Marilyn Olsen, the secretary in the basketball office at the
University of the Pacific, takes her lunch each day between noon
and one. Tigers coach Bob Thomason always makes sure that
someone on his staff covers for her. "You never know," Thomason
will say with that mixture of fastidiousness and optimism
characteristic of his profession. "Some 7-footer might call."
On April 4, 1995, shortly after 8 p.m. Greenwich mean time, a
7-foot, 20-year-old Nigerian-born former English high school
long jump champion picked up the phone in his London home and
called the Pacific basketball office just as assistant coach
Tony Marcopulos was tucking into a sandwich. "I know this sounds
peculiar," the caller said, "but I'm 7 feet tall, and I want to
Marcopulos remembers everything about the call. He remembers his
salami-and-cheese on sourdough. He remembers the caller's being
unfazed to learn that Pacific had no scholarships left and that
he would have to pay his own way, at $18,000 a year. Marcopulos
remembers most vividly the way the conversation began--"I know
this sounds peculiar"--because that word peculiar sounded, well,
The caller, Michael Olowokandi, had chosen Pacific after
randomly opening a guide to U.S. colleges to the P's. Over the
following weeks Marcopulos cultivated a relationship with
Olowokandi over the phone, figuring that the Tigers couldn't
lose: At best the guy really would be 7 feet tall and could
play, and life at this sleepy school in Stockton, Calif., might
turn into a Kevin Bacon movie; at worst there would be another
foreigner walking around campus.
January 26, 1998
Fast-forward 33 months, and peculiar doesn't begin to describe
this Tiger's tale. The 7'1" Olowokandi, now a senior, is
shooting 65% from the field for the season. He's blocking 2.6
shots a game. He's averaging 20.3 points and 10.5 rebounds,
having double-doubled against every highly touted center he has
faced: 31 points and 11 rebounds against Pepperdine's 6'11"
omm'A Givens; 23 and 10 against Fresno State's 6'11" Avondre
Jones; 26 and 11 against Stanford's 7-foot Tim Young; and 21 and
13 against Baylor's 6'10" Brian Skinner. Just so St. Mary's 7'3"
center, Brad Millard, who is out with a broken bone in his left
foot, would know what he was missing, Olowokandi dropped 25
points and 15 rebounds on the Gaels.
Pacific has had to install extra seats behind the baskets at its
Spanos Center to accommodate all the NBA scouts beguiled by the
Kandi Man (as Olowokandi is known), who has played less than 100
games with uniforms and referees in his life. "He's come so
far," says Pacific guard Adam Jacobsen, "and he keeps getting
The same might be said generally of the scores of foreigners
playing U.S. college ball: They've come so far; they keep
getting better. Olowokandi is both the best story and the best
talent among the raft of foreigners in Division I ball this
season, 268 in all, almost twice the number that suited up five
years ago. They come from 59 countries (pages 62-63), from
nations large (Canada is represented by 43 players, by far the
most of any country) and small (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
has a single representative), and they seem to include every
Tomasz (Cielebak of Poland, who's at Marist), Dirk (Lommerse of
Australia, at UNC Asheville) and Haris (Begicevic of Bosnia, at
Their provenance can be both descriptive (Butler's 7'2" Rolf van
Rijn, who's from Best, the Netherlands, is a shot-blocking fool)
and misleading (Villanova's 7'1" Rafal Bigus, who comes from a
Polish town called Stargard, is a center whose game needs work).
They include an Igor (Nikolic, a Serb at UAB) and an Ivo
(Kresta, a Czech at Iona), and a Badou (Kane, a Senegalese at
Manhattan) and a Panu (Majala, a Finn at the Citadel). There are
also namesakes of a faith healer (Oral Roberts of Saint Vincent
plays for Mississippi State) and a sexual healer (Marvin Gay of
Trinidad and Tobago is at Murray State), and several ungainly
hyphenates (Kojo Mensah-Bonsu from Great Britain is at
Washington State and Saliou-Binet Telly of Mali is, curiously
enough, at American).
But exotic though some of these monikers may be, several have
become household names in college basketball. Maryland's 89-83
overtime upset of then No. 1 North Carolina last week turned on
plays involving the Tar Heels' Makhtar Ndiaye and Ademola
Okulaja and the Terps' Obinna Ekezie and Sarunas Jasikevicius--a
Senegalese, a German, a Nigerian and a Lithuanian, respectively.
The foreign invasion extends below the big time, too: Several
scouting services list a Dutchman, 6'11" Dan Gadzuric, who is
prepping at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., as the
best high school senior who has not yet signed, while a
Yugoslav, 7'3" Aleksandar Radojevic of Barton County (Kans.)
