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Olajuwon: Godfather of basketball in Africa

American hoops instructor recalls start of a 'Dream' in Nigeria

POSTED: Jul 31, 2015 3:37 PM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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Hakeem Olajuwon reconnects with Oliver B. Johnson, who introduced Olajuwon to basketball in Africa.

— Sometime back in the late '70s, the exact day and month a bit faded in the brain now, a young American was unsure about what to do with his time and where to spend it. This gave Oliver B. Johnson something in common with, oh, millions of folks who arrive at the fork in their road, although his was a dusty and unpaved one in central Africa.

He'd just completed a Peace Corp tour of Kenya, a lush experience for someone from the gritty side of Washington D.C. He saw stuff: crowded city buses that often tilted dangerously around sharp curves, hectic outdoor bazaars in the crampy Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the ebony skin of young women and yes, a lion in the bush country. It was all too intoxicating, this journey of goodwill and volunteerism, which made him wonder: What to do when it ends? Well, one day, it ended.

His time in Kenya was also spent doing something else, teaching basketball to Africans largely smitten with another ball, one used to kick. He didn't understand their fascination with soccer. He grew up in the States playing hoops on the DC asphalt courts and idolized Baylor and Oscar and Hondo, names that might as well been cartoon characters to these Kenyans. Anyway, his work done, Johnson pondered an uncertain life back home.

Oh, one thing, though. He had a plane ticket to the U.S. but also a 21-day visa to Nigeria, which he decided to use, almost on a whim. He went beyond the visa's time limit because "I liked it so much, I decided to stay." Once in Lagos, with his bag of basketballs, he searched for a diamond in the rough and one day saw a boy who glistened, walking down the street.

The teenager was giraffe-like and his name was Akeem, and imagine how deflated Johnson felt when the youngster explained he was too busy playing soccer and team handball -- team handball! -- to deal with basketball, and kept walking.

Now imagine the state of African basketball today if that same boy hadn't shown up at the gym later and decided, yes, to give basketball a try. Or if the man who discovered him had punched the plane ticket home rather than used the visa to Nigeria. Just think of what basketball almost missed. We would've never bowed at the fraternal feet of Phi Slamma Jamma, or witnessed the poetry of the Dream Shake, or heard Rudy T lecture the naysayers about the heart of a champion. Hell, had this Akeem stuck with team handball, maybe Patrick Ewing would've won that elusive NBA title in 1994. Life is funny that way, no?

BWB Africa: African Pioneer

Hakeem Olajuwon gets drafted in 1984.

Over the groundbreaking years that followed after the boy walked into a Lagos gym, he gradually added a gentle mid-range shooting touch, some nifty footwork sharpened by soccer training, a pair of championship rings won back-to-back, and most famously, an "H." Hakeem Olajuwon is a Hall of Famer, one of the great centers of all time and perhaps noblest of all, the pioneer of African basketball.

His journey was jump-started by Johnson, affectionately known in Africa by his initials OBJ. And it is intriguing to see them reunited this week in Johannesburg, both gray at the temples (and OBJ, now 75, graying at the scraggly beard), both part of an NBA-sponsored effort to find and develop basketball players, precisely the bold idea Johnson had some 35 years ago when he discovered Olajuwon.

They haven't found the Next Olajuwon yet -- not for a lack of trying -- but neither has anyone found one in the U.S., for that matter. The effort to expose Africans to basketball today, compared to back in Olajuwon's time, is almost comically lopsided. It shows how far the mission has come and how prehistoric it was three decades ago.

"You see this?" said Olajuwon, while gesturing and observing a youth clinic conducted Thursday in Soweto. "My gosh."

When Johnson arrived to Nigeria on a talent search, he said there were maybe 500 people involved in basketball. Mind you, Nigeria teemed with hundreds of millions of people then.

"Today we've got over 20,000 involved," he said.

The path to basketball is easier, the exposure greater, the TV coverage of NBA games more globally expansive and the financial incentive is far steeper than ever before. They've all conspired to give the NBA some assistance in Africa, but nothing will beat the innocence of the beginning, back in the late '70s when a 7-foot Nigerian first sank his roots into the game.

Just think of the time when someone handed Derek Jeter a glove, or escorted Jim Brown from the lacrosse field to the football field, or turned a water hose on Michael Phelps. At some early critical stage in every great athlete's life, something or someone showed that athlete the way to success, then moved out of the way. This is how it happened with Olajuwon and Johnson, and how Africans first found a reason to shoot a ball rather than boot it.

The birth of a dream

Johnson was selected to coach the Nigerian national team, in part because nobody else wanted the job, and nobody else was really qualified to coach. Again, this was during an embryonic stage; the game simply was too new and unfamiliar to most Nigerians. Working mostly solo, he taught basic fundamentals and gradually the Africans gained a feel for the game. But a wide majority of the players had no height.

That changed when Olajuwon participated in the Lagos Sports Festival, a scaled-down Olympics designed to develop Nigerian kids. Olajuwon wasn't just there for basketball; he was multi-tasking in a handful of sports.

"They threw him into all the sports in which they thought they could medal in the All-African Games," said Johnson. "He was just so tall and strong and athletic. Hakeem was going from one sport to another."

When Olajuwon walked into the basketball gym, to a sport totally foreign to him, he was instantly placed on the national team by Johnson. There was no tryout, no audition, and no selection committee. Nothing. Here he was, barely 17, playing with men, handed a basketball. This is how The Dream began.

Johnson's instructions to Olajuwon were simple and basic: "I told him, `Your job is to go get the ball. I need you to do some rebounding for me.' That's it."

