Yes, he thinks about it. He replays it over and over on the videocassette of his mind. He even acts it out for friends, and strangers—standing up and pretending to jockey for position, turn, boulder the territory in the lane, to do absolutely everything he'd done all through Houston's sterling season, all through the NCAA tournament, all through that magnificent championship game. Except one thing. As a precaution against crashing his head through the thin slats of his apartment ceiling, he doesn't jump.
He didn't jump that star-crossed night in New Mexico either. Of course, there was no need to. The shot, by North Carolina State's Dereck Whittenburg, was terrible, a 35-foot shanked putt from 40 feet, a wounded balloon that was losing air fast and would die short. He knew that. He would take the long rebound, hold the ball and then straighten things out in overtime. He knew that, too. Just because everything had gone wrong for all the other Houston Cougars on the night they would be kings; just because their coach, Guy Lewis, had ordered the fastest, quickest, runningest, dunkingest, most creatively athleti√ß college basketball team in years, the already legendary Phi Slamma Jamma, into a virtual stall; just because Cougar Forward Clyde Drexler hadn't been able to breathe without fouling somebody, and Forward Larry Micheaux had refused to mix it up or guard anybody, and Guard Michael Young had faded selfishly into one-on-one land, and Swingman Benny Anders had just now barely missed an interception at midcourt from where he might have swooped in untouched for the winning basket; just because Micheaux wasn't even in the game to help him rebound—further evidence of the braindrain on the bench—just because all that had happened didn't mean he couldn't win this thing by himself.
He took a gargantuan stride up the lane when Anders lunged for the ball way out front. But then, suddenly, the shot was in the air. The ball was far above his head, where he couldn't block it or tip it or swat it or catch it or terrorize it as he had been doing for all his infant basketball life. And so he turned to hold position and wait for a rebound and, in OT, the national championship. Hakeem (The Hadream) Abdul Ajibola Olajuwon is still waiting.
"Faze jhob," Olajuwon says as he shakes his head and stares at the floor in his Houston apartment while recalling Whittenburg's shot that fell short of the rim and the subsequent dunk at the buzzer by the Wolfpack's Lorenzo Charles that clinched the 1983 national title. "The man give me severe faze jhob."
Live by the sword.... Regardless of how you define faze jhob—The In-Your-Face Basketball Book translates the more orthodox version of the term, "face job," as "an individual offensive or defensive move so captivating that it wins, for one player for one moment, the karma of face"—there may have been only one greater irony in the 1982-83 college basketball season than that at the ultimate moment the ultimate dunkster was vanquished by a dunk. And this was that this marvelous facial artiste, the sport's brand new liege lord of Noxzema, is a 7-foot-tall Yoruban tribesman from the filthy streets of Lagos, Nigeria who subsists on oysters and Bisquick and who until two years ago did not know what a faze jhob was.
Whether N.C. State performed a miracle or Houston simply screwed up in those final 40 minutes of the season now seems inconsequential compared with the nation's discovery of Olajuwon. Specifically, what happened was that a gentle, muffle-mouthed, supposedly undisciplined African, for God's sake, who began the season as little more than a curiosity—with the usual "spearchucker" slurs—emerged as the most feared college basketball star in nearly a decade. The real Ralph Sampson.
After he cut a swath through the Southwest Conference, inhaling great gobs of knowledge virtually by the minute—"learning to play in English," in the words of an opposing coach—and then imposed his will on a Maryland slowdown in Houston's first game in the NCAA tournament, Olajuwon trashed the rest of a tough card: Memphis State (21 points, six rebounds, two blocks); Villanova (20, 13 and eight); Louisville (21, 22 and eight). And, yes, North Carolina State (20, 18 and 11). Immediately the world, not merely dinner, was Olajuwon's oyster.
Akeem the Dream was the first person from a non-winning team to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the NCAA tournament in 17 years. His defense and shot-blocking—he had 175 for the season—evoked Russellian rhapsodies. Unlike Georgetown's Pat Ewing, who prefers to hang back beneath the rim in a semisquat so he can readily leap in to the block. Olajuwon came roaring out to cover areas Bill Russell used to, six to seven feet from the basket, where he would take off in full flail with the quickest jump anyone could remember. Moreover, about the middle of February Olajuwon began asking for the ball, demanding it, wanting to score. When he got it he displayed solid square-up form and a feathery touch on his jump shot to go with his practically unstoppable power move to the basket. Oh, yes, he also squeezed every rebound available, right up to that final Albuquerque air ball when there was no rebound to squeeze.
