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Shortly after Olajuwon arrived at Houston he practiced for 15 minutes with the varsity. Zap! There disappeared one full season of eligibility until the school appealed for—and later received—a special ruling from the Southwest Conference that allowed Olajuwon to count that first season as his redshirt year, despite that quarter-hour. When Olajuwon heard that as a redshirted freshman he could not play or even practice with the team, he was so distraught he nearly packed up, rhinestone dashiki and all, and flew home. "He thought the ruling meant he had to sit out for four years," Lewis says with a chuckle.
There were other early crises involving food. Akeem was gravely hungry, unable to indulge his passion for fufu, a Nigerian treat of stew poured over baked dough; dodos, the huge, fried bananas of his homeland; and the hot, spicy loffel rice preparation that will tear the insides out of any Tex-Mex chili connoisseur. Bisquick solved the fufu problem. Akeem's palate was further satisfied when he discovered Capt'n Benny's Half Shell oyster bars and when he found a certain kind of paradise in an American dish known as ice cream. He couldn't get enough of the latter; he still can't. He began carrying an ice cooler around the campus that contained Dixie Cups, Nutty Buddies and Popsicles as well as plain old vanilla by the scoop. At a team meal on the road Olajuwon ordered from one of those menus that feature color photographs of the fare. He insisted that the waitress bring what resembled a billowing white delicacy. Olajuwon dug right in. It was straight Reddi-Wip. "Excuse me," he inquired in his considerate way. "Why is my ice cream not cold?"
For a couple of months, Olajuwon seemed overcome by his painful shyness. He rarely left the campus except for late-night walks to Frenchy's for another new discovery—fried chicken—or for rides with teammates to nearby Texas Southern University to scout the coeds. Back then, he'd never get out of the car. He'd just stare and salivate. "He got unnerved when people weren't patient with him," says Drexler. "I think he was homesick a lot. But we helped him, taught him our ways, introduced him to the nightclubs. He watched everything we did. He was a hawk. Gosh, it seems so long ago. What a change. Now, I can't keep up with his women. They're all over him. The man is a club junkie."
Throughout his early days at Houston, Olajuwon held to a couple of tenets that seemed quite foreign in the age of the sportsnasty: respect for people, enthusiasm for his game. Olajuwon has quit bowing upon meeting people—"I mean the man bowed after we just had left him an hour earlier," says Drexler—but he remains deferential and courteous.
Take the case of Houston Assistant Coach Terry Kirkpatrick, who for legal purposes is Olajuwon's guardian in the U.S. Kirkpatrick, a controversial, rather hefty figure who long has had an antagonistic relationship with the local press and some Houston athletic department personnel, is an occasional butt of jokes by both the Cougar players and rival coaching staffs. His nickname is Fat Chance. But Olajuwon refuses to join in the kidding about Kirkpatrick's bulk. "Coach T is Big Daddy. T is my mon," he says. "Do you know what I am saying? I was brought up to honor and respect older people. I bow to them out of respect. O.K., they laughed at me, so I stopped. I know some people still think I was living in Nigeria, naked in the jungle and swinging through the trees. I know what they think about Africa. I do not like it. They are stupid. Lagos is a big, vibrant city. Tall buildings. Offices. Civilization. Designer clothes. We have a Copperfield store just like in Houston. We have videos in Nigeria. We have Pat Benatar."
In Lagos, Olajuwon also had an inspirational hero and soul mate named Yommy Sangodeyi, otherwise known as Yommy Basket, because when Yommy released a long jumper and it dropped, the crowd would follow the ball with the wailing cheer "Yommmmmyyyyyy Basket!" The muscular, 6'10" Sangodeyi, who was a veritable Mr. Basketball in Africa, is now a junior at Sam Houston State, an NCAA Division II school in Huntsville, Texas. "Yommy Basket was the franchise," Olajuwon says.
Sangodeyi (Yoruban for god of thunder) arrived in Houston in 1981, a year after Olajuwon, but by NCAA rules he was too old at 25 to start playing in NCAA Division I. Can he play? Pro scouts believe he may have a future in their league. Yommy NBAONCBS! Akeem and Yommy Basket dream of going to a pro team together in a Nigerian package deal. The two are such fast friends that each drives the two-hour round trip between Houston and Huntsville just to watch the other's games and share a meal. Yommy Basket lived in Olajuwon's apartment last summer; he still receives his mail from Africa there.
"Yommy is here. Here is he. Oh, Yommy, Yommy, Yommy. Yeah, Yommy." Olajuwon lights up like a Christmas tree the moment Sangodeyi arrives. They clasp hands in a native African shake that puts to rout any multiple skin greetings heretofore witnessed in North America; on the takeaway both snap their fingers.
Sangodeyi is an imposing, charismatic figure. He met Akeem at the Nigerian national basketball camp in Lagos, in 1980. "These kids wanted me to sit down," says Yommy Basket. "They just wanted to gaze on me. Akeem said I was his idol. This is nothing new for me. I am big in Nigerian basketball. The only trouble is Nigerian basketball is not big. Nobody gets excited. I am All-Nigerian. But now they know Akeem in China. He is all-world."
Olajuwon says his biggest surprise in the U.S. of A. has been that the Houston trainer has so many sneakers. In so many sizes. Olajuwon wore 14s at home. He searched Nigeria far and wide to find them. "The first day here the guy takes me to a stall, and there are 14s all over. Oh, I think I am dreaming," says Olajuwon. "I try them on. Oh, I cannot play today. Too tight. I work them in for a month. The guy says wait. He opens up a drawer and there are 15s! I am dreaming again. They are still tight. He says he will give me 16s! Can you imagine this? I don't know what he is spying. There is a whole room of 16s! I cannot believe this. It was the first time I wore shoes that felt like that. They felt like I had no shoes on at all!"