Michael Olowokandi is going surfing.
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1998 issue
It is the first time in his life he has held a board, never mind
attempted to stand up on one. There he goes, headfirst, all 7'1"
of his chiseled body disappearing into the foamy waters off
Waikiki Beach. When Olowokandi resurfaces, sputtering, he pulls
himself back onto the surfboard and paddles furiously toward the
nearest, and most imposing, wave.
Why push it? Because a professional photographer is chronicling
his movements, and Olowokandi, the new center of the Los Angeles
Clippers and the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, is not in the
habit of backing down from challenges. He cannot--he will
not--fail to live up to his own expectations.
One more thing. His new NBA pals, who are in Hawaii with
Olowokandi attending Pete Newell's Big Man Camp, guffawed when
he mentioned surfing. Novices don't catch waves, they are
devoured by them. Nobody surfs on the first try.
It can't be done.
For Olowokandi, that is an old and familiar refrain. When he
took up basketball three years ago at age 20, he was told that
no college in America would give him a chance to play. Once he
enrolled, at his own expense, at the University of the Pacific
in Stockton, Calif., his dreams of a pro career were dismissed
as pure folly. Even last season, when he had established himself
as a likely lottery pick, some insiders scoffed at the notion of
his being the first choice.
"In the beginning, being the Number 1 pick didn't mean much
because I figured I had no chance at it," Olowokandi explains.
"But then as it got closer, and it came down to [Arizona point
guard] Mike Bibby and me, well, then, I got more competitive.
Why shouldn't I be Number 1? It was a challenge."
Those close to this 23-year-old rookie say being No. 1 was more
like an obsession. It was a way for Olowokandi--who was born in
Nigeria, schooled in London and refined as a basketball player
at Pacific--to trample the naysayers who thought he was too raw
and started too late to make an impact in the NBA. Some compared
him with Yinka Dare, another big man and first-round draft pick
from Nigeria, whose NBA career has been a bust.
Had those so-called experts seen Olowokandi play? Had they
talked to him? He didn't need their validation. Since his
parents packed his belongings, kissed his forehead and sent him
to a boarding school in London when he was nine, he has counted
on one person: himself. "I was watching SportsCenter before the
draft, and they were saying Bibby was the Number 1 pick unless
Olowokandi dazzled the Clippers with his workouts," he says. "So
all of a sudden I have to go in and dazzle them? That motivated
He went on a predraft tour. In Phoenix he faced the basket and
wowed the Suns with superior footwork. In Vancouver he stunned
the Grizzlies with his quickness, the kind that enables him to
run the 40 in 4.55. In Denver he flexed his muscles for the
Nuggets, dunking one medicine ball after another, setting a club
workout record. When he finally got to Los Angeles to audition
for the Clippers, he put it all together.
Within days, his agent, Bill Duffy, called excitedly to tell
Olowokandi that the Clippers and the Grizzlies wanted him to
work out a second time. Olowokandi asked Duffy whom Bibby had
worked out for a second time. The answer was nobody. "Then I
think we've already done more than enough, don't you?"
"I'm supposed to be giving my client that advice," says Duffy,
"but Michael was way ahead of me. His understanding of it all
after such a short time was astonishing."
Even after Olowokandi secured his No. 1 status, he flew to
Hawaii last month to attend Newell's camp, footing the $2,500
tuition bill himself, knowing there was much more work to be
done. The camp specializes in honing the skills of centers, and
Olowokandi ventured into the pivot against, among others, NBA
veterans Chris Dudley, Andrew Lang, Jim McIlvaine and Michael
Stewart. On offense in the very first half-court drill of the
camp, when he had successfully pinned Lang on the block,
Olowokandi turned, expectantly, and aimed for the strings. The
ball never made it past his outstretched hand; Lang, who makes
his living as a "defensive presence," swallowed up Olowokandi's
jumper and sent it sailing out of bounds. There was no time to
be embarrassed or annoyed, because a second ball was already
being thrown to Olowokandi in the post. The rookie grabbed it
and turned again, as leisurely as before. The same move? Lang,
hunkered in his stance, was just starting to wonder whether this
kid was stubborn or stupid when Olowokandi wheeled back, crossed
over to his left hand and used his lively soccer-trained feet to
blow past the 10-year NBA regular for a dunk.
