Last month Nigeria played Liberia in the first of a two-game home-and-home set leading to the All-African Games, where