Going into last season Olajuwon had played a little more than four years of organized ball, much of it in some of the more esoteric tank towns in sport—Casablanca, Morocco? Luanda, Angola? Lagos for—what was it? Moslem Teachers College? Yeah, right. He had no concept of the techniques of basketball. Anything on the rim was fair game. If it moved in the key, belt it. And so there he was last November—raw, unpolished, a brute. But an inevitable force, too.
Hubie Brown, coach of the New York Knicks, had only to watch Olajuwon on television once last season before recognizing, Brown says, "a massive strength and intimidation coming off the screen. The explosive jump—a lot of guys have that once, but this kid keeps jumping and jumping, blocking and blocking. And now we know he can score. No wonder Moses Malone practices against Akeem all the time. After Akeem, all our NBA guys are chopped liver."
Ah, Moses. Gruff, tough, indomitable. Big Mo. The preeminent center. The pro's pro. The champion. Mr. T minus the earrings. One day in September in Houston, Olajuwon and Malone were engaged in one of their daily crash and gore t√™te-√†-t√™tes under the "rack" when Malone called a foul on his young protégé, who immediately took exception. "Aww, no!" Olajuwon roared. "Dammit, Mo. Be a MON!"
Any 20-year-old undergraduate who can get away with ordering Malone to affirm his masculinity, even in jest, obviously should be granted wide berth. On and off the court. Thus misconceptions, even totally erroneous data about Olajuwon, many spread by the man himself, have held sway during the Cougars' two consecutive runs through the national media to the Final Four. (Houston lost to North Carolina in the 1982 semifinals in New Orleans after falling behind 14-0 with the freshman Olajuwon on the bench. The score was 18-8 when Lewis sent him into the game. He played 20 minutes and finished with two points and six rebounds. Houston lost 68-63. The lack of playing time in that game remains a sore spot between player and coach.)
From the beginning, Olajuwon could have been known as Akeem the Scheme. He had been living away from his family's home in Lagos for several years before arriving on the Houston campus in October 1980, and he'd learned to be wary, shrewd and insightful long before he was exposed to the cowboy culture. Like Parisians answering American tourists' questions or Ronald Reagan conversing with newsmen on the White House lawn, the newly arrived Olajuwon understood only those parts of the English language he wished to understand. "Checking it all out" is his description of this early strategy. This enigmatic behavior was exemplified late in 1980 when Olajuwon filled out a questionnaire for Houston's sports publicity department.
Olajuwon's answers were significant only because of his pithy concluding sentence: "And I garantee [sic] 9 or 8 block shots." On the same page, he had spelled his last name wrong, had exaggerated the heights of his parents and brothers and sisters and had ignored the existence of his youngest brother, Afis. As a result, for weeks Houston writers were referring to Akeem Olajuwoa and his family of giants. The spelling was soon corrected, but to this day some journalists refer to Olajuwon's eldest brother as "the 7'5" Kaka." He's 5'10", tops.
Cougar Assistant Coach Don Schverak remembers Olajuwon returning from a football game his first weekend on campus. Schverak asked him how he liked the game. Olajuwon answered, "I don't understand." Schverak never knew whether Olajuwon meant the game or the question, but for several weeks all he seemed to say was: "I don't understand."
"It's a possibility Akeem didn't comprehend some things at first," says Jay Goldberg, the Houston sports information director. "But a secretary found his name spelled right on his passport papers. Then there are his street smarts. And his grades, which are good [a 2.5 grade point average while majoring in business technology]. I think he meant to present an illusion of dumb. On purpose. He was testing people to see whom he could trust."
In reality, English is the primary language in Nigeria, a former British colony that gained independence in 1960. English is the constant among more than 300—nobody counts anymore—dialects heard in the land. In his two secondary schools—Olajuwon attended Baptist Academy, coat and tie and all, before transferring to Moslem Teachers—students were fined when they didn't use English. So was language such a problem? "Let's put it this way," says Lewis. "Akeem understood Texanese much better than we understood Afkin."