Rebounding? How's that done? Strange how someone who would average 11.1 boards for his entire NBA career would grapple with that concept, even initially.

"He was a little reluctant," said Johnson. "But once I gave him confidence by giving him just one assignment, he relaxed."

And then the next assignment came.

"Dunk the ball," Johnson told him. "Just get the ball and dunk it."

Johnson stood on a stool to demonstrate, and even then, young Olajuwon's first few attempts were conducted clumsily. His experience on the national team level went just as bumpy. As you could only imagine, Olajuwon was raw and unskilled, prone to fouls and missed chances.

"Coach put me on the team, not because I could play, but because of potential," Olajuwon says today. "We played in the tournament and I was just trying to find my way around the court."

Next came the junior national team, and this was the turning point for young Olajuwon. This time, he was with players his age, and the transformation was immediate and smashing in that tournament.

"I dominated," he said, laughing.

There was one very important reason to worry. Olajuwon's parents weren't big on sports and really didn't want their son spending much of his time with sports. Olajuwon came from an educated family and his parents wanted him reading and studying. In fact, throughout their time together between basketball mentor and pupil, Olajuwon had one request for Johnson:

"Don't talk to my parents. Don't tell my parents."

And so they kept this clandestine arrangement. Johnson said most Nigerian parents then thought sports were a waste of time, and the results bore that out. In global sports, Africa was slow to the game, sending far fewer top-rated athletes than the more developed countries for obvious reasons: funding, exposure, facilities, etc. Only in distance running did Africans lap the field, so to speak, and only because that sport was inexpensive and came as a result of long trips through hills by foot to school and work.

Olajuwon's journey to America

Once Olajuwon starred on the junior level, word spread fast. An assistant coach at the University of Houston caught sight of a gangly young center and the hunt began. Meanwhile, Johnson planned for Olajuwon to attend Ahmadou Bello University, the Nigerian collegiate powerhouse in athletics, where Johnson would soon coach. It was all set.

"He said, 'Coach, let me go home and get my stuff.' Well, two weeks later, I'm reading about him being in Houston to play ball," said Johnson.

I was just trying to find my way. I wasn't thinking about inspiring Africa with my play. I was just trying to gain a reputation in the NBA, in the sport.

– Hakeem Olajuwon on his start in basketball

Evidently Johnson got a first-hand taste of NCAA recruiting. Houston pulled an okey-dokey.

Here's the thing: Some Nigerian kid was totally foreign to coach Guy Lewis, who didn't personally scout Olajuwon and hadn't seen a second of tape on him. As the legend goes, Lewis somewhat reluctantly agreed to bring him in. This was apparent when Olajuwon's plane landed in Houston. There was nobody from the university waiting with a car. Olajuwon reached in his pocket for the telephone number to the basketball office and dialed. Someone there, perhaps a secretary, told him to catch a cab.

Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, Johnson returned to do his work and conduct his mission in life. Nigeria became one of the better African countries in basketball, which was progress, although the country was barely a blip on the global scale. Africa routinely did poorly in the Olympics (getting fame much later when Charles Barkley elbowed an Angolan in 1992), but something happened. Olajuwon happened. Akeem became Hakeem and dunks were raining all over Houston. Later, Olajuwon was drafted by the Rockets and his grasp of the game became so much more mature and refined and ... well, you know the rest.

His NBA success brought exposure and it was golden to basketball in Africa. Later, Manute Bol came from the Sudan and Dikembe Mutombo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It wasn't an overnight smash but compared to the previous decade, Africa now had a basketball pulse.

And Olajuwon's parents approved.

"They didn't understand the importance of basketball, although Hakeem did," said Johnson. "They didn't know anything until he got to America and they saw what basketball could do for him."

If you tell Olajuwon, he's the godfather of basketball in Africa, the one who started it all, he becomes modestly uncomfortable. It's a legacy that he embraces, but also one he never saw coming.

"I was just trying to find my way," he said about the beginning. "I wasn't thinking about inspiring Africa with my play. I was just trying to gain a reputation in the NBA, in the sport."

Giving back where it all started

Hakeem Olajuwon
NBA Legend Hakeem Olajuwon interacts with the campers during the Basketball Without Boarders program at the American International School of Johannesburg in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Now a successful businessman who helps train basketball centers on the side, Olajuwon remains tied to the sport on his continent. He makes appearances for Basketball Without Borders and is in Johannesburg now conducting clinics and helping to promote the NBA's exhibition game here, the first of its kind in Africa. He is fit at 52 and at peace through his religion, which dictates the way he lives his life.

He and Johnson share laughs and swap stories about the old times whenever they see each other on the continent. Johnson never did punch that plane ticket to the States. He never left Nigeria or coaching (he later taught a Nigerian boy named Masai Ujiri, now the GM of the Raptors). And he still looks to develop the game, this time in the strangest of places: In the conflict areas of Africa, where he tries to build basketball courts so kids can find relief and a safe escape. Peace Zones is how he describes them, and Basketball For Peace is what OBJ calls his latest mission.

Oh, and what about when Olajuwon left Africa suddenly for Houston, without much notice? Did Johnson become perturbed by that? Not at all, he said. Not at all. It never affected their relationship or altered Johnson's blueprint.

"People in Nigeria did begin to complain after a while and say, `Coach, we train all these guys and then they leave.' And I said, `We are a country of 100 million people. Just put somebody else in.' "

Now you know what this week in Johannesburg is all about, with the clinics and the NBA players and the historic NBA exhibition Saturday. This is all designed to put somebody else from Africa in the game.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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