgetown.

Which leaves the 1984 title game.

Relatively speaking, that's the forgotten one of the bunch.

"It wasn’t us against Hakeem or me against Hakeem; it was Georgetown against Houston," Ewing said. "Only difference is that he and I were the two biggest names in the game."

By far.

And it doesn't matter that Jordan was "in the game" at the time, because, though MJ is now considered the GOAT, he wasn't viewed that way then. He was great, no doubt. But he wasn't Ewing and he wasn't Olajuwon. So the 1984 title game was the title game everybody wanted to see even if, 30 years later, it's merely the one sandwiched between N.C. State coach Jim Valvano running around aimlessly and Villanova coach Rollie Massimino group-hugging.

Still, again, nothing was bigger on that Monday night in April 1984.

College basketball's two best bigs stood in a green circle at the Kingdome.

They recognized the stakes and that this would likely be the first of many matchups.

"Most of the time when you play against different guys you’re going to have the upper hand -- one way or the other," Olajuwon said. "But when you play against your match, that’s a different experience. Have you ever played anybody that have that kind of ability, very very strong, a shotblocker, a rebounder? ... So all your strengths are his strengths. ... You don’t play against a guy like that everyday. And that, throughout my career, is the same from the beginning every time we face up. I was challenged back and forth all the way through."

The truth is that Olajuwon and Ewing disrupted each other so much in that title game that neither had a chance at creating the type of performance UCLA's Bill Walton produced 11 years earlier. Neither led his team in scoring. Neither grabbed double-digit rebounds. Combine that with the fact that Georgetown led almost from start to finish and won comfortably, and what you have is a much-hyped event that barely registers all these years later. Regardless, it was the world's first glimpse at two men whose careers will forever be tied. They entered college together and left the NBA together, combined for 23 All-Star Game appearances and, of course, faced-off in the 1994 NBA Finals that Olajuwon's Rockets won.

So it was Ewing who kept Olajuwon from getting that NCAA title.

And it was Olajuwon who kept Ewing from getting that NBA championship.

"We motivated each other," Ewing said. "I got him on one level, he got me on the next."

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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