Olajuwon enunciates his words very quickly, sometimes running them together in a garble. He isn't a strict grammarian either. But he displays the utmost pride in refraining from the colloquialisms so often heard in locker rooms throughout his new country. "You know this jive?" says Olajuwon. "This is just bad English. In Nigeria we are naughty boys to use this jive around our parents or in public. People will look at you like you're a bad person—common, coarse. Sometimes I find myself doing this and I do not like it. I picked up 'I be.' You have heard it. 'I be there.' 'What you be doing?' I will not keep talking like this. I kid around with my teammates—but only for fun. You know they actually say this: 'You is.' 'How tall you is?' 'Dude.' 'Hey, Dude.' 'Judge.' 'What is happening, Judge?' Can you believe they talk like this? I say, 'Who is this Judge?' "
Olajuwon's teammates claim, however, that once he gets hold of a new slang expression, he beats it to death. Getting down. Rock your world. Faze jhob. "After the brothers taught Akeem 'rock your world' he must have used it 100 times in practice one day," says Reid Gettys, Houston's white-hope guard. "Of course, they use it as a kind of angry pseudo threat. You know, 'I'mgonnaslapyostuffoutahere, bro. I'mgonnarockyourworld.' But when Akeem tried it, he came out with that clipped British accent. Very precise, polite. He said, 'Now I am going to rock your world.' All afternoon. 'Now I am going to rock your world.' It cracked everybody up."
Even Anders, Olajuwon's roommate at the time, was mystified at first. "The dude be talkin' weird from jump street," says Anders, who can be somewhat incomprehensible himself. And what do the friends talk about? Says Anders, "We just lay up and rap about what's coming down."
Shortly after Olajuwon arrived at Houston he practiced for 15 minutes with the varsity. Zap! There disappeared one full season of eligibility until the school appealed for—and later received—a special ruling from the Southwest Conference that allowed Olajuwon to count that first season as his redshirt year, despite that quarter-hour. When Olajuwon heard that as a redshirted freshman he could not play or even practice with the team, he was so distraught he nearly packed up, rhinestone dashiki and all, and flew home. "He thought the ruling meant he had to sit out for four years," Lewis says with a chuckle.
There were other early crises involving food. Akeem was gravely hungry, unable to indulge his passion for fufu, a Nigerian treat of stew poured over baked dough; dodos, the huge, fried bananas of his homeland; and the hot, spicy loffel rice preparation that will tear the insides out of any Tex-Mex chili connoisseur. Bisquick solved the fufu problem. Akeem's palate was further satisfied when he discovered Capt'n Benny's Half Shell oyster bars and when he found a certain kind of paradise in an American dish known as ice cream. He couldn't get enough of the latter; he still can't. He began carrying an ice cooler around the campus that contained Dixie Cups, Nutty Buddies and Popsicles as well as plain old vanilla by the scoop. At a team meal on the road Olajuwon ordered from one of those menus that feature color photographs of the fare. He insisted that the waitress bring what resembled a billowing white delicacy. Olajuwon dug right in. It was straight Reddi-Wip. "Excuse me," he inquired in his considerate way. "Why is my ice cream not cold?"
For a couple of months, Olajuwon seemed overcome by his painful shyness. He rarely left the campus except for late-night walks to Frenchy's for another new discovery—fried chicken—or for rides with teammates to nearby Texas Southern University to scout the coeds. Back then, he'd never get out of the car. He'd just stare and salivate. "He got unnerved when people weren't patient with him," says Drexler. "I think he was homesick a lot. But we helped him, taught him our ways, introduced him to the nightclubs. He watched everything we did. He was a hawk. Gosh, it seems so long ago. What a change. Now, I can't keep up with his women. They're all over him. The man is a club junkie."
Throughout his early days at Houston, Olajuwon held to a couple of tenets that seemed quite foreign in the age of the sportsnasty: respect for people, enthusiasm for his game. Olajuwon has quit bowing upon meeting people—"I mean the man bowed after we just had left him an hour earlier," says Drexler—but he remains deferential and courteous.
Take the case of Houston Assistant Coach Terry Kirkpatrick, who for legal purposes is Olajuwon's guardian in the U.S. Kirkpatrick, a controversial, rather hefty figure who long has had an antagonistic relationship with the local press and some Houston athletic department personnel, is an occasional butt of jokes by both the Cougar players and rival coaching staffs. His nickname is Fat Chance. But Olajuwon refuses to join in the kidding about Kirkpatrick's bulk. "Coach T is Big Daddy. T is my mon," he says. "Do you know what I am saying? I was brought up to honor and respect older people. I bow to them out of respect. O.K., they laughed at me, so I stopped. I know some people still think I was living in Nigeria, naked in the jungle and swinging through the trees. I know what they think about Africa. I do not like it. They are stupid. Lagos is a big, vibrant city. Tall buildings. Offices. Civilization. Designer clothes. We have a Copperfield store just like in Houston. We have videos in Nigeria. We have Pat Benatar."
