Akeem Olajuwon: The 7-Foot Nigerian Who Jumped to the Pros, 1985

[Fran Blinebury, formerly with the Houston Chronicle and now at NBA.com, has been the resident authority on all things Houston Rockets for nearly 40 years. In fact, he’s a co-author on a must-have 50-year history of the franchise. If you bleed Rocket red, consider getting a copy.

Blinebury is also one heckuva reporter and has written some truly outstanding NBA stories over his long career at the keyboard. That includes this gem about the then-Akeem Olajuwon joining the Houston Rockets. It ran in the 1985 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball. The piece will take about 5 minutes to read and brings back some of the Shock and Awe that followed the pairing of Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson on the same NBA frontline. But, most of all, Blinebury’s story reminds us that, whether Akeem or Hakeem, Olajuwon has a story like no other in the history of pro basketball.]


Just as it is hard to believe that there was a time when Shakespeare couldn’t write a sonnet or Beethoven couldn’t scribble out a symphony, it is difficult to envision a time when Akeem Olajuwon was unable to dunk a basketball.

But if it took The Bard years to get a handle on iambic pentameter and if Ludwig von had to start by learning the musical scale, surely even the sergeant at arms of Phi Slamma Jamma didn’t leap out of his cradle, latch onto a lob pass, and throw down a rip-snortin’ rim-rattler into his bowl of Cheerios.  

Actually, the educational process began in December 1979, when a 16-year-old Olajuwon was playing goalie in a pickup soccer game right in front of his house in Lagos, Nigeria. “I saw this car pull up, and a guy got out to watch our game,” Olajuwon recalls. “I guess it was because he saw this big, tall goaltender playing. Somebody in our game kicked the ball over near him, and I went to get it. He said he was the basketball coach for the Nigerian national team. 

“He asked me if I’d ever played basketball before. I told him no, but he asked me to go out and eat with him. But I didn’t want to go. I was just mad that he had stopped our game. We had a pretty good game going that day.”

But Richard Mills, an American who had been coaching in Africa for several years, was persistent. 

“Anyway,” Olajuwon says, “I told him I didn’t like basketball. But we went out and ate, and he took me to his office at the gym. He took me out on the court and gave me a basketball. I said I’d never seen anybody shoot a basketball. I didn’t even know how to do it. When I shot my first free throw, I just pushed it, and it didn’t even hit the rim. But he told me to flick my wrist, and I tried a few more. 

“Then he told me to stand under the basket and dunk the ball. But I didn’t know how. So he went and got a chair and got up on it. He jumped off the chair and dunked the ball. Then he told me to do it. 

“So I tried to get on the chair and dunk the ball, too. But he told me I had to stand on the ground. I couldn’t do it. 

“The first time I dunked, it made my day. Nobody else in Lagos could dunk. The only other person in Nigeria who I knew could dunk was my idol, Sammy Sangodeyi. But he lived in another state.”

Today, Akeem’s dunking prowess is known in every state. Anyone with even a marginal interest in basketball who hasn’t spent the last three years in suspended animation is aware of Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, the 7-foot, 250-pound import who came to the United States in search of a college education and has wound up living out a modern-day version of the American Dream.

It is an unlikely story, to say the least. But this friendly, young native of Nigeria with the charming British accent became the center of attention among fans and the media on the jivingest team in America at the University of Houston. And he was plucked No. 1 overall in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. 

Just think how much has changed in the three years since the shy kid considered heading back to Africa after his plane landed in New York, because it was too cold. Then, he was the kid who was told by Houston coach Guy Lewis to take a cab in from Intercontinental Airport when he first arrived in Houston, because there were serious doubts about his ability. He was the kid who, because of his accent, sounded like he told the cab driver he was going to the “University of Austin.” He was the kid who took great delight in simple things like giving high fives and eating ice cream. 

And now, he is suddenly Akeem, Inc., a multi-million-dollar enterprise that includes a Mercedes among his assets. 

It’s incredible that That’s Incredible has never done his life story. His leap from backyard soccer player in a faraway land to the most sought-after basketball player in the U.S. ranks right up there with Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump in the 1968 Olympics. It is almost beyond comprehension.

So, too, in the minds of many NBA officials, is the fact that Olajuwon will now team up with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson to give the Rockets one of the most potentially awesome frontlines in the history of the game. 

In the span of just two years, Houston has gone from 14-68 to 29-53 to this. Just a short time ago, the Rockets were doormats in the Midwest Division, but now they could be in line to rule the NBA roost for the next decade, particularly in light of the fact that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is retiring after this season. 

“Potentially, it could evolve into the greatest two-man combination that has ever played,” said Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey. “I realize that is a strong, strong statement. But can you think of two players with the size, quickness, the natural talent that those guys have?

“Of course, I don’t think the full dividends are going to come immediately because any rookie—regardless of his credentials—will have some difficulty adjusting to the program. I anticipate that Akeem will have some of the foul problems that Ralph went through last year. But when the indoctrination period is over, Akeem and Ralph are going to have a lot of fun for a number of years.”

Rocket coach Bill Fitch is another one who expects the combination of Samson and Olajuwon to mesh. He intends to use Olajuwon in the pivot, especially on defense, and move Sampson out to one of the forward spots, a position he has always been interested in playing. 

“I don’t know that there’s any coach in the league who would say that Ralph and Akeem can’t play together on the same team,” Fitch said. “With the trend all around the league towards several big players in the lineup at the same time—Bill Cartwright and Marvin Webster in New York, Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland in Washington, Kareem and Bob McAdoo in Los Angeles—this pairing will enable us to match up with the competition.”

In Sampson and Olajuwon, the Rockets have more than just the two preeminent young big men in the league, they have a pair of thoroughbreds whose specialty is running like the wind from baseline to baseline. The potential is now there to crank up as devastating a fastbreak combination as the game has seen. 

