Within days, his agent, Bill Duffy, called excitedly to tell Olowokandi that the Clippers and the Grizzlies wanted him to work out a second time. Olowokandi asked Duffy whom Bibby had worked out for a second time. The answer was nobody. "Then I think we've already done more than enough, don't you?" Olowokandi said.
"I'm supposed to be giving my client that advice," says Duffy, "but Michael was way ahead of me. His understanding of it all after such a short time was astonishing."
Even after Olowokandi secured his No. 1 status, he flew to Hawaii last month to attend Newell's camp, footing the $2,500 tuition bill himself, knowing there was much more work to be done. The camp specializes in honing the skills of centers, and Olowokandi ventured into the pivot against, among others, NBA veterans Chris Dudley, Andrew Lang, Jim McIlvaine and Michael Stewart. On offense in the very first half-court drill of the camp, when he had successfully pinned Lang on the block, Olowokandi turned, expectantly, and aimed for the strings. The ball never made it past his outstretched hand; Lang, who makes his living as a "defensive presence," swallowed up Olowokandi's jumper and sent it sailing out of bounds. There was no time to be embarrassed or annoyed, because a second ball was already being thrown to Olowokandi in the post. The rookie grabbed it and turned again, as leisurely as before. The same move? Lang, hunkered in his stance, was just starting to wonder whether this kid was stubborn or stupid when Olowokandi wheeled back, crossed over to his left hand and used his lively soccer-trained feet to blow past the 10-year NBA regular for a dunk.
"He's got some of the quickest feet I've seen," Lang said later. "And he learns in a hurry. And with that body...he's going to be an All-Star for a long, long time."
Newell and his staff had tutored Olowokandi the previous summer and they rejoiced at his return because of his impeccable manners, his punctuality, his determination to finish first in wind sprints each morning and his habit of looking his teachers squarely in the eye when receiving instruction. But most of all, the coaches enjoyed measuring his progress. "The first time we put him in the post against the pros, he got banged up a little bit," reports Vanderbilt assistant Pete Gaudet. "The next time, he came in with his elbow up. Manners are great, but you've got to have an edge. Believe me. Michael has it."
Certainly the seasoned surfers at Waikiki, who gawk in amazement at the towering young man as he urgently chases the cresting waves, understand his tenacity. Olowokandi has been in the water for an hour now, and his long, spindly arms are fatigued, yet he does not abandon the board.
"Do you have enough pictures?" he asks between gulps of the Pacific, a sign, perhaps, that this exercise is over. Assured that the photographer, who happens to be an avid surfer, has plenty of shots, Olowokandi says, "All right, then. Now show me how to do this." Another 45 minutes pass; the waves toss Olowokandi indifferently. His hamstring cramps, and he writhes in agony.
Here's one reason the NBA lockout is a blessing: Clippers vice president of basketball operations Elgin Baylor and owner Donald Sterling are forbidden to have contact with their players, and therefore were blissfully unaware that their prized big man, the hope of their battered franchise, was cramping up on an 11-foot piece of fiberglass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Clippers are also prohibited from commenting on Olowokandi, but if they could talk, they would surely marvel that after only 77 games of organized basketball, he has made the progress he has. It is some kind of fairy tale, basketball's version of Rocky. No wonder DreamWorks is considering making a movie of Olowokandi's life, with the big man playing himself.
The film will be far more compelling if Olowokandi becomes a star in the NBA. Newell is convinced this will happen. He likens the young center's exceptionally quick footwork to that of another pivot hero from Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon. "Michael's second jump is so fast," says Newell. "Most other big men have to catch and gather an offensive rebound. Michael just shoots back up."