In Lagos, Olajuwon also had an inspirational hero and soul mate named Yommy Sangodeyi, otherwise known as Yommy Basket, because when Yommy released a long jumper and it dropped, the crowd would follow the ball with the wailing cheer "Yommmmmyyyyyy Basket!" The muscular, 6'10" Sangodeyi, who was a veritable Mr. Basketball in Africa, is now a junior at Sam Houston State, an NCAA Division II school in Huntsville, Texas. "Yommy Basket was the franchise," Olajuwon says.
Sangodeyi (Yoruban for god of thunder) arrived in Houston in 1981, a year after Olajuwon, but by NCAA rules he was too old at 25 to start playing in NCAA Division I. Can he play? Pro scouts believe he may have a future in their league. Yommy NBAONCBS! Akeem and Yommy Basket dream of going to a pro team together in a Nigerian package deal. The two are such fast friends that each drives the two-hour round trip between Houston and Huntsville just to watch the other's games and share a meal. Yommy Basket lived in Olajuwon's apartment last summer; he still receives his mail from Africa there.
"Yommy is here. Here is he. Oh, Yommy, Yommy, Yommy. Yeah, Yommy." Olajuwon lights up like a Christmas tree the moment Sangodeyi arrives. They clasp hands in a native African shake that puts to rout any multiple skin greetings heretofore witnessed in North America; on the takeaway both snap their fingers.
Sangodeyi is an imposing, charismatic figure. He met Akeem at the Nigerian national basketball camp in Lagos, in 1980. "These kids wanted me to sit down," says Yommy Basket. "They just wanted to gaze on me. Akeem said I was his idol. This is nothing new for me. I am big in Nigerian basketball. The only trouble is Nigerian basketball is not big. Nobody gets excited. I am All-Nigerian. But now they know Akeem in China. He is all-world."
Olajuwon says his biggest surprise in the U.S. of A. has been that the Houston trainer has so many sneakers. In so many sizes. Olajuwon wore 14s at home. He searched Nigeria far and wide to find them. "The first day here the guy takes me to a stall, and there are 14s all over. Oh, I think I am dreaming," says Olajuwon. "I try them on. Oh, I cannot play today. Too tight. I work them in for a month. The guy says wait. He opens up a drawer and there are 15s! I am dreaming again. They are still tight. He says he will give me 16s! Can you imagine this? I don't know what he is spying. There is a whole room of 16s! I cannot believe this. It was the first time I wore shoes that felt like that. They felt like I had no shoes on at all!"
Not that Olajuwon got much use out of them in his redshirt season. Still, Drexler recalls, Olajuwon could hardly contain his excitement on game days. "In class, in the dorm, every time we'd see him, he'd grab us and say 'You got to win' or i can't wait.' At Hofheinz Pavilion he'd sit in the first row behind the bench, holler and cheer us on. He was always running down to congratulate us. And he really liked it when I dunked."
The following autumn Olajuwon found a fascinating new influence, if not a kindred spirit, in his roommate, Anders, the smooth swamp fox from Louisiana, the self-proclaimed "outlaw," the sophisticate with the jeri-curls haircut, the Armani jackets, the Sammy Davis Jr. jewelry. Was it any wonder the loud glamour puss from the country became an intriguing role model for the quiet, serious type from the city? That first year Anders asked his roomie about Africa—How are the girls? Where do you party? Olajuwon showed Anders pictures from home and explained the culture. They exchanged nicknames—Swahili for Akeem, and Goldilocks for Benny—and Anders introduced Olajuwon to salad. "We were like pen pals; we lived and breathed off each other," says Anders.
It was about this time that Olajuwon started becoming Westernized or, as Schverak puts it, "Cougarized." He had caught on to American customs, clothes, hairstyles, headphones. Who can forget the hilarious portrait of Akeem the Dream practicing free throws at the '83 Final Four with his Walkman wires encircling his majestic face? It was obvious Anders had alerted Olajuwon to the wonders of the press as well.
