This serenity is evident in the bearing of the family's first sportsman, known simply as Olajuwon, father of Salaam, as seen in a framed photograph that dominates the small front room of the Olajuwon home. Mommy Akeem is watching the rock group Abba sing on Lagos' version of MTV. The picture behind her shows Salaam's father, Olaonipekun Olajuwon, with his fellow equestrians from his club in Dahomey (now Benin). The photo was taken, circa 1925, at a festival in Porto Novo. As anyone who can translate Phi Slamma Jamma must know by now, Olajuwon is the Yoruban word for "always being on top." Grandpa went the family one better in names. Olaonipekun in Yoruban means "honor with no end."
Though Akeem played soccer, his best sport in his early years was team handball. Akeem was a monster in team handball. "Every time I touch the ball," he says, "score." Basketball? Akeem didn't know about basketball. He was eight years old when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson visited Nigeria on a goodwill tour. When Olajuwon met Abdul-Jabbar in the Lakers' locker room at the Houston Summit last year, Abdul-Jabbar sang a native song he'd learned in Lagos. But Olajuwon had to admit he didn't know of Abdul-Jabbar's visit in 1971. Olajuwon's parents still don't know much about the game. They have never seen Akeem play. Until last month they had never seen a basketball game, period.
"Oh, they know it is a contest of hand and height, not feet," says Kaka. "They know there is a basket up high. They see young Taju come home after playing, drenched, with a ball in his hand. But the comprehension of their son as this master, one of the best who plays, is just dawning. It is for me the same. I did not see my brother play until last June, when I visited him in Houston and watched him practice. Before that, in April, when I saw his picture on the front page of The Punch [a Lagos daily newspaper], it was just, oh, brother of mine!. Such pride. His celebrity extends to all of us."
Salaam says, "Who knows I am father of Akeem? Nearly the whole world, it seems." And then, a statement the folks in Raleigh, N.C. might dispute: "We are Number One."
Over the years Olajuwon reportedly has been discovered by more people than has Meryl Streep. There was Lewis, who found him on the doorstep at Hofheinz. There was Chris Pond, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was coaching in an international club tournament when he met Olajuwon and sent him to Houston. There was Richard Mills, a San Diegan and godson of the former boxer Archie Moore, who coached the Nigerian junior team, taught Akeem how to dunk and lobbied to send him to the national men's squad. And there was Oliver B. (OBJ) Johnson, another American, who is the Bwana Joe of Nigerian basketball, having taught the game at the grass roots since the '60s. Despite having settled in as coach at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Johnson still manages the Nigerian national team, as he did when Olajuwon played. "So many people say they discovered Akeem," says Johnson. "I say Akeem discovered himself."
In truth, Lagos State Coach Ganiyu ("Call me Mike") Otenigbade was the man who spotted Olajuwon on the dusty soccer field and convinced him to split time between his first love, handball, and the new game. "I was foretelling all this lovely stuff," Mike says. In 1979 Olajuwon was entrusted to another mentor, Sunday Osagiede, a 6'1" point guard on the national team who also coached the Lagos State juniors. Osagiede is better known in Nigeria as Sunny Basket—no relation to Yommy Basket but named for approximately the same reason.
"Back then Akeem was more famous for handball," says Sunny Basket. "In the national all-sports festival I had an ambulance waiting to rush Akeem from his handball games to our basketball games so he could help us two ways. He led the scoring in handball and the rebounding in basketball. Lagos State won gold medals in both."
But Olajuwon's destiny was with the Baskets. Soon he was competing in the Lagos club league on the slanted outdoor asphalt court at Rowe Park, where the backboards are tilted and frenetic spectators scream, "Skin tight, brothers." There he came under the tutelage of 6'7" Agbello (Uncle P) Pinheiro. According to Uncle P, Olajuwon was "too kind on court with too much respect for the opposition." This is an attitude that the Louisville Cardinals, to pick one aggregation, might find mind-boggling now.
Once, four years ago, the opposing Scorpions punched and elbowed Olajuwon right out of a game. He walked off, flat quit. Uncle P had some harsh words to say about that, and the following year Pinheiro watched as Olajuwon came of age in the All-African Games in Morocco. The 17-year-old Olajuwon didn't start on the national team in the first game, but when Yommy Basket got into foul trouble Olajuwon came in and dominated the boards. Every time he'd make a big play, Olajuwon would run up the court with his finger in the air. "Koko One," the team called him. "Koko One, Koko One," they would shout. "Koko One" is still the clarion call at Rowe Park for the Leventis Club five.
Controversy surrounded Olajuwon on that trip to North Africa because Johnson did not want him on the national team. Mills, the junior team coach, forced the kid up to the big squad with the support of headquarters back home. Nigeria finished in the middle of the pack that year behind the traditionally strong teams from the Ivory Coast and Senegal and Egypt. Later, in the All-African junior competition, the Nigerian team coached by Mills and led by Olajuwon got the bronze medal.