Born on April 3, 1975, in Lagos, Nigeria
and raised in England, Michael Olowokandi didn't even touch a basketball until his mid-teens. Propelled by his work ethic
(and of course, his height) into a basketball career, Olowokandi until recently was counted among the ranks of high draft picks that didn't turn out as expected
. That is, until late in the 2001-2002 season when, approaching free agent
status, Olowokandi got his act together and boosted his averages significantly, while causing many of his critics to re-evaluate their opinions. 13 games into the 2002-2003 season, the Kandiman is having his best year yet, with averages of 15.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and 2.31 bpg.
Michael's father, Ezekiel is a Nigerian diplomat whose job required that he live in England. This is where Olowokandi was raised, and he participated in popular English sports such as soccer (football), track, and rugby. But by age 14, he was nearly seven feet tall, and all his athletic endeavors had made him develop into a lithe, fast athlete. Basketball never even crossed his mind until he was 17 years old. Basketball games were rarely shown on English TV at that time, and when they were it was always the NBA Finals and was broadcast at two or three in the morning. Still, Olowokandi happened to catch one of these games and thought to himself that he could easily do what the NBA Players were doing.
"I think I must have watched one or two NBA games...I saw those guys and how they jumped, and I used to do the triple jump, and back then I was a little leaner and quite athletic, and I thought, I can do that easily."
Olowokandi found himself a basketball covered in cobweb
s and hidden in the corner of his school's gym
equipment shed. He began working on his game either by himself, or against his much shorter friends, since his school (Newlands Manor School in East Sussex) had no basketball team
. After graduating from high school, Olokwandi attended University in Uxbridge, Middlesex, where he majored in Mechanical Engineering
Michael soon realised that if he really wanted to make it into the NBA, he'd be better off at an American school. So on his twentieth birthday, Michael headed off to the library where he opened up a guide book to American Universities, to the P section. The first school listed was the University of the Pacific. Olowokandi called them, told them he was 7'0", and asked if his credits would transfer. By September, he had enrolled at Pacific.
At first it seemed that even at 7'0" Michael was hopeless at basketball. He had no grasp of the basic concepts of basketball such as a travelling violation, or free throws. He spent every free minute he had with assistant coach Tony Marcopulos, learning all aspects of the game. Although some days Olowokandi only wanted to drop everything and go back to England, his unrivalled athleticism gave him the encouragement he needed to keep on working at his game: "I didn't know there were any rules or set plays. I thought people just tried to do things...but when we had conditioning and sprints and stuff, I could beat everybody, even the guards. So I thought, you know, if I could just stick it out and learn the basketball end of things...I knew that I just needed the repetition of doing things over and over."
After two years of steady improvement, Michael became a top draft prospect with his averages of 22 ppg, 11 rpg, and 2.88 bpg in his final year at Pacific. He led the Big West Conference in each of those categories, and made NCAA history by winning Big West Player of the Week honors five times. At that time, Michael had only been playing for 5 years, but his stats, coupled with his height and weight (7'0", 270 lbs), and 7'6" wingspan gave him an enormous potential upside. The L.A. Clippers made him the number one NBA Draft pick in 1998, over the likes of Mike Bibby, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Raef LaFrentz (Clippers VP Elgin Baylor is probably still kicking himself to this very day).
In his first three seasons, Olowokandi's numbers hovered around 9 ppg and 8 rpg, prompting Clippers announcer Bill Walton to declare that Olowokandi was a "robotic stiff". But prior to the 2001-2002 season, Olowokandi had an attitude overhaul. In assessing his previous errors, Michael admits that he made some pretty big mental mistakes. "I should have come in and learned the game and just played. But I came in trying to do all that and put on weight...I got there, started putting on the weight, and then I was having trouble moving around, moving my feet." At the end of the 2001-2002, as Olowokandi was to become a free agent (coincidence?), his averages were boosted to a respectable 11.1 ppg, and 8.9 rpg, with 1.88 bpg. "I think the key is to find things that you're comfortable doing and successful doing. Once I figured out what my bread and butter was, I just added a little wrinkle here and there." But career averages only tell part of the story. At times, Olowokandi was so dominant that even Bill Walton was impressed, saying, "I never thought I'd say this, but Michael Olowokandi has became a basketball player."
This past summer, when his bid for a lucrative contract in the six-year, $79 million dollar range was refused, Olowokandi signed a one-year deal with the Clippers, hoping that as a free agent in 2003 he'll snag some of the cap space cleared by desparate teams in hopes of landing Tim Duncan or Jason Kidd (both are to become free agents at the end of the 2002-2003 season). With his hard-earned athleticism and his encouraging improvement, he just may have a chance.
SLAM no. LXIV, November 2002