“You’ve got to build a team in bits and pieces to reach the level of championship contender, and the Rockets still have some work to do,” said Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting. “But Houston is way ahead in the building process with the two pieces that they have started with. The only problems I see in putting Ralph and Akeem together are all for the other team. Quite frankly, I don’t know how a lot of people in the league are going to be able to match up with the Rockets. 

“You know, I’ve heard all the talk about how you’re shifting an All-Star center (Sampson) out to a new position at forward. So he’s 7-foot-4, and nobody that tall has played the position before. But look at several years ago, before Magic Johnson came into the league. Nobody even thought of having a 6-foot-9 point guard. 

“Now everybody in the league is making the shift to the bigger guards. Ralph can handle the ball as well as most so-called small forwards in the league, so I don’t anticipate any problem there. And he’s fluid and has a good shot, plus he’ll be able to take advantage of his size to go inside on the forwards. 

“As far as Akeem is concerned, of course, it’s far too early to say what he might develop into down the road. But all of the potential is there for him to turn into one of the best in the NBA. People look at potential as a bad word nowadays. But when you’re looking at a young player, potential is all you can go on. And this guy has got as much as anybody I’ve ever seen. 

“According to our records and statistics, we show that a team gets an opportunity to draft a top-flight center once every 15 ½ years. Centers are hard to find. They are like strawberries in the winter. And now, one year after they drafted Ralph Sampson, the Houston Rockets turn right around and get a chance to grab Akeem Olajuwon. 

“What are the chances of all this happening, not just to the Rockets, but to Akeem as well? The kid came here to go to school, and look at everything that has happened. He’s even been lucky enough that a flip of a coin allowed him to continue playing professionally in the city that he has made his adopted home. I’m just surprised that nobody from Hollywood has come along yet wanting to do his life story. It’s a perfect movie script.”

It’s almost too hard to believe. And until this last year, when his younger brother also enrolled at the University of Houston and an older brother came to the U.S. for a visit, some of the biggest disbelievers of the entire Olajuwon fantasy were in his very own family. Akeem’s parents own and operate a profitable cement company in Lagos and had always expected their son to return home after four years to help with the family business. They regarded Akeem’s basketball career as a frivolous diversion, not a profession at which he could earn a living. 

“They wrote to me all the time,” Olajuwon says. “And their letters always talked about how I could eventually come back home and be with them. But I have said all along that I was going to surprise them. “

It surely must have been a surprise to his family when, after a year during which they had heard only sketchy reports of Akeem’s accomplishments, he blossomed into a hero on both sides of the Atlantic after being named the Outstanding Player of the 1983 NCAA Final Four. He capped his three-year collegiate career by averaging  16.9 points and 13.7 rebounds (tops in the nation) as a junior. Then, frustrated by the Cougars’ failure to win the title and tempted by the high stakes and opportunity to play immediately in the NBA, he opted to go pro. 

Out of the blue, the U.S. Information Agency in Washington D.C. began to be deluged with requests from African newspapers and magazines, seeking the latest exploits of the one who has become known in his native land as “King Akeem.”

“Everyone in my country is interested in America and what goes on here,” Olajuwon said. “I’ve been thinking about coming to America since I was very little. Everybody dreams of coming to America. They say that if you don’t come over here to go to school (college), you’ll never make anything of yourself in life. But if you come to America, you’ll be a big success.”

Yet how much of Olajuwon’s current success is due to luck? What if Mills had never been driving past his house on the day of the soccer game? What if Chris Pond, who works with the U.S. State Department and coached a team from the Central African Republic, hadn’t spotted Olajuwon in a tournament and convinced Lewis to at least give him a look? What if Olajuwon had turned right around and boarded a plane back to Nigeria? And, most importantly, what if Moses Malone didn’t just happen to be playing in Houston for the Rockets at the time and didn’t decide to take Olajuwon under his wing?

While much has been made of Akeem’s great strides through each of his three collegiate seasons, it is more likely the sweating and working alongside Malone—the three-time NBA MVP—in the summers that has elevated his game to this level so quickly?

Olajuwon had first heard of Malone when he saw a poster of the then-Rocket center on Mills’ office wall. When he arrived in Houston, Olajuwon attended several Rocket games and followed Malone’s exploits in the newspapers. 

Then Akeem received his baptism against Malone in pickup games at Fonde Recreation Center.

“I knew he was a big star and famous, but I never thought that I would end up being friends with him,” Olajuwon said.

It’s debatable who drives whom the hardest. During their very physical battles at Fonde, it’s not unusual to see Olajuwon go up for a dunk, only to have Malone shove him out of the way or grab his shorts to hold him. When the NBA veteran tries to take it to the hoop, the kid is never afraid to go up and swat the ball back in his face. 

Being around Malone and playing against him so much—Moses won’t let Akeem be on his team—has taught Olajuwon excellent rebounding techniques and made him a ferocious inside player. 

But the reason that Olajuwon is so special is not his bullish strength on the inside, but the grace and speed with which he can cover the entire court. It is his ability to block a shot at the defensive end, then get out on the wing to finish off the fast break at the other end that has had NBA scouts salivating and whispering comparisons to Bill Russell. He is also a good shooter from medium range when he’s facing the basket. And now the faster-paced, more wide-open pro game is expected to bring out even more of his talents. 

“I wish I could have won a championship in college, but I do feel that it is time for me to move on,” Olajuwon said. “Since I first came here, I have always wanted to play in the NBA. 

“All of the players that I would like to play against are in the NBA, and they are the players who I believe are a challenge. The time has finally come, and I am looking forward to it. It is where I belong. It is where I believe I can succeed.”

He won’t even need a chair to stand on. 

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