"He's got some of the quickest feet I've seen," Lang said later.
"And he learns in a hurry. And with that body...he's going to be
an All-Star for a long, long time."
Newell and his staff had tutored Olowokandi the previous summer
and they rejoiced at his return because of his impeccable
manners, his punctuality, his determination to finish first in
wind sprints each morning and his habit of looking his teachers
squarely in the eye when receiving instruction. But most of all,
the coaches enjoyed measuring his progress. "The first time we
put him in the post against the pros, he got banged up a little
bit," reports Vanderbilt assistant Pete Gaudet. "The next time,
he came in with his elbow up. Manners are great, but you've got
to have an edge. Believe me. Michael has it."
Certainly the seasoned surfers at Waikiki, who gawk in amazement
at the towering young man as he urgently chases the cresting
waves, understand his tenacity. Olowokandi has been in the water
for an hour now, and his long, spindly arms are fatigued, yet he
does not abandon the board.
"Do you have enough pictures?" he asks between gulps of the
Pacific, a sign, perhaps, that this exercise is over. Assured
that the photographer, who happens to be an avid surfer, has
plenty of shots, Olowokandi says, "All right, then. Now show me
how to do this." Another 45 minutes pass; the waves toss
Olowokandi indifferently. His hamstring cramps, and he writhes
Here's one reason the NBA lockout is a blessing: Clippers vice
president of basketball operations Elgin Baylor and owner Donald
Sterling are forbidden to have contact with their players, and
therefore were blissfully unaware that their prized big man, the
hope of their battered franchise, was cramping up on an 11-foot
piece of fiberglass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Clippers are also prohibited from commenting on Olowokandi,
but if they could talk, they would surely marvel that after only
77 games of organized basketball, he has made the progress he
has. It is some kind of fairy tale, basketball's version of
Rocky. No wonder DreamWorks is considering making a movie of
Olowokandi's life, with the big man playing himself.
The film will be far more compelling if Olowokandi becomes a
star in the NBA. Newell is convinced this will happen. He likens
the young center's exceptionally quick footwork to that of
another pivot hero from Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon. "Michael's
second jump is so fast," says Newell. "Most other big men have
to catch and gather an offensive rebound. Michael just shoots
The tale of Olowokandi and the University of the Pacific has
secured a permanent place in college lore. It begins with a
20-year-old student at Brunel University in Uxbridge, Middlesex,
England, who happens to be seven feet tall, thumbing through
Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges hoping to find a school
where he can play basketball. Calls to Duke and Georgetown are
unavailing, but when he dials up Pacific during lunchtime in
California, assistant coach Tony Marcopulos is there to take his
call because, in Pacific coach Bob Thomason's now famous
utterance, "you never know when a seven-footer might call."
When Olowokandi expressed his desire to join the team, and added
that he would be willing to pay his own way--his father,
Ezekiel, was a diplomat, and the family was wealthy--Marcopulos
was understandably skeptical. While quizzing him about his
background, Marcopulos kept coming back to the same question:
How tall are you again? "I think he asked me about eight times,"
Olowokandi says. In the ensuing three months the Pacific staff
tested Olowokandi's commitment. They asked him to be
photographed alongside a double-decker bus so they could
determine his height. (He declined.) Giving him only three days'
notice, they told him he needed to take an American test, called
the SAT, in London. (He happily breezed through it.)
When it came to basketball, Olowokandi's background was limited.
He had done what other boys in London had, and that was play
soccer and run track. "All I knew about Michael Jordan," says
Olowokandi, "was that he could dunk the ball from half-court."
As Olowokandi grew taller and taller, he became more curious
about Jordan's sport. He persuaded his friends to fool around at
the one hoop on his college campus. When he shot the ball
(two-handed, of course), he liked the feeling. Olowokandi was
convinced he could play this game, not realizing that the
three-on-three scrimmages he and his friends dallied in were
nothing like the real thing.
