When the top 10 centres in the history of the NBA are listed, a certain gigantic and fast moving Yoruba man will most likely find his name at the top of that class of elite shot blockers, board crashers and shot makers.
With his quick feet, lightning moves and dazzling steps under the rim christened the “Dream Shake”, Hakeem Olajuwon left an indelible mark on the basketball courts of NBA teams dotted around continental USA and Toronto.
Coming from a modest West African background, Hakeem played soccer on the bare soccer pitches of Lagos and most likely envisaged himself turning into the next Segun Odegbami.
Little did he know at the time that his 6-10 200+ pound body frame, his raw strength and the footwork soccer had endowed him with was ideal for a career in basketball.
Eventually finding his way onto the University of Houston team, he spent the next four years refining his skills, learning the fundamentals of being a big man and getting bigger.
Some of these years were spent learning under NBA great, Moses Malone who is a Houston native.
The post plays he learnt from “Mumbles” (Moses’ nickname for his stuttering and lack of eloquence) coupled with his hunger for success made Hakeem a transcendent college player and eventually made him the number one pick in a class which included MJ, Stockton and Barkley.
Going on to post a 20 points and 11 rebounds average as a rookie, Hakeem had one of the most successful careers in the NBA which spanned an 18 year period. He won 2 NBA championships, 2 finals MVP, one regular season MVP and 2 NBA defensive player of the year awards in addition to several All Star appearances. During this period, he dominated all the big men in the game.
From David Robinson who he outclassed virtually every single time the pair met to Ewing who he exacted revenge from for losing against him in college (Ewing played for Georgetown but fell to MJ’s Tar Heels after beating Hakeem’s UH).
Another dominant big man during this period was Shaquille O’Neal who has so much respect for Hakeem, he named “The Dream” as the best centre of all time, ahead of Russell and Chamberlain.
Hakeem’s legacy will forever be cemented in NBA history literally (in the Hall of Fame) as well as figuratively (in the minds of NBA fans). His success resonates with teenagers and early adults dribbling faded Spalding and Wilson basketballs up and down pot holes ridden courts with rickety rims around Africa.
The “grass to grace” story of Hakeem imbibes these youth with hope, regardless of how slim they maybe, of a realistic dream.
In a country where all focus is on soccer, with millions of dollars being pumped into the game, the game of basketball has largely been left undeveloped.
With no national arena, inadequate well trained coaches, a general scarcity of the requisite tools for the game and not forgetting the doldrums both the national league and team have gone through (that’s even if there ever was such a thing), a lot is left to be desired.
Despite all these constraints, the game has been making some humble strides if not flourishing. High school basketball has recently enjoyed significant support from Sprite and Rite Multimedia, the two sponsors of the Sprite Ball tournament.
The competition has unearthed several talents, some of whom have gone on to receive scholarships from schools in the States. College level basketball was recently rejuvenated by the UPAC tournament.
Some individuals have also been recruited directly by College scouts. One of whom is Amida Brimah, the centre and co-captain of University of Connecticut.
It is the good fortune experienced by the likes of Amida that keeps the lads hustling on the courts of Kawukudi and Ahodwo. So in addition to praying for their next daily bread and the latest KD’s, they pray a scout from an NCAA team (or at least an NAIA team) spots them “following through” on their jumper, executing the pick and roll timely or splitting defences without being ball hogs.
They pray their post-up moves are reminiscent of Kevin McHale and their foot works gives potential scouts a throwback to the Hakeem Era. They simply pray to be LIKE HAKEEM!!!