NBA PLAYOFFS: TAKING CENTER STAGE : AKEEM : He Doesn’t Seem to Have Height or Background to Be a Great Center, but He’s Learned Lessons Well
The sky is falling nightly in the NBA’s Western Conference final, or the world is being turned upside down as an ex-soccer goalie from the fabled playgrounds of Lagos, Nigeria, challenges the legend that won’t die, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It’s Akeem Olajuwon, and if he gets to bring along a big friend to help, so what? It must be a small world, indeed, if men with backgrounds so disparate are meeting on anything like equal terms.
Abdul-Jabbar is a product of New York City, Power Memorial High, the Rucker tournament, UCLA, a heritage that means something in American basketball. Olajuwon is from so far out in left field, you couldn’t find his schoolyard without a reconnaissance satellite.
He’s 23, but his basketball age is 6. That’s the total number of years he has played the game: Nine months in Nigeria, in which time he developed enough to be offered a scholarship to an American university; three years at the University of Houston; two years as a Houston Rocket, and welcome to the big time.
Abdul-Jabbar was a nine-time All-Star and a five-time MVP before Olajuwon ever touched a basketball.
Olajuwon is remarkable for his manners, ready laugh, lack of pretense, kamikaze level of effort and all-around enthusiasm. In other words, he has little in common with U.S. star centers.
“He believes in the American free-enterprise system,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said a few days ago, laughing. “Nobody’s gotten to him yet and distorted his mind. Centers in this league are supposed to pace themselves. Nobody’s told him to pace himself.
“Akeem is irrepressible. He just never stops playing. He pursues the basketball and pursues the basketball. You can’t block him out. He’s so persistent and so strong. He just comes right through people.
“Plus, he jumps from the dotted line (the bottom of the free throw circle). He’s a lot like Dominique Wilkins. You’ve got to check them out two feet farther or they jump over you.
“He’s a honed athlete. I don’t see anything but a honed athlete. He’s fast, muscular; he has great strength. At 6-11 or whatever, he’s like a 6-5 guy. I’ve never seen a guy make that post move of his (a quick spin to the baseline out of the low post). He’s got two, three moves and he makes them quick--right, left, a little jump hook.”
All of that will be on display again today when the Lakers and Rockets tangle in Game 4 at the Summit here (Channels 2 and 8, 12:30 p.m. PDT).
Even Olajuwon’s faults--he keeps getting thrown out of key games by punching opponents, or antagonizing officials, or figuring new ways to get six fouls--have an endearing quality.
In Game 6 of the Denver series, he tried to get the attention of referee Jack Madden by grabbing his elbow. Madden quickly afforded him the chance to watch the rest from the bench.
The Rockets won in double overtime with a lineup that included stalwarts named Craig Ehlo and Granville Waiters. Afterward, Olajuwon waited outside the dressing room, thanking his teammates for taking him off the hook.
That’s something you just can’t do, grab a referee, someone said recently.
“Well,” Olajuwon said innocently, “I didn’t know.”
Then there’s the matter of that “6-11 or whatever.” It is all the more amazing that despite his listed 7-0, Olajuwon is not nearly so tall as his fellow centers.
Everyone concedes that he isn’t 7-0 and he may not be the 6-11 he says he is, either. He may not even be 6-10. His coach, Bill Fitch, once said he was really 6-9 1/2.
“I’m 6-11,” Olajuwon said. “I want to get that clear. I hear people are saying I’m 6-9, 6-10. I am 6-11.”
Said Riley: “I’d like to measure him. He looks like he plays 7-5. He seems to me to be about 6-10. I’ve seen him next to Kareem.”
Danny Schayes, Denver’s 6-11 backup center, said: “I’d make him about 6-10.”
Whatever, Olajuwon concedes that he is less suited to defending against Abdul-Jabbar than his 7-4 teammate, Ralph Sampson.
“Kareem has too much of a height advantage,” Olajuwon says. “They say he’s 7-2. I don’t think he’s 7-2. I’ve seen other players with him. I’d say he’s 7-4.”
Any way you figure it, there seems to be more than the listed two inches’ difference between Akeem and Kareem. That, plus the great height from which Abdul-Jabbar launches his hook shot, makes it difficult for Olajuwon to do anything with him, except as in this series, when the Rockets have been double-teaming and coming at him from the side.
The Rockets are thus obliged to defend against Abdul-Jabbar with Sampson, who is much less physical than the 250-pound, for real, Olajuwon. Sampson is less able to push Abdul-Jabbar away from the hoop. Given Kareem’s accuracy, decades of experience, cute tricks and unflappability and it’s a terrific matchup.
Even in the All-NBA balloting, concluded after the regular season but announced during this series. Kareem beat Akeem, 101-100.
“They picked me second team,” Olajuwon said, looking pleased. “I’m very happy. Behind Jabbar. One point behind him. That was good.”
Can he imagine himself first team?
“Passing him?” Olajuwon said. “Well, I think that wouldn’t look too good.”
But you are young. He is, um, older.
“But still,” Akeem said. “The legend. . . . “
In Game 2 of this series, Olajuwon and Sampson combined to knock down four of Abdul-Jabbar’s shots. Kareem observed that on one, it felt as if someone had dropped from the ceiling.
Actually, one of them dropped in from farther away than that.
