Hakeem Olajuwon's Phantom Quadruple-Double

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The quadruple-double is one of basketball’s most elusive feats. Only four players have managed to rack up double-digit totals in four major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) in a single game since the NBA began tracking steals and blocked shots at the beginning of the 1973-74. Nate Thurmond, Alvin Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson all have one quadruple-double to their names.

The NBA very briefly had a fifth quadruple-double in its record books, though. On March 3, 1990, Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets absolutely dissected the hapless Golden State Warriors en route to a 129-109 blowout. Olajuwon ended the game with a monstrous triple-double stat line: 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 11 blocks.

The Dream had come achingly close to a bigger milestone. He finished the game with nine assists, meaning he was only one thin dime away from putting up what would have been the third quadruple-double in league history. Houston’s starting five for the game included such luminaries as Mitchell Wiggins and the immortal Buck Johnson; if just one more of the passes they received from the Hall of Fame big man had turned into a bucket, he would have had his quadruple-double.

It’s not clear whether Olajuwon knew or even cared how close he’d come to the arbitrary milestone, but Rockets coach Don Chaney and team media-relations director Jay Goldberg sure did.

The pair reviewed the game tape immediately after the final buzzer and “found” what seemed to be an uncredited assist for Olajuwon in the first quarter. The team quickly issued a revised box score that credited Olajuwon for 29 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists, and 11 blocks. Bingo! Quadruple-double achieved!

Recount

The NBA gives its statisticians a bit of latitude when it comes to determining what exactly counts as an assist thanks to the inherently subjective nature of the stat. Having team officials review game tapes and revise box scores goes well beyond “latitude” and right into “chicanery” territory, though. When the league caught wind of the revision, director of operations Rod Thorn asked if he could take his own peek at the tape.

That’s where the quadruple-double got a little less quad-y. Three days later, Thorn announced his findings. On further review, Olajuwon didn’t deserve 10 assists, and the original box score that gave him credit for nine dimes would remain the official record of the game. Thorn didn’t think much of the Rockets’ shenanigans; he publicly said, “A box score should not be changed after the fact for the purpose of achieving a statistical milestone.”

According to Thorn, if the box score had been erroneous, finding and fixing the problem was the league’s prerogative. Thorn opted against fining the Rockets for their box score manipulation. (He could hardly blame Chaney and Goldberg for looking for a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre season that would see Houston post a 41-41 record.) Chaney’s reaction: “What they think is an assist and what we think is an assist must be two different things.”

It Wasn't That Close

The really funny thing, though, is that Thorn was being charitable just by letting Olajuwon keep the nine assists he had received credit for on the undoctored score sheet. According to the story Knight-Ridder ran over the flap, a source at the league office claimed that Thorn and the league might have let Olajuwon keep that phantom tenth assist if the other nine had been legit. The source said that Olajuwon had already received some awfully generous hometown scoring in the original box score; the league thought he had only really earned six or seven assists.

This odd footnote didn’t prove to be much of a setback for Olajuwon. Just three weeks later he dropped a legitimate quadruple-double with 18 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists, and 11 blocks in a 120-94 Rockets win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

June 7, 2011 - 11:12am
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