The NBA named its 75th Anniversary Team back in October. Of the 75 players who were selected, six legendary international players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Hakeem Olajuwon — have etched their names in history, paving the way for hundreds of other foreign-born players.
In Part 1 of our four-part series, we take a look at Jamaica’s Ewing and Nigeria’s Olajuwon.
The First Foreign-Born Players
The NBA opened its first season in November 1946 with a matchup between the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskers in Ontario, Canada.
Featured on the Huskers roster was Hank Biasatti, an Italian-Canadian player and the first international player to hit an NBA court. His NBA career was short-lived, but it was a start to something much bigger.
Over 30 years later, a foreign-born player was selected as the No. 1 overall pick for the first time: Mychal Thompson from the Bahamas in 1978. Thompson proved to be a special pick as he earned two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. His greatness also provided a path for his son Klay Thompson, a three-time champion with the Golden State Warriors. The trickle of highly competitive international talent only grew stronger as the years went on.
In 1984, the league reached at least 10 international players for the first time, and that number has grown significantly with each passing decade.
“It took a while through the 90s,” Kim Bohuny, NBA senior vice president of international basketball operations, told the Washington Post. “A lot of our teams were like, ‘Do we want international players or not?’ They always had that label of being soft, not good on defense, just great shooters. That is completely changed… now all 30 teams have an international player.”
At the start of the 2021-22 season, a record 121 international players from 40 different countries were named to rosters across the league.
“I think what’s great is now if you’re a young boy or girl from any country in the world, you believe you can make it here,” Bohuny said. “That’s the biggest difference in my mind. Before they hoped maybe, maybe I could get to the NBA one day.”
The 80s: Hakeem Olajuwon & Patrick Ewing
In 1984, Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Rockets. It was a draft class full of talent, as Michael Jordan went third. While playing among legendary competition during his career, Olajuwon emerged as one of the best players in NBA history.
Olajuwon’s passion for basketball started in Lagos, Nigeria. At the age of 15, he first played in a local tournament. Olajuwon ultimately found himself at the University of Houston, leading the basketball team to the Final Four in all three of his seasons.
“Coming from Nigeria, my first Final Four was very difficult to digest what it meant. It’s the same with being a Hall of Famer,” he said in 2008 after being selected to the Hall of Fame.
His nickname “The Dream” preludes how otherworldly his list of accolades is, including being named MVP, two-time Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He became the only player to win a championship, MVP, Finals MVP & DPOY in the same season. Olajuwon is also one of only four players to record a quadruple-double.
In 1994, the 7-footer met another big-man legend as they collided in the NBA Finals. Jamaican-born Patrick Ewing was drafted No. 1 overall in 1985. Ewing arrived in the United States at the age of 11, becoming a well-recognized high school basketball talent. He ended up at Georgetown University where he led the squad to a national title in 1984.
This journey brought him to a pivotal moment. If not for Ewing’s 22-point, 22-rebound performance in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, the New York Knicks would have had to wait much longer to end their 20-year Finals drought.
These powerhouse players went head-to-head for seven games in the fight to become NBA champions. While Ewing’s strength defined the Knicks’ postseason stretch for several years, he never got the chance to bring a trophy to New York.
“He’s been a thorn in my side for many years,” said Ewing in 2008, who also faced Olajuwon in college. “We’ve accomplished a lot. He’s from Nigeria and I’m from Jamaica so we didn’t know the game. The first time I went against him was in the NCAA Tournament. I thought, ‘Jesus God, this man is so strong and so agile.’ He’s an amazing competitor. We’ve had our battles over the years. Unfortunately, he has one that I would have loved to have won in ’94.”
Olajuwon pushed the 1994 series to seven with a clutch block that secured Houston’s first NBA title. As a 10-year veteran, he averaged 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.86 blocks per game. Olajuwon wouldn’t stop there, leading the 6th-seed Rockets to a consecutive title in 1995 with a sweep of Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic.
The Rockets became the only team other than the Chicago Bulls to win back-to-back chips in the 1990s.
During an era where the league was defense-focused, Ewing went on to reign in many of the same categories as Olajuwon. Two decades past, Ewing still holds the top spot for points, rebounds, blocks and steals for the Knicks’ franchise. He was named an 11-time All-Star and Rookie of The Year during his career. He also was part of the famous Olympic “Dream Team”.
“That was my second Olympics — mine, Michael [Jordan], and Chris [Mullin]. We played in the ’84 Olympics together, and we had a great team then. But the cast on this team — it was the best of the best. I knew it was going to be something special,” Ewing said in the GQ Oral History Of The Dream Team.
Both Olajuwon’s jersey (No. 34) and Ewing’s jersey (No. 33) hang in the rafters for Houston and New York, respectively. The Rockets also built a bronze monument honoring Olajuwon outside of the arena in 2006. The longtime rivals were both inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what it means to be a Hall of Famer,” Olajuwon said in 2008. “It’s a great honor. I still cannot believe I’m in the same company with all these great legends.”
Ewing returned to his home island of Jamaica in 2018, where he led his alma mater Georgetown University’s basketball team to an OT victory in the Jamaica Classic. Olajuwon also later paid tribute to his roots, returning to the court for an NBA Africa Game in 2015 where he knocked down a classic turn-around jumper.
“I think players feel the responsibility to give back. There’s a long tradition of it, and it’s a tradition that started way before me, and before Michele [Roberts]. We both inherited. And when we go to a place like Africa and talk about the values of our game, talk about fitness and healthy living, and discipline, leadership, teamwork — all those things are what build great communities,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Sports Illustrated.
It only goes to show how international players impact the NBA’s global relationships and basketball overall. Only a few years later, the league partnered with FIBA to begin the Basketball Africa League. The BAL was comprised of 12 teams representing 12 African countries, where Zamalek won the first-ever BAL championship and Walter Hodge was named the 2021 Hakeem Olajuwon BAL MVP.
— Basketball Africa League (@theBAL) May 30, 2021
“I have this conversation with ministers of sport in countries around the world: Sometimes there’s the notion of when’s the next great player coming?” Silver told the Washington Post. “As opposed to, when are we going to develop the next great player?”