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ROCKETS SUSPEND HAKEEM FOR REFUSING TO PLAY BALL

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Hakeem Olajuwon insists he has a hamstring injury that's keeping him out of his Houston Rockets uniform.

"I can't even run on it, you can't put pressure on it, you just have to let nature take its course," Olajuwon said.Rockets owner Charlie Thomas, however, decided Monday that Olajuwon is healthy enough to play and placed him on indefinite suspension without pay.

The ban stands to cost Olajuwon $46,900 per game, beginning with tonight's visit to Seattle. It has the potential to cost the Rockets, far from assured a Western Conference playoff berth, much more.

The SuperSonics are sixth in the conference and the Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, Houston's next stop on its three-game road trip, are tied for the last two spots. The defending conference champion Los Angeles Lakers are ninth, just a game behind.

If Saturday night's 100-97 loss to Sacramento is any indication of how Houston will do without its six-time All-Star, the Rockets' playoff plans could be seriously imperiled.

And even if he does come back soon, the matter of getting past the mud-slinging that's already occurred may be as tall a task as holding on for the postseason berth.

The Rockets say Olajuwon has been given medical clearance to play and suggested he was faking an injury as a ploy to get his contract renegotiated.

"He says he can't play, therefore he's suspended," Rockets general manager Steve Patterson said. "If he gets out on the court and plays, then the suspension is lifted."

Olajuwon's agent, Leonard Armato, planned to take the next step in the escalating feud by filing a grievance with the NBA Players Association.

"We've agreed that we're going to file the grievance," Armato said. "It's like when Saddam went into Kuwait - they've been lobbing in those Scud missles and we've been trying to duck. Now we have to respond."

Patterson said the Rockets had to rely on their medical advice.

"We're in a situation where we have to rely on what the doctors say and Hakeem's pattern of all the time wanting to renegotiate," Patterson said. "I think we can leave the facts out there for people to draw their own conclusions."

Olajuwon said the ordeal has left him wondering if he wants to stay in Houston.

"I don't really know, to tell you the truth," he said. "They've attempted to ruin my reputation and blame me. I think there's something more than what we've seen. Their action is very radical.

"They are saying I'm making demands. That's not true. This has been going on for 21/2 years. It's nothing new."

Olajuwon told Rockets trainer Ray Melchiorre in the fourth quarter of a game March 17 that something felt wrong with his left hamstring. The next day, Olajuwon said the leg had stiffened and he couldn't play.

Patterson said there was no point in the taped replay of the game where Olajuwon appeared to be injured.

Dr. Charles Baker, the Rockets' team physician, cleared Olajuwon to play in Saturday night's game against Sacramento, but the center refused to suit up, saying his hamstring was still tender.

Olajuwon scoffed at the Rockets' contention he was faking an injury for contract purposes.

"If I'd wanted to use injury as a vehicle, I had a lot of opportunities," Olajuwon said. "When I was in the hospital, how come I didn't stay out?

"There are so many ways I could use injuries, so that's out of the question. For them attempting to use injury ... that's what upsets me."

Olajuwon missed six games late last season because of an irregular heart beat. He has averaged 21.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.2 blocked shots this season.

Rockets guard Kenny Smith said Olajuwon still had the support of his teammates.

"Knowing from my relationship with him, which is closer than the management, I feel that he's a competitive person and if he could play he'd be out there," Smith said. "He realizes the importance of what we're trying to do and I don't think he'd take that as an advantage for him and not for us."

Smith didn't want to speculate about losing Olajuwon in a trade.

"We have to deal with what's right now," he said. "He's here, we're here and we have to do the best we can. We're anxiously awaiting his return."