Hakeem Olajuwon impressed by today's African NBA stars

ByMark Woods via ESPN logo
Thursday, August 3, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, England -- Born in Lagos, Hakeem Olajuwon blazed a trail when he made the journey from Nigeria to the United States, transforming himself from an unpolished raw talent to a shining superstar in the NBA.

The Basketball Hall of Famer, now age 54, has seen countless others follow in his path from Africa since he became the first overall pick by the Houston Rockets in 1984 following a stellar collegiate career at the University of Houston.

Olajuwon sat down with ESPN.com during the youth camp he oversees for the City of Birmingham Basketball Clubto discuss African basketball, past and present.

You had such an extraordinary journey. How easy or difficult, when you look back at it now, was it to make that journey from Nigeria to the NBA?

Today, the influence, the impact, being one of the pioneers ... you have a path from Nigeria to the U.S. where all the college coaches are searching on a global level, especially in Africa, for players because there has been a lot of talent like myself and [Dikembe] Mutombo.

Now the NBA are establishing NBA Africa to search for talent there. When I was playing in Nigeria, it was the opposite -- we didn't know any players who had come from there.

We had a coach -- his name was Christopher Pond -- he was coaching the Central African Republic team in the African Championship. We played against them, but then he came to me after the game and said he was going to the U.S. And he arranged the trip [for me to the States].

Back then, the scouting system wasn't in place in the way it is now. Do you feel there was an element of good fortune that you were able to make a contact like that who then paved the way for you to attend university in the States -- which allowed you to have the career you had in the NBA?

Definitely. It was destiny. It was destined to happen. If you look back ... people would say it was a fairy tale story, that it wasn't very real. That's why I say it was a dream, not reality. Because everything since has worked out so well. It forces the coaches also to now assess the size of the talent in those countries where they can see it.

And many young players [from Africa] are now in the NBA. You look at their stories. It's the same. They read about my story and were inspired by it, that it's possible. And also the awareness of basketball in Africa is bigger. Now you see the structure where now they are searching for talent from high school and university and also in the NBA. It's globally connected.

You were involved in the launch of the Power Forward initiative in Nigeria in 2014, and there is an academy in Senegal. Is the infrastructure now capable of developing African players who might go straight to the NBA with the way the ecosystem is growing?

The NBA commissioner, that's his vision. Before, in Africa, you had Basketball Without Borders with two weeks in different countries. Now, this way, there is an academy where they can develop players through education and basketball. And it's not just in Senegal. They bring all the talent from Africa. That is a good feed for the NBA in the future.

You were involved in the first NBA Africa exhibition game. To see all these great players go back to where you came from, how special was that?

It was something I didn't think I would see in my lifetime. Just to see that the game was being hosted in Africa. I wasn't planning to play in that game -- they all said, "You must play at least for one minute, just for audience to see you live." That was something very special.

There are a lot of great African players in the NBA -- who for you stands out as the guy you enjoy watching?

Right now, I would say Joel Embiid. I like his charisma. He's talented, very confident, playing fantastic basketball.[Serge] Ibakahas made a huge impact. [Victor] Oladipo. And also [Giannis] Antetokounmpo-- from Greece, but he's Nigerian. His style of basketball and his development is fantastic.

There are a lot of players of Nigerian extraction -- first, second, third generation. It could be quite a national team if they all said, "We'll play for there."

Definitely. But the problem is when you put a national team together and all of them are outside the country, you're not giving the local guys that development or that opportunity. So it's good to have a mix where you have local guys who have worked hard to make the team, but adding the experience of five or six guys from the U.S. Then everyone can benefit.

Do you see that, someday soon, the next Jordan, the next LeBron, will arrive straight out of Africa?

I see that in Antetokounmpo, right now. You look at his style of basketball, his game. It's as good as any player. He has so many advantages in terms of length, his skill. So I can see that.

You came from an era of back-to-basket centers. Now the bigs play outside. Do you see it coming full circle?

If I played today, I wouldn't be shooting 3s -- I'd be taking advantage in the post. My style of basketball is being played really. I always wanted to play three different positions: small forward, power forward and center. If I have a size advantage, I play inside. If you have a size advantage over me, I play outside. You have to be able to play both.

In today's game, where the big guys play more outside, they don't have to take advantage in the post of the mismatch. To be a complete player, you need to take advantage of your opportunities. If you're a big, you should play in the post. It's a mismatch. And if you get the ball outside, you should be able to shoot a jump shot or drive to be a complete player.

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