Ah, Moses. Gruff, tough, indomitable. Big Mo. The preeminent center. The pro's pro. The champion. Mr. T minus the earrings. One day in September in Houston, Olajuwon and Malone were engaged in one of their daily crash and gore tête-à-têtes under the "rack" when Malone called a foul on his young protégé, who immediately took exception. "Aww, no!" Olajuwon roared. "Dammit, Mo. Be a MON!"
Any 20-year-old undergraduate who can get away with ordering Malone to affirm his masculinity, even in jest, obviously should be granted wide berth. On and off the court. Thus misconceptions, even totally erroneous data about Olajuwon, many spread by the man himself, have held sway during the Cougars' two consecutive runs through the national media to the Final Four. (Houston lost to North Carolina in the 1982 semifinals in New Orleans after falling behind 14-0 with the freshman Olajuwon on the bench. The score was 18-8 when Lewis sent him into the game. He played 20 minutes and finished with two points and six rebounds. Houston lost 68-63. The lack of playing time in that game remains a sore spot between player and coach.)
From the beginning, Olajuwon could have been known as Akeem the Scheme. He had been living away from his family's home in Lagos for several years before arriving on the Houston campus in October 1980, and he'd learned to be wary, shrewd and insightful long before he was exposed to the cowboy culture. Like Parisians answering American tourists' questions or Ronald Reagan conversing with newsmen on the White House lawn, the newly arrived Olajuwon understood only those parts of the English language he wished to understand. "Checking it all out" is his description of this early strategy. This enigmatic behavior was exemplified late in 1980 when Olajuwon filled out a questionnaire for Houston's sports publicity department.
Olajuwon's answers were significant only because of his pithy concluding sentence: "And I garantee [sic] 9 or 8 block shots." On the same page, he had spelled his last name wrong, had exaggerated the heights of his parents and brothers and sisters and had ignored the existence of his youngest brother, Afis. As a result, for weeks Houston writers were referring to Akeem Olajuwoa and his family of giants. The spelling was soon corrected, but to this day some journalists refer to Olajuwon's eldest brother as "the 7'5" Kaka." He's 5'10", tops.
Cougar Assistant Coach Don Schverak remembers Olajuwon returning from a football game his first weekend on campus. Schverak asked him how he liked the game. Olajuwon answered, "I don't understand." Schverak never knew whether Olajuwon meant the game or the question, but for several weeks all he seemed to say was: "I don't understand."
"It's a possibility Akeem didn't comprehend some things at first," says Jay Goldberg, the Houston sports information director. "But a secretary found his name spelled right on his passport papers. Then there are his street smarts. And his grades, which are good [a 2.5 grade point average while majoring in business technology]. I think he meant to present an illusion of dumb. On purpose. He was testing people to see whom he could trust."
In reality, English is the primary language in Nigeria, a former British colony that gained independence in 1960. English is the constant among more than 300—nobody counts anymore—dialects heard in the land. In his two secondary schools—Olajuwon attended Baptist Academy, coat and tie and all, before transferring to Moslem Teachers—students were fined when they didn't use English. So was language such a problem? "Let's put it this way," says Lewis. "Akeem understood Texanese much better than we understood Afkin."
Olajuwon enunciates his words very quickly, sometimes running them together in a garble. He isn't a strict grammarian either. But he displays the utmost pride in refraining from the colloquialisms so often heard in locker rooms throughout his new country. "You know this jive?" says Olajuwon. "This is just bad English. In Nigeria we are naughty boys to use this jive around our parents or in public. People will look at you like you're a bad person—common, coarse. Sometimes I find myself doing this and I do not like it. I picked up 'I be.' You have heard it. 'I be there.' 'What you be doing?' I will not keep talking like this. I kid around with my teammates—but only for fun. You know they actually say this: 'You is.' 'How tall you is?' 'Dude.' 'Hey, Dude.' 'Judge.' 'What is happening, Judge?' Can you believe they talk like this? I say, 'Who is this Judge?' "
Olajuwon's teammates claim, however, that once he gets hold of a new slang expression, he beats it to death. Getting down. Rock your world. Faze jhob. "After the brothers taught Akeem 'rock your world' he must have used it 100 times in practice one day," says Reid Gettys, Houston's white-hope guard. "Of course, they use it as a kind of angry pseudo threat. You know, 'I'mgonnaslapyostuffoutahere, bro. I'mgonnarockyourworld.' But when Akeem tried it, he came out with that clipped British accent. Very precise, polite. He said, 'Now I am going to rock your world.' All afternoon. 'Now I am going to rock your world.' It cracked everybody up."
Even Anders, Olajuwon's roommate at the time, was mystified at first. "The dude be talkin' weird from jump street," says Anders, who can be somewhat incomprehensible himself. And what do the friends talk about? Says Anders, "We just lay up and rap about what's coming down."