This is can’t-miss stuff: Rube from some rain forest is whisked off to civilization, meets city slickers, serves as the butt of many jokes, but perseveres in a triumph of good old American down-home virtues, or in this case, good old African down-home virtues.
Jokes? Olajuwon’s college roommate, Bennie Anders, did occasionally refer to him as “the big Swahili.”
And Rocket teammate John Lucas was once heard telling him that instead of cursing referees, he should use “that uggabugga stuff,” presumably referring to some African language.
To which Olajuwon, who speaks good English with something similar to a Jamaican lilt, and who has spoken it all his life, responded:
“What is uggabugga?”
It would be can’t-miss stuff, except it’s not true. Olajuwon didn’t swing through the vines like Tarzan, or slay lions with spears, a la Manute Bol. He grew up in a big city, Lagos, in what seems to have been middle-class surroundings.
It was an American coaching in Africa who contacted U.S. schools on Olajuwon’s behalf. But Akeem says it was his own family that paid the $3,000 air fare to visit Houston and four other schools--North Carolina, Providence, Rhode Island and Georgia.
His parents are cement dealers who believed in educating their six children abroad. An older brother studied at Oxford. Akeem’s sister attended the American University in Cairo. Younger brothers Taju, 16, a basketball star himself at Houston Marian Christian High, and Afis, 14, live in Houston.
His great strength, speed and grace--a product of much manual labor?
“I never worked a day in my life,” he said. “A lot of people, when they hear you’re from Africa, they have a picture in their minds.
“People who are born in the States, they don’t know anywhere else. They think I come from the jungle, but that is not true. When I was in Nigeria, I traveled all the time. I’d go to Europe. I visited my brother in London. I had friends in Italy.”
At 18, he enrolled at Houston, the first stop on his tour, after Coach Guy Lewis had persuaded him to forgo the rest. You want to talk about cultures colliding?
Said Reid Gettys, Akeem’s teammate at the University of Houston: “On the court and off, Akeem is just an extremely polite person, very, very respectful to older people. That stood out from a few of the people we had.
“He was much farther along coming here from Africa than I would have been going to Africa. It was really funny. Akeem would pick up a slang term and he’d laugh. It was a lot of fun watching him become Americanized.
“I don’t think Coach Lewis ever got the credit due him for developing Akeem. Coach Lewis instilled that intense, aggressive, take-it-to-the-basket style in him.
“I hate to talk about our practices but we used to have two, three fights a day. Akeem got bounced around at first something fierce. Larry Michaeux (nicknamed Mr. Mean) used to just pound on him. But it wasn’t long before it was going both ways.
“Coach Lewis taught Akeem some moves, and then he took it to the playground. He took it to Fondy and worked on it.”
At Fondy Recreational Center, Moses Malone and other pros played recreational no-holds-barred ball. At the time, Olajuwon weighed about 195 and any pump fake would send him into orbit. By the time he left college, he was heavier, smarter and ready for faster company.
“All the great players coming from college, I thought it would take me two, three years,” he said.
When did he learn it wouldn’t be that long?
“From the beginning,” he said. “The first day of camp.”
Fazed? Impressed? Intimidated? Before his rookie season, the Rockets played an exhibition in Boston Garden. John Lucas took him onto the court to see the championship banners, the parquet floor.
What did he think?
"(Bleeped) up place,” Olajuwon said.
Maybe they could redo it.
Two seasons later, Olajuwon’s development continues at its break-neck pace. The Rockets may like Sampson, but they love Akeem.
Said Danny Schayes: “He plays a lot like Moses does, but he’s physically more talented. He’s quicker, he jumps better, he’s stronger.
“As far as having a lot of moves, Akeem doesn’t. He just stands in the low post and plows to the basket. He doesn’t have the great moves of a Michael Jordan or a Dr. J. He just plays a bull game. But as far as physical talent, he’s like a Michael Jordan or a Dr. J.
“And he’s got the Moses Malone complain-game down pretty well. He mumbles and curses the referees but they can’t understand what he’s saying.”
A delight off the court, Olajuwon has a temper on it. He had a fight with Utah’s Billy Paultz, whom he sucker-punched before fouling out in the playoff loss that eliminated the Rockets last season. He and Schayes shoved each other before he grabbed Madden and was tossed.
Such things are not unknown for star centers who are held and pushed a lot. Schayes for example, doesn’t dislike him.
“Not like you dislike a Bill Laimbeer, who elbows a lot and pushes and shoves and holds,” Schayes said. “Akeem doesn’t play that way. But he does play very physical.”
Similarly, Olajuwon doesn’t seem to take any of it seriously.
“It’s a game,” he said. “We talk trash to each other. We end up laughing because it’s so funny. Just like Maurice Lucas. He was telling me while I was on the free throw line that I’m a 50% free throw shooter.
“So I say, ‘OK, Superman.’ And we started laughing.”
He had a recent brush with a convenience store clerk in Houston, who alleged that Olajuwon hit him. Olajuwon says he only yelled at the man, who had insulted him and his girlfriend. Olajuwon wasn’t arrested, or obliged to appear, but his lawyer had to post a $200 bond.
Akeem’s mother called from Lagos the next day, a suggestion that she wondered what could be happening to her son.
Lots of things, fast.