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Riding a Wave
Jackie MacMullan
September 14, 1998
It's taken Clippers center Michael Olowokandi only three years to go from novice to No. 1 draft pick, but he knows he'll be in deep water in the NBA
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September 14, 1998

Riding A Wave

It's taken Clippers center Michael Olowokandi only three years to go from novice to No. 1 draft pick, but he knows he'll be in deep water in the NBA

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The tale of Olowokandi and the University of the Pacific has secured a permanent place in college lore. It begins with a 20-year-old student at Brunei University in Uxbridge, Middlesex, England, who happens to be seven feet tall, thumbing through Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges hoping to find a school where he can play basketball. Calls to Duke and Georgetown are unavailing, but when he dials up Pacific during lunchtime in California, assistant coach Tony Marcopulos is there to take his call because, in Pacific coach Bob Thomason's now famous utterance, "you never know when a seven-footer might call."

When Olowokandi expressed his desire to join the team, and added that he would be willing to pay his own way—his father, Ezekiel, was a diplomat, and the family was wealthy—Marcopulos was understandably skeptical. While quizzing him about his background, Marcopulos kept coming back to the same question: How tall are you again? "I think he asked me about eight times," Olowokandi says. In the ensuing three months the Pacific staff tested Olowokandi's commitment. They asked him to be photographed alongside a double-decker bus so they could determine his height. (He declined.) Giving him only three days' notice, they told him he needed to take an American test, called the SAT, in London. (He happily breezed through it.)

When it came to basketball, Olowokandi's background was limited. He had done what other boys in London had, and that was play soccer and run track. "All I knew about Michael Jordan," says Olowokandi, "was that he could dunk the ball from half-court." As Olowokandi grew taller and taller, he became more curious about Jordan's sport. He persuaded his friends to fool around at the one hoop on his college campus. When he shot the ball (two-handed, of course), he liked the feeling. Olowokandi was convinced he could play this game, not realizing that the three-on-three scrimmages he and his friends dallied in were nothing like the real thing.

Predictably, his first practice with Pacific was a nightmare. Marcopulos threw him a pass, and he caught it underhanded. Olowokandi didn't understand the rules or drills as basic as a three-man weave. The struggle was compounded by his fierce need to figure things out for himself. He had come this far on his own and was wary of putting his future in the hands of others. "Let's just say he's very attached to his own opinion," Marcopulos says.

Olowokandi's coaches preached patience. He retorted that he didn't have time. In his first season, as a sophomore, he was a non-factor, but in his second, there were promising signs (chart). He showed up stronger, leaner, smarter. "He told us he wanted to be an NBA player," Marcopulos said. "And not just any NBA player—one that made a significant impact. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him it was impossible. But who am I to kill someone's dream?"

In an exhibition game before his junior season, against the German national team, Olowokandi was to match up against his first seven-footer, Patrick Femerling, who plays for the University of Washington. For days beforehand Marcopulos tried to teach Olowokandi how, while playing defense, to back off this big man in the post, then maneuver back at him. But Olowokandi couldn't grasp the subtlety of the move.

"So now it's game day, and we're going over the play on the board one more time," Marcopulos explains. "Michael looks at me and says, 'I got it.' " On the first play of the game, Femerling backed Olowokandi into the post. Just as Marcopulos diagrammed, Olowokandi took one big step back, then moved in and blocked Femerling's shot. The next time down, Femerling, angry and embarrassed, up-faked first, then went strong to the basket. Olowokandi swatted his shot into the third row of the bleachers, then turned and winked at Marcopulos.

By his senior year Olowokandi had developed a reliable jump hook and a devastating turn-and-dunk move. He is an active rebounder and, at times, an imposing shot blocker. Yet Newell frets that with so little experience, it will take Olowokandi a couple of years to make a defensive imprint on the game. "I hope," Newell says, "the Clippers will be patient." Duffy has already urged the Clippers not to "throw Michael to the wolves." He has been talking with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and former NBA star forward Kiki Vandeweghe about hiring them as personal tutors for Olowokandi during the season.

Some rookies would be upset at being drafted by a team in need of a savior. Olowokandi insists that doesn't bother him. Furthermore he is persuasive when he speaks about ignoring the traps of celebrity. Nike has signed him to a three-year deal, and the Magic Johnson Foundation has invited him to be a special guest model at their Macy's fashion show this fall, but he won't take on much more. He has no plans to buy a Hollywood mansion. He has not bought a fleet of luxury cars; in fact, he doesn't even have a driver's license yet. "If I need to go somewhere," he explains, "I take a taxi."

There is only one NBA player who has captured Olowokandi's complete attention and admiration, and that is San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, the graceful seven-footer who was the No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year last season. "Tim Duncan is so mobile," Olowokandi says, "and yet he doesn't waste his moves. He makes it all look effortless."

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