WITHOUT Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson around to grace next spring's National Basketball Association playoffs, what would make a good story line? Perhaps a clash of the game's two premier centers. We're not talking about Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. Their time is coming. Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and New York's Patrick Ewing are the more seasoned contemporaries referred to.
Though both entered the league in the mid-1980s, only Olajuwon has appeared in the NBA Finals - once, in 1986, in a loss to the Boston Celtics. In leading the Rockets to 16 wins in their first 17 games this season, the Nigerian native has already been cast as a leading Most Valuable Player candidate. If he earns the award, he would be the NBA's first foreign-born MVP, as would Ewing if he won instead. Patrick Aloysius Ewing was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but his family moved to Boston when he was 12. Olajuwon became an American citizen in April.
A soccer player in his native Nigeria, Olajuown didn't take up basketball seriously until he arrived at the University of Houston, where as a sophomore he played on the Cougar squad that reached the national semifinals. A Georgetown squad led by Ewing, a heralded freshman, also made the Final Four. Two years later, in the 1984 title game, their squads met, with Georgetown winning its only national crown. Olajuwon failed to win a college championship in his three varsity seasons, although Houston came very close in 1983, when North Carolina State converted a rebounded ``air ball'' into a last-second, game-winning basket in an upset of Houston's ``Phi Slama Jama'' contingent.
Ewing also experienced Final Four frustrations. As a freshman, Georgetown lost a thrilling championship game to North Carolina, a defeat sealed by Michael Jordan's game-winning basket and a tragic Hoya turnover in the last minute. Four years later, Villanova recorded one of the most stunning upsets in tournament history by defeating Georgetown, 66-64.
Olajuwon earned a clear ``decision'' in his first of two head-to-head encounters with Ewing this season. Though the Rocket center had enjoyed a a small statistical advantage over Ewing in 14 previous professional meetings, Hakeem outscored Patrick 37 to 12 last Thursday in New York, as the Rockets extended their season-opening victory streak to a record-tying 15 games.
Unlike Ewing, who has played on two gold-medal-winning United States Olympic teams (1984, 1992), Olajuwon has never participated in the Games. He wants to play for the US Olympic team in 1996, but basketball's world governing body has said playing in an international competition for Nigeria at age 17 (he's now 30) makes Olajuwon ineligible for the US team. Touching other bases
* As many of the world's top figure skaters prepare for attempts at landing Olympic berths on national teams, Kristi Yamaguchi and Midori Ito will renew their 1992 Olympic rivalry in a new context -
at the world professional championships in Landover, Md., on Dec. 11. Yamaguchi was the gold medalist in Albertville, France, where Ito, who is making her professional competitive debut, took the silver. The two skaters will compete for the $40,000 first prize in Landover and again on Dec. 17 in Toronto. Neither applied to have her Olympic eligibility reinstated, a path a number of professionals have pursued. The two events will receive delayed television coverage, the world professional championship on NBC Jan. 28 and 29, and the Challenge of Champions in Toronto on ABC's Wide World of Sports on Jan. 22, March 5 and 12, April 2, and May 14.
* Boston University's rags-to-riches football team never anticipated that its fairytale season would end in Moscow - Moscow, Idaho, that is. As part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I-AA national playoffs, BU had to hit the road to face the University of Idaho in one of last Saturday's quarterfinal games. Before departure, one Boston sportscaster quizzed several players on their geographic literacy and found they were unable to name Idaho's capital (Boise) or two other cities in the state other than Boise.
The trip to Idaho, as it turned out, was one of football's hidden educational benefits for the Yankee Conference champs, who lost to the host Vandals, 21-14.