Community College, is regarded as the top juco prospect. Thus
the question arises, How does a college recruiter get da keys to
Dakar (12 residents of the Senegalese capital are playing on 11
U.S. college teams) and other distant locales?
Very few foreign players made it to the U.S. the way Olowokandi
did, by placing a cold call. Most came to the attention of
college coaches by word of mouth; during the U.S. tours that
foreign clubs make each November and the trips abroad that the
NCAA permits U.S. schools to take every four years; or by
scouting services and summer camps, which bird-dog and showcase
more and more overseas kids. In Paris last summer Nike staged
its first camp for European prospects, but it was during a
recruiting "dead period," when U.S. college coaches couldn't
attend. If, as expected, Nike moves the event to July, the
tarmac at Charles de Gaulle will be clogged with jumbo jets
disgorging player procurers swaddled in sweat suits.
"I was stunned at how many major Division I coaches were at the
junior worlds in Greece in 1995," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin
Sampson. "There were maybe 40 of them, and they weren't there to
watch the U.S. team." No, they were there to watch the latest
generation of foreigners, who were so good that they didn't
allow the Americans, coached by Sampson and including such
talents as Stephon Marbury and Samaki Walker, to finish higher
"Coaches go wherever they can to find talent," says Texas A&M
coach Tony Barone. "Hey, if you can add 20 prospects to the
pool...." And foreign prospects are no longer ordinary
prospects. Coaches agree that they can be:
--More coachable. George Washington coach Mike Jarvis--whose
definition of Colonial-ism means suiting up a Brazilian, a
Canadian, a Dutchman, an Israeli, a Portuguese, a Spaniard, a
Brazilian, a Central African and three Belarussians this
season--likes foreigners because he thinks they have fewer bad
on-court habits than their American counterparts. Utah's Hanno
Mottola, a 6'10" forward from Finland, demonstrates his
there's-a-lot-we-can-learn attitude when he declares that Toni
Kukoc, the Chicago Bull from Croatia, "should have gone to a
U.S. college when he was 20. He still plays defense with
straight legs." Thomason recalls that Olowokandi didn't even
know where the low post was when he arrived at Pacific in August
1995. "You knew what was going to happen," Thomason says. "You
just didn't know how fast."
--More studious. Eduardo Najera, Oklahoma's 6'8" sophomore
forward from Mexico, couldn't speak English until he came to the
U.S. as a high school senior; as a college freshman he was voted
to the Big 12 all-academic team. Alexander Koul, the 7'1"
Belarussian senior at George Washington, already has his degree
in exercise science and is taking graduate courses in business.
Olowokandi and Mottola are the sons of foreign-service
professionals who prize education. "No way were my parents going
to let me play basketball without completing my education," says
Olowokandi. Marcopulos loves how Olowokandi buttonholes him to
chew over Eisenhower's foreign policy or discuss why Monet used
thicker brush strokes later in life.
--More appreciative. None of this season's top foreigners (page
64) were on a preseason All-America team. "They haven't been
spoiled yet," says Barone. "They look at their gym shoes as a
gift. They're amazed at the first-class travel and first-class
uniforms, and they delight at the opportunity to get a
first-class education." Adds Arkansas's Sunday Adebayo, a 6'6"
forward from Nigeria, "Here you get your education paid for, and
you have tutors to work with you. But back home, even to get a
textbook is really hard. So I think guys around here don't
really appreciate all they have."
--More nimble afoot. You always hear about the importance of
soft hands, especially in big men. But post-play pedagogue Pete
Newell has always prized quick feet just as much--and they're
common among foreigners because so many have played years of
soccer. Adebayo was a goalkeeper, and Olowokandi and Ekezie
played positions out on the pitch.
--More suited than ever to the college game. Remember how the
Soviet Olympic team schooled David Robinson, Danny Manning & Co.
at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, passing over the Americans'
full-court press for open three-point shots in an 82-76 upset?
Well, college basketball now meets the international player more
than halfway. Good non-American players have always excelled at
shooting, and with the three-pointer and a shorter shot clock,
college hoops has evolved into a game that rewards what those
players do best. The coaches who once spoke so reverently of
Henry Iba, the defense-minded, three-time U.S. Olympic coach,
now genuflect to Rick Pitino--who says he began to believe in
the trey during a 1986 tour of the U.S. by the Soviet national
To be sure, there are disadvantages to building a team around
foreigners. Washington coach Bob Bender had to let 7'1" Patrick
Femerling go home for two weeks early this season so he could
play for the German national team, and Utah coach Rick Majerus
granted similar leave to Mottola a year ago. "It's an honor and
privilege to represent your country," says Majerus. "So I always
acquiesce to the foreign coach."
