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Learning Curve

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a working relationship that Michael Olowokandi hopes develops into a friendship. Not only does he want to absorb every basketball tip Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has to offer, but Olowokandi wouldn’t mind if the Hall of Fame center simply took him under his wing.

With the NBA labor talks still on hold, Olowokandi--the Clippers’ and the league’s top draft pick last June--is determined not to let the lockout slow his development as a player.

Three times a week, the 7-foot-1 draftee and the legendary Laker go through nearly two hours of training. With only three college seasons and 77 games of organized basketball behind him, Olowokandi realizes he has a lot to learn. And who better to teach him than Abdul-Jabbar?

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“It’s a very easy situation for both of us,” said Abdul-Jabbar, contacted to work with the 23-year-old Nigerian native by Olowokandi’s agent, Bill Duffy. “He wants to learn and I have the knowledge. He has a great deal of ability and skill to go along with agility and strength. But what is so [impressive] is that he has a very good work ethic and he knows what he has to do to get better.”

So far, Olowokandi, who has a 7-foot-8 wingspan, hasn’t been able to copy Abdul-Jabbar’s famous sky hook but he is close to perfecting a soft jump-hook.

“He’s real comfortable with that shot but we’re working on other things to complement that move,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I worked with both Vlade Divac and Shawn Bradley early in their careers, and Michael is starting off way ahead of them because he is such a good athlete.

“If he keeps working like this, the Clippers are going to be very happy with him. I hope they just don’t rush him.”

Taking a direct approach to get something he wants is nothing new for Olowokandi (pronounced Oh-lo-wuh-can-dy).

His story of leaving Brunel University in Uxbridge, England, to walk on and play basketball at the University of Pacific without having played an organized game was well documented before the NBA draft.

It’s also no secret that his stock rose from a likely late lottery selection to the No. 1 choice overall because of his work habits. With each workout, he dazzled one NBA team after another until finally, the Clippers decided he was too good to pass up and picked him instead of Arizona point guard Mike Bibby.

“Initially, the first thought was to pick Bibby, who I feel is going to be a very fine player in this league,” Elgin Baylor, Clipper vice president of basketball operations, said the day of the draft. “But when [Olowokandi] came in and worked out it was amazing, the improvement he had shown since the end of the season.”

Because of the lockout, the Clippers have not been allowed to contact their new center but they needn’t worry.

Since the draft, Olowokandi has maintained a daily weight-training and running program, and paid his own way at Pete Newell’s big-man camp in Hawaii. A raw prospect at the camp a year ago, he was the top attraction this summer.

To improve his free-throw shooting, 46% over his college career, Olowokandi practices every day and has improved to the point that he is making four out of five.

And, to supplement his post-up drills with Abdul-Jabbar, Olowokandi will soon begin working with former UCLA and NBA standout Kiki Vandeweghe on his perimeter footwork.

“I’ve gotten this far by working hard and the only way I know how to get better is by working even harder, to try to work to exhaustion,” said Olowokandi, who recently moved into a spacious four-bedroom house near Los Angeles International Airport. “I’ve put my faith in God and my prayers have definitely been answered. . . . But, I’m not stupid to take [my opportunity] for granted.”

Olowokandi, whose father, Ezekeil, is a Nigerian diplomat, spent most of his early years at an English boarding school he began attending when he was 10. He didn’t get to see his parents--each stands 6 feet 2--often, but he spoke to them every day.

Any sport he tried came easily to him. By the time he finished high school, he had led teams to national titles in volleyball and soccer and had been one of the country’s top prep athletes in the long jump and triple jump.

For two years, Olowokandi majored in engineering at Brunel, where academics ruled over athletics. But he couldn’t shake his desire to pursue basketball, which ranks low on the popularity scale among sports in England.

He played some pickup games and every chance he had, Olowokandi watched NBA videos featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar.

“When I used to watch them play, I thought those guys were superhuman,” Olowokandi said. “They would do things that I felt I just couldn’t do.”

Olowokandi’s life changed after he checked out a library book, “The Peterson Guide to American Colleges and Universities,” and blindly turned to the letter P. He then picked out Pacific and telephoned the school’s basketball office to offer his services to assistant coach Tony Marcopulos.

In three seasons for the Tigers, Olowokandi set a school record for blocked shots with 160 and was named the Big West Conference player of the year in 1998. Not bad for someone who barely knew any basketball rules when he attended his first college practice.

“I always had dreams of playing basketball and being successful, but they were my dreams and not everyone else’s,” said Olowokandi, who had to convince his parents that he was serious about basketball before he could leave Brunel. “It was difficult at first, but to me, I had no other choice but to make it. I didn’t fly 5,000 miles across the pond just to turn around and go home because things were tough. I knew that things were going to be better. Giving up was not an option.”

As the oldest of five children, Olowokandi has opened the door to the U.S. for his family. Soji, his 19-year-old brother, will be a 6-9 freshman on the Southern Illinois basketball team this season and his parents, who still have a hard time grasping Olowokandi’s meteoric basketball rise, have twice visited their oldest son in California.

If he had a choice, Olowokandi would be in training camp, getting to know his new teammates, instead of reading about the NBA’s lockout in newspapers. But until the owners and the players’ union reach an agreement, he will continue to adjust to his new life in Los Angeles while getting in as many workouts as he can.

“Because I was just drafted, I am not a member of the players’ association yet, but I’ve gone to meetings to listen and learn about what’s going on,” said Olowokandi, who plans to get his driver’s license next month. “I’m aware of the situation but I can’t do anything about it, even though what will be decided will affect me. I don’t like it, but that’s not going to stop me from trying to get better.”

Olowokandi, who modeled at an AIDS fashion show benefit last month and has been contacted by DreamWorks regarding a possible movie about his life, does not expect to be an impact player immediately in the NBA. But in time . . .

“If you look at how far he has come so fast, it’s pretty amazing,” said Henry Audu, Olowokandi’s best friend in England. “But the thing with Michael is that he hasn’t changed. He doesn’t ever dwell on the moment. He’s only going to keep getting better.”


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