Predictably, his first practice with Pacific was a nightmare.
Marcopulos threw him a pass, and he caught it underhanded.
Olowokandi didn't understand the rules or drills as basic as a
three-man weave. The struggle was compounded by his fierce need
to figure things out for himself. He had come this far on his
own and was wary of putting his future in the hands of others.
"Let's just say he's very attached to his own opinion,"
Olowokandi's coaches preached patience. He retorted that he
didn't have time. In his first season, as a sophomore, he was a
nonfactor, but in his second, there were promising signs
(chart). He showed up stronger, leaner, smarter. "He told us he
wanted to be an NBA player," Marcopulos said. "And not just any
NBA player--one that made a significant impact. It was on the
tip of my tongue to tell him it was impossible. But who am I to
kill someone's dream?"
In an exhibition game before his junior season, against the
German national team, Olowokandi was to match up against his
first seven-footer, Patrick Femerling, who plays for the
University of Washington. For days beforehand Marcopulos tried
to teach Olowokandi how, while playing defense, to back off this
big man in the post, then maneuver back at him. But Olowokandi
couldn't grasp the subtlety of the move.
"So now it's game day, and we're going over the play on the
board one more time," Marcopulos explains. "Michael looks at me
and says, 'I got it.'" On the first play of the game, Femerling
backed Olowokandi into the post. Just as Marcopulos diagrammed,
Olowokandi took one big step back, then moved in and blocked
Femerling's shot. The next time down, Femerling, angry and
embarrassed, up-faked first, then went strong to the basket.
Olowokandi swatted his shot into the third row of the bleachers,
then turned and winked at Marcopulos.
By his senior year Olowokandi had developed a reliable jump hook
and a devastating turn-and-dunk move. He is an active rebounder
and, at times, an imposing shot blocker. Yet Newell frets that
with so little experience, it will take Olowokandi a couple of
years to make a defensive imprint on the game. "I hope," Newell
says, "the Clippers will be patient." Duffy has already urged
the Clippers not to "throw Michael to the wolves." He has been
talking with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former NBA
star forward Kiki Vandeweghe about hiring them as personal
tutors for Olowokandi during the season.
Some rookies would be upset at being drafted by a team in need
of a savior. Olowokandi insists that doesn't bother him.
Furthermore he is persuasive when he speaks about ignoring the
traps of celebrity. Nike has signed him to a three-year deal,
and the Magic Johnson Foundation has invited him to be a special
guest model at their Macy's fashion show this fall, but he won't
take on much more. He has no plans to buy a Hollywood mansion.
He has not bought a fleet of luxury cars; in fact, he doesn't
even have a driver's license yet. "If I need to go somewhere,"
he explains, "I take a taxi."
There is only one NBA player who has captured Olowokandi's
complete attention and admiration, and that is San Antonio Spurs
star Tim Duncan, the graceful seven-footer who was the No. 1
pick and Rookie of the Year last season. "Tim Duncan is so
mobile," Olowokandi says, "and yet he doesn't waste his moves.
He makes it all look effortless."
The same can't be said--yet--of Olowokandi's career as a surfer.
By the time he concedes that he's ready to quit, the sun is
retreating. As he trudges to shore, the winning smile is gone
and his legs are trembling. The No. 1 pick is soaking wet and
defeated. He gathers his clothes and shakes the hand of the guy
on the beach who rented him the board.
"Hey," Olowokandi says. "Are you open tomorrow?"
Michael Olowokandi's averages during his three seasons at
Pacific reveal how a little-used curiosity became a No. 1 draft
SEASONS: 1995-'96 1996-'97 1997-'98
POINTS PER GAME: 4.0 10.9 22.2
MINUTES: 10.3 22.8 31.7
FIELD GOAL PCT.: 52.6 57.0 60.8
REBOUNDS: 3.4 6.6 11.2
BLOCKS: 1.32 1.68 2.88
doesn't even have a driver's license.