Furthermore, weight-training regimens that U.S. athletes take
for granted are often alien to foreign players. Texas A&M lost
its starting center, 6'9" Dario Quesada of Spain, for the season
after he threw out a disk in his back while lifting.
There's also some cultural stuff that gets lost in the
translation. "I want to say this gently," says Barone, "but
foreign players tend to lose interest in winning and losing.
Their agendas are different. They may be aspiring to play on a
club team back home. To Quesada, the Texas A&M-Texas rivalry
didn't mean a thing."
Washington State suffered perhaps the worst luck with a foreign
player. On Jan. 4 the Cougars' leading scorer, 6'6" guard
Rodrigo de la Fuente, up and left Pullman to sign a three-year,
$1 million deal with F.C. Barcelona, defending champions of the
premier league in his native Spain. De la Fuente's departure
came on the eve of the Cougars' Pac-10 opener. "I know people
may be mad and think I am selfish," he said before he headed
back to his homeland, "but I just think I cannot pass this up."
De la Fuente's departure illustrates why there are relatively
few college players from Spain (with 11 collegians this season),
Greece (nine), France (four), Italy (two) and Turkey (one), all
countries which have established national leagues with
well-heeled clubs that sign the most promising indigenous
teenagers to lavish contracts. Players from Eastern Europe (56),
Africa (26) and the Caribbean (22) have no such options, and a
scholarship to go to school in the States is tantalizing to
them. Exposed to basketball American-style by the 1992 Dream
Team and caught up in the ensuing worldwide hoops boom, players
in developing countries see the U.S. as the Rucker Playground of
the global village and want to call "Next." As Koul says, "In
Minsk we play on the playgrounds. We love rap music and baggy
There will always be a few xenophobic killjoys who regard all
this as unhealthy. They suggest that aliens are taking
scholarships from Our Boys. But they forget that Americans have
stocked foreign professional leagues for years and that Yanks
are welcome at the Sorbonne to study the great French
philosophers and at the University of Athens to riddle out a
ruin. You want to learn something, you go where it's taught the
Cross-cultural interaction is among the things that are supposed
to take place on a college campus. To show how rewarding that
can be on a school basketball team, consider the relationship
between Majerus and Ma Jian, the 6'8" forward from Tianjin,
China, who played at Utah from 1993 to '95. Majerus remembers
that after the Utes lost a game to Weber State, he went off:
"Ma, you must have gotten hold of some old George Gervin tapes.
You've got the body of a Greek god, and you're shooting that
friggin' finger roll. Well, you and that move can go back to
The next day Majerus found Ma on the stoop of the basketball
office, tears in his eyes. "I don't want to go back to China,"
"I don't want you to go back to China," Majerus said.
"But you told me to go back to China."
"I was being sarcastic."
Majerus spent 10 minutes explaining sarcasm. "Why are you that
way?" Ma asked.
Exasperated, Majerus said, "Ma, your people eat dog. We're
Ma never became a star at Utah. But Majerus was so taken by his
earnestness, team spirit and desire to learn that in a packed
Huntsman Center on Senior Night, he delivered a farewell address
to Ma--in Mandarin. The gesture caused Ma's eyes to well up with
Turns out that college coaches will go to great lengths not just
to get a foreign player. They'll also go to great lengths after
they've landed him. As difficult as Mandarin is, Finnish may be
more indecipherable, yet Majerus says, "If Hanno stays till he's
a senior, on Senior Night I'll give his farewell speech in
At this rate the Utah coach will soon be a world-class linguist.
Now he just has to make sure he's there to pick up the phone.
[Foreign basketball players on NCAA teams]
While Pacific has the most formidable foreigner in Michael
Olowokandi (above), other schools have enjoyed having classy
imports. Here are the top-of-the-line models.
Hanno Mottola, Utah
Finnish sophomore turned down $700,000 offer from a European
club team in December.
Juan (Pepe) Sanchez, Temple
Art history major from Argentina averaging 4.8 assists and 4.0
steals as a sophomore.
Kaspars Kambala, UNLV
Ivan Drago look-alike freshman from Latvia had double doubles in
eight of first 11 games.
Eduardo Najera, Oklahoma
Sooners sophomore from Mexico averaging 12.1 points and 6.2
Todd MacCulloch, Washington
Canadian who led NCAA in field goal percentage (.676) last year
as a junior has dipped to .669 for the 11-3 Huskies.
Ademola Okulaja, North Carolina
Junior role player from Germany leads Tar Heels in steals, with
Yegor Mescheriakov, George Washington
6'8" Belarussian junior is a 40% three-point shooter and a big
reason Colonials are 15-3.
Statistics through Sunday's games.