In their freshman season, 1981-82, Anders and Olajuwon shared another thing: They didn't get to play enough basketball. Olajuwon's major liability was that he wasn't in shape. He had never really been in American basketball shape. He had back spasms early that year; they were caused by growing pains and aggravated by a simple lack of loosening-up exercises. "I didn't know about this stretching," says Olajuwon. He'd make a ferocious dunk and come down the floor holding his back. He'd play five minutes and be exhausted. He'd play 10 and foul out. "I kept him out of games," says Lewis. "I wouldn't let him practice till he could run. That first year he never did get to where he could play a full game. He actually hurt us in there. You can't play up-tempo when four guys are running and the other is dyin'."
According to Lewis, the only defensive skill Olajuwon exhibited was in blocking shots—the shots of somebody else's man; his own guy usually dribbled around him. "I don't care how you slice it," the coach adds, "he flat out didn't know how to play."
Olajuwon doesn't see it precisely this way. "I don't understand the talk about how much I have improved," he says. "I always play like this. Now I just get more minutes. I average 18 minutes two years ago, 27 minutes last year. No wonder I'm improved. As a frosh I went to Lewis and ask him why I was not starting. In practice nobody could stop me. He says he wanted me to stay out of foul trouble. That was not good enough excuse. I start eight games, all away. [It was actually six, five away.] Other games, at the 10-minute mark I go in. He playing me according to minutes, not according to games. He took me out of the Texas game after one dunk. Make me so mad, I sit with the trainers. CBS went to class with me. They talk to Lewis about me. He says I'm still learning, still don't know game. He talks good about Drexler, Young, Micheaux. Not about me. Against North Carolina in the Final Four he doesn't start me, and they're coming down the lane shooting layups! I am so mad. I am burning up. Coach Lewis can mess up my mind. When I finally get in against Carolina, I am so mad I don't care if we lose."
Whoa, now. Lest Olajuwon seem like your neighborhood NBA malcontent, it's true that Lewis, a hard-nosed, no-bluff character from the old school, used to nail him regularly in the newspapers. How you going to keep Akeem from the pros, coach? Hah! It's hard enough to keep him from fouling out. Stuff like that. Once Olajuwon appeared at Lewis' front door in tears after what he considered a public rebuke. "Awww, I know I sound like Akeem never did anything right, says Lewis, "but he had so much dang potential."
Last winter, before he laid waste to the NCAA tournament, Olajuwon was on the prowl. Thirty points, 10 of them on dunks, against Utah. Twenty-two re bounds against SMU. Eleven blocks against Arkansas and 11 more against Southwestern Louisiana. By the end of the season Olajuwon had scored and rebounded in double figures 20 times, and the Coogs were 19-1 in those games—N.C. State being the one. Olajuwon had shot 61.2% from the floor. "Hey, Bone Nose, if you don't get any better, we're shipping you back on the boat," teammate Alvin Franklin would shout. This summer, working against Malone at Houston's Fonde Recreation Center downtown, across from police headquarters, Olajuwon seemed to improve by half again.
"Against Moses, Akeem was freer, looser, more assertive, going to his killer move on instinct," says McCoy McLemore, an old NBA forward. "It was like he was no longer a foreigner but a cocky, hip, black schoolyard dude. Confident. A hustler. He also worked the weights and got his weight up to 255. Moses couldn't take a day off against him anymore. They were two titans. The beauty of it was both were laughing—Moses was so proud and tickled. They recognized they could stop each other while nobody else could. It was a dead standoff."
Time spent with Akeem Olajuwon does not necessarily lessen the culture shock imposed by a visit to Nigeria. What's more, his shy, sweet nature, the meticulous organization of his life—Olajuwon's black-and-white snapshots are kept in albums in chronological order; he carefully brushes each of his records before and after playing them—leaves one totally unprepared for the overwhelming arrogance, venality, blight and chaos of his hometown. "Akeem is a gift from his family, not from Lagos," says Adeyemi Kaka, his 35-year-old half brother.
Nigeria is the most populous African nation. Lagos, with nearly six million people the political, commercial, manufacturing and shipping center of the country, is urban Africa at its most horrendous. Three-fourths of the city's residents live in rooming houses in which the average occupancy is more than five people per room. Almost 40% of the work force is unemployed or underemployed. In the early 1970s Lagos became an oilrich boomtown, but now, along with the world petroleum market, it has gone fairly bust. The place is a symbol of capitalism run amok. Skyscrapers hard by open sewers. Emaciated livestock pitifully nosing into a jam-up of cars, trucks, taxis and "mammy wagons,"—half-van, half-bus, all-rattletrap. Horrid junkyards, firetrap shantytowns, broken-down marketplaces and inactive construction sites dominate the landscape. Smoke and grime and foul odors are staples of the atmosphere. Bribery and hyperinflation are staples of the economy, DO NOT URINATE HERE signs are plastered all over the exterior walls of the bus station.
