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Not that Olajuwon got much use out of them in his redshirt season. Still, Drexler recalls, Olajuwon could hardly contain his excitement on game days. "In class, in the dorm, every time we'd see him, he'd grab us and say 'You got to win' or i can't wait.' At Hofheinz Pavilion he'd sit in the first row behind the bench, holler and cheer us on. He was always running down to congratulate us. And he really liked it when I dunked."
The following autumn Olajuwon found a fascinating new influence, if not a kindred spirit, in his roommate, Anders, the smooth swamp fox from Louisiana, the self-proclaimed "outlaw," the sophisticate with the jeri-curls haircut, the Armani jackets, the Sammy Davis Jr. jewelry. Was it any wonder the loud glamour puss from the country became an intriguing role model for the quiet, serious type from the city? That first year Anders asked his roomie about Africa—How are the girls? Where do you party? Olajuwon showed Anders pictures from home and explained the culture. They exchanged nicknames—Swahili for Akeem, and Goldilocks for Benny—and Anders introduced Olajuwon to salad. "We were like pen pals; we lived and breathed off each other," says Anders.
It was about this time that Olajuwon started becoming Westernized or, as Schverak puts it, "Cougarized." He had caught on to American customs, clothes, hairstyles, headphones. Who can forget the hilarious portrait of Akeem the Dream practicing free throws at the '83 Final Four with his Walkman wires encircling his majestic face? It was obvious Anders had alerted Olajuwon to the wonders of the press as well.
In their freshman season, 1981-82, Anders and Olajuwon shared another thing: They didn't get to play enough basketball. Olajuwon's major liability was that he wasn't in shape. He had never really been in American basketball shape. He had back spasms early that year; they were caused by growing pains and aggravated by a simple lack of loosening-up exercises. "I didn't know about this stretching," says Olajuwon. He'd make a ferocious dunk and come down the floor holding his back. He'd play five minutes and be exhausted. He'd play 10 and foul out. "I kept him out of games," says Lewis. "I wouldn't let him practice till he could run. That first year he never did get to where he could play a full game. He actually hurt us in there. You can't play up-tempo when four guys are running and the other is dyin'."
According to Lewis, the only defensive skill Olajuwon exhibited was in blocking shots—the shots of somebody else's man; his own guy usually dribbled around him. "I don't care how you slice it," the coach adds, "he flat out didn't know how to play."
Olajuwon doesn't see it precisely this way. "I don't understand the talk about how much I have improved," he says. "I always play like this. Now I just get more minutes. I average 18 minutes two years ago, 27 minutes last year. No wonder I'm improved. As a frosh I went to Lewis and ask him why I was not starting. In practice nobody could stop me. He says he wanted me to stay out of foul trouble. That was not good enough excuse. I start eight games, all away. [It was actually six, five away.] Other games, at the 10-minute mark I go in. He playing me according to minutes, not according to games. He took me out of the Texas game after one dunk. Make me so mad, I sit with the trainers. CBS went to class with me. They talk to Lewis about me. He says I'm still learning, still don't know game. He talks good about Drexler, Young, Micheaux. Not about me. Against North Carolina in the Final Four he doesn't start me, and they're coming down the lane shooting layups! I am so mad. I am burning up. Coach Lewis can mess up my mind. When I finally get in against Carolina, I am so mad I don't care if we lose."
Whoa, now. Lest Olajuwon seem like your neighborhood NBA malcontent, it's true that Lewis, a hard-nosed, no-bluff character from the old school, used to nail him regularly in the newspapers. How you going to keep Akeem from the pros, coach? Hah! It's hard enough to keep him from fouling out. Stuff like that. Once Olajuwon appeared at Lewis' front door in tears after what he considered a public rebuke. "Awww, I know I sound like Akeem never did anything right, says Lewis, "but he had so much dang potential."
Last winter, before he laid waste to the NCAA tournament, Olajuwon was on the prowl. Thirty points, 10 of them on dunks, against Utah. Twenty-two re bounds against SMU. Eleven blocks against Arkansas and 11 more against Southwestern Louisiana. By the end of the season Olajuwon had scored and rebounded in double figures 20 times, and the Coogs were 19-1 in those games—N.C. State being the one. Olajuwon had shot 61.2% from the floor. "Hey, Bone Nose, if you don't get any better, we're shipping you back on the boat," teammate Alvin Franklin would shout. This summer, working against Malone at Houston's Fonde Recreation Center downtown, across from police headquarters, Olajuwon seemed to improve by half again.
"Against Moses, Akeem was freer, looser, more assertive, going to his killer move on instinct," says McCoy McLemore, an old NBA forward. "It was like he was no longer a foreigner but a cocky, hip, black schoolyard dude. Confident. A hustler. He also worked the weights and got his weight up to 255. Moses couldn't take a day off against him anymore. They were two titans. The beauty of it was both were laughing—Moses was so proud and tickled. They recognized they could stop each other while nobody else could. It was a dead standoff."
Time spent with Akeem Olajuwon does not necessarily lessen the culture shock imposed by a visit to Nigeria. What's more, his shy, sweet nature, the meticulous organization of his life—Olajuwon's black-and-white snapshots are kept in albums in chronological order; he carefully brushes each of his records before and after playing them—leaves one totally unprepared for the overwhelming arrogance, venality, blight and chaos of his hometown. "Akeem is a gift from his family, not from Lagos," says Adeyemi Kaka, his 35-year-old half brother.