His name means “to the top” in Nigerian, and that’s exactly where Akeem Abdul Olajuwon seems destined to go. In fact, he’s already most of the way there. As the 7′ center for the University of Houston basketball team, he sparked the Cougars to a 31-3 record and within two points of winning the NCAA championship against North Carolina State last season. With an explosion of 68 whirling, spinning, backboard-quivering dunks, “Akeem the Dream” was the most overpowering brother in the vaunted “Phi Slamma Jamma” fraternity. And he never picked up a basketball until 1979.
An accomplished soccer player, Olajuwon (pronounced on-LAHJ-oo-wahn) had been playing basketball for scarcely six months at the Moslem Teachers College in Lagos, when a U.S. State Department employee with an eye for talent packed him off for a six-campus tour stateside. Olajuwon landed in New York on a chilly October day in 1980. “I thought it was too cold for me to live in this country,” says Akeem in his curious, looping English, searching through a vocabulary that includes French and four Nigerian dialects. “I was going to go back to Nigeria.” Fortunately for Houston, he’d heard Texas was balmier and, since his sponsor had spoken highly of Cougar coach Guy Lewis, Akeem decided to fly south.
Lewis didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for Olajuwon because, he says, “I’ve had hundreds of foreign kids referred to us over the years. Frankly, they just don’t play basketball in most countries the way they play it in the U.S.” Indeed, Akeem was too gentlemanly under the boards, and his skinny (190-pound) frame failed to intimidate. Yet Lewis liked what he saw. So Olajuwon enrolled in school on a full scholarship in January 1981 and set out to turn himself into a power player. Stuffing himself on steak and ice cream while pumping iron, Olajuwon reached 245 well-muscled pounds. Under the tutelage of local pros like the estimable Moses Malone (then with the Houston Rockets), Akeem learned how to box out opponents with sharp elbows and burly shoulders. At first he didn’t know what to make of the contact, “but,” he says, “I like it now.” His agility, honed on the soccer field, leads to an unusual number of steals for a big man. Says Akeem, “I like to get in, take the ball away and have the other man say, ‘Where he come from?’ ”
Well, he come from Lagos, Nigeria, where his parents are partners in a cement business. His father (who is 6’5″) and his mother (who is “normal-sized”) have never seen their son play basketball. For his part, Akeem hasn’t seen his parents since that day in 1980. In his first weeks on campus, Akeem wore a dashiki; now he favors jeans. He lives off-campus in a one-bedroom apartment, drives a serviceable Buick and dates Lita Spencer, a student at nearby Rice University. Olajuwon, who majors in business technology, hopes his solid academic record and a pro career will lead to his own export-import business after he gains U.S. citizenship.
Although six members of last year’s power team have graduated, Houston fans are counting on Akeem to lead the Cougars to the NCAA tournament again. It won’t be easy. Houston lost its season opener to N.C. State 76-64, in spite of Akeem’s 16 points and eight rebounds. “He likes to be the best of the best,” says brother Akin, 18. Of course, he may get some competition there. Akin, who is 6’6″, is a freshman at Houston and seems interested in taking up a sport. Any suggestions, Coach Lewis?