Lagos lies mainly on three islands in the crook of the Gulf of Guinea and is linked to the mainland by bridges which should take about 15 minutes to traverse. Traffic is so congested that peddlers can sell everything from watches to cheese to ironing boards car-to-car during the hourly "go-slows."
Arriving U.S. State Department employees are placated by a 25% cost of living differential—the maximum allowed—for serving in a hardship post. Beirut and San Salvador also are 25s. "This is the costliest, ugliest, craziest, dirtiest place in Africa," says Bill Campbell, a free-lance photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya who has been shot up in combat, "and the absolutely worst peacetime place to work in I know."
It's necessary to know in detail what Olajuwon comes from to undertand why he's so unusual—not just for a college basketball player in America but also for a Nigerian. Amid the squalor of Lagos the Olajuwon home at 19 Bank Olemoh Street in the Surulere neighborhood seems an oasis. At first glance Alhaji Salaam Olude Olajuwon, 68, and Alhaja Abike Olajuwon, 63, Akeem's father and mother, respectively, appear to have spent more for their spectacular outfits—the traditional Yoruban gowns and caps known as Aso-Okes and Filas—than they have for their humble abode. They are a large, handsome, formidable pair—strong features; warm, open, animated; smiling and laughing, often uproariously at nothing at all. The 6'3" Salaam, a cement man, makes regular trips to the Lagos docks where he brokers the incoming loads. Abike, who is about four inches shorter than her husband, handles the neighborhood cement orders, which they keep in a shed next to their home.
No. 19, a one-story, three-bedroom red concrete house behind a small fenced-in courtyard, is nestled among similar domiciles that belong to members of Nigeria's relatively small middle class. Goats and chickens wander along the potholed dirt street. A merchant dyes his cloth in enormous, fuming vats outside his shop across the way. Women walk by carrying fried bread and cassava on the flat trays perched atop their heads. Behind the dye vats there's a sandlot soccer field, rutted and rocky, with only one goal, which is bent. It's used as a simple playground by the neighborhood dogs and children and is the only evidence of sports in the area. This is where a Nigerian basketball coach spotted the gangling 6'9", 170-pound Olajuwon, leaning against the goal one day.
Abike stands laughing in the courtyard. She's said to speak no English, but upon introduction she says, "Mommy Akeem, Mommy Akeem." Let's see. Besides Mommy and Pop and Akeem, there's 6'7" Akin, who has gone off to join his brother at Houston, where he's a freshman at the university but isn't on the basketball team; and two other brothers, Taju, 17, and Afis, 13, who are still at home. Afis is the neighborhood "pin pon" (table tennis) champion. Akeem's sister Kudi, 22, who was educated at the American University in Cairo and is married to a Nigerian doctor, lives nearby, as does Kaka, a surveyor in Lagos, who when visiting the elder Olajuwons, parks his Mercedes 230 SL on the wooden boards that cover the sewer out front. Many aunts and uncles and cousins join the Olajuwons nearly every Sallah (holy day) for a family celebration.
This is the second marriage for both Olajuwons, though each has been monogamous—unlike Moslems in northern Nigeria, where husbands take as many as four wives. Kaka, who is Abike's son by her late first husband, acquired his taste for Savile Row suits while attending graduate school in London. Just as Kaka and Kudi went away to university and have come back, so is Akeem expected to do the same—following a hiatus for his chosen profession, of course.
"When he was here I did not want to encourage my son in basketball, because I did not know the value," says Salaam. "Now that I see what Akeem is doing, I compel Taju to keep playing—haw, haw, haw. But this talk of professional basketball. When I heard this I was not happy. I wish for Akeem to finish his studies. After that he can jump into any business he wishes—even cement. Haw, haw."
Long before Akeem grew to scholarship height, the family spoke of sending him to the U.S. for his education. With a countryman, tennis player Nduka Odizor, enrolled at the University of Houston and a large Nigerian contingent at Texas Southern, Houston, the famous oil city, "rang small bells," says Kaka. The older Olajuwon children had gone to school far away, but no one had studied in America. This would be a change. If Akeem could qualify, it was time. "Our parents have always advocated a strong education above everything," says Kaka. "It is the greatest legacy a chap will have as security against poverty. Akeem always loved this idea of going away from home to prove his worth. He was going for all the good reasons. We expected him to be gone for four or five years. Mother was so close to him. Still, leaving was a form of joy."
As the first born, Kaka was Akeem's primary adviser. He reminded Akeem of three Olajuwon family rules: "one: Face your studies squarely; two: Keep away from bad friends; three: Stay calm, collected." The hallmark of Yoruban sculpture is a facial expression devoid of emotion. Composure is an ideal in good behavior—the ability to be nonchalant at the right moment. "Akeem is blessed with serenity," Kaka says.
This serenity is evident in the bearing of the family's first sportsman, known simply as Olajuwon, father of Salaam, as seen in a framed photograph that dominates the small front room of the Olajuwon home. Mommy Akeem is watching the rock group Abba sing on Lagos' version of MTV. The picture behind her shows Salaam's father, Olaonipekun Olajuwon, with his fellow equestrians from his club in Dahomey (now Benin). The photo was taken, circa 1925, at a festival in Porto Novo. As anyone who can translate Phi Slamma Jamma must know by now, Olajuwon is the Yoruban word for "always being on top." Grandpa went the family one better in names. Olaonipekun in Yoruban means "honor with no end."
Though Akeem played soccer, his best sport in his early years was team handball. Akeem was a monster in team handball. "Every time I touch the ball," he says, "score." Basketball? Akeem didn't know about basketball. He was eight years old when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson visited Nigeria on a goodwill tour. When Olajuwon met Abdul-Jabbar in the Lakers' locker room at the Houston Summit last year, Abdul-Jabbar sang a native song he'd learned in Lagos. But Olajuwon had to admit he didn't know of Abdul-Jabbar's visit in 1971. Olajuwon's parents still don't know much about the game. They have never seen Akeem play. Until last month they had never seen a basketball game, period.
"Oh, they know it is a contest of hand and height, not feet," says Kaka. "They know there is a basket up high. They see young Taju come home after playing, drenched, with a ball in his hand. But the comprehension of their son as this master, one of the best who plays, is just dawning. It is for me the same. I did not see my brother play until last June, when I visited him in Houston and watched him practice. Before that, in April, when I saw his picture on the front page of The Punch [a Lagos daily newspaper], it was just, oh, brother of mine!. Such pride. His celebrity extends to all of us."
Salaam says, "Who knows I am father of Akeem? Nearly the whole world, it seems." And then, a statement the folks in Raleigh, N.C. might dispute: "We are Number One."
Over the years Olajuwon reportedly has been discovered by more people than has Meryl Streep. There was Lewis, who found him on the doorstep at Hofheinz. There was Chris Pond, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was coaching in an international club tournament when he met Olajuwon and sent him to Houston. There was Richard Mills, a San Diegan and godson of the former boxer Archie Moore, who coached the Nigerian junior team, taught Akeem how to dunk and lobbied to send him to the national men's squad. And there was Oliver B. (OBJ) Johnson, another American, who is the Bwana Joe of Nigerian basketball, having taught the game at the grass roots since the '60s. Despite having settled in as coach at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Johnson still manages the Nigerian national team, as he did when Olajuwon played. "So many people say they discovered Akeem," says Johnson. "I say Akeem discovered himself."
In truth, Lagos State Coach Ganiyu ("Call me Mike") Otenigbade was the man who spotted Olajuwon on the dusty soccer field and convinced him to split time between his first love, handball, and the new game. "I was foretelling all this lovely stuff," Mike says. In 1979 Olajuwon was entrusted to another mentor, Sunday Osagiede, a 6'1" point guard on the national team who also coached the Lagos State juniors. Osagiede is better known in Nigeria as Sunny Basket—no relation to Yommy Basket but named for approximately the same reason.
"Back then Akeem was more famous for handball," says Sunny Basket. "In the national all-sports festival I had an ambulance waiting to rush Akeem from his handball games to our basketball games so he could help us two ways. He led the scoring in handball and the rebounding in basketball. Lagos State won gold medals in both."
But Olajuwon's destiny was with the Baskets. Soon he was competing in the Lagos club league on the slanted outdoor asphalt court at Rowe Park, where the backboards are tilted and frenetic spectators scream, "Skin tight, brothers." There he came under the tutelage of 6'7" Agbello (Uncle P) Pinheiro. According to Uncle P, Olajuwon was "too kind on court with too much respect for the opposition." This is an attitude that the Louisville Cardinals, to pick one aggregation, might find mind-boggling now.
Once, four years ago, the opposing Scorpions punched and elbowed Olajuwon right out of a game. He walked off, flat quit. Uncle P had some harsh words to say about that, and the following year Pinheiro watched as Olajuwon came of age in the All-African Games in Morocco. The 17-year-old Olajuwon didn't start on the national team in the first game, but when Yommy Basket got into foul trouble Olajuwon came in and dominated the boards. Every time he'd make a big play, Olajuwon would run up the court with his finger in the air. "Koko One," the team called him. "Koko One, Koko One," they would shout. "Koko One" is still the clarion call at Rowe Park for the Leventis Club five.
Controversy surrounded Olajuwon on that trip to North Africa because Johnson did not want him on the national team. Mills, the junior team coach, forced the kid up to the big squad with the support of headquarters back home. Nigeria finished in the middle of the pack that year behind the traditionally strong teams from the Ivory Coast and Senegal and Egypt. Later, in the All-African junior competition, the Nigerian team coached by Mills and led by Olajuwon got the bronze medal.
Last month Nigeria played Liberia in the first of a two-game home-and-home set leading to the All-African Games, where the top two nations will qualify for the Olympics. For several days preceding the big game, in Lagos, the local papers were chock-full of rumors that Olajuwon was coming to play for the home side. "Our golden boy of world basketball...our great patriot," wrote Ayo Ositelu in The Punch. On Oct. 2, Ositelu was ecstatic: "Today he arrives in Nigeria to help the team qualify for Los Angeles." On Oct. 7, Ositelu despaired: "It may take negotiations at a higher government level to secure his services." Of course, Olajuwon wasn't about to leave Houston.
Fat ugly lizards scaled the walls of the 7,000-seat National Sports Hall on game day, Oct. 8. The arena, despite being only a decade old, emits an aura of early Palestra: dark, dingy, claustrophobic, homers in waiting. Even three-quarters full, the place was a caterwauling madhouse with stompers and shakers and tambourines and Yoruban talking drums that did not cease beating. The crowd did not shut up. The flags never stopped waving. Villanova-LaSalle had nothing on Liberia-Nigeria. It was wonderful.
The play itself was of midlevel NAIA caliber, featuring a lot of walking-up of the ball and sparse defense, but the African game has become much more physical since Olajuwon departed. Players traded swats and bumps and flung one another into the basket supports with abandon. All Africans seem to be able to shoot, which makes up for their being unable to catch. The chalkboard scoreboards, windup clock and dingdong bell for time-outs lent a primitive air, but nothing was more bizarre than the hysterical turmoil rampant among the brain trust on the Nigerian bench. Salaam Olajuwon, having entered the gym to witness the first basketball game of his life, sat at midcourt, his eyes agog.
The home team protected a lead deep into the second half, but Liberia switched to a half-court trap and rallied for a 62-53 advantage. Suddenly the primary coaches, OBJ and Roderick Robinson, Co-Coach Emmanuel Chagu and Mike, none of whom had ultimate authority, were joined by at least half a dozen other state and club mentors—Uncle P, chewing on his stogie, wisely abstained—who gathered at the bench during a time-out and were screaming angrily at the team. Even a woman, Uche Nebedum, a secretary from the basketball office and a former women's coach, bullied her way into the huddle and loudly berated the home squad.
The commotion seemed to have an effect. The good guys tied the game at 78, but Liberia scored with three seconds left to win 80-78. Very few fouls had been called and no dunks were even attempted. "Our people do not have the mind yet to dunk," Yommy Basket had said in Houston. Afterward, Chagu was interviewed. "You could probably tell the problem," he said. "The game is not part of our culture. Emphasize, please, that we need assistance."
Would Olajuwon have made a difference? "You tell me, my friend," said Tunji Fagbemi, the assistant chief director and organizing secretary of the National Sports Commission, who may have more titles than players. "You see, we do not know how good Akeem is because of the time when he left. He was only very tall with potential. Only a twig. We know about him what we hear, and that is al! we know. Akeem gave us his word he would come back. We sent him the airplane tickets. But then his college practice was to start, and we understand how Americans take basketball like religion. Akeem must be an oak by now. They say a tree does not make a forest. But do not tell me they are not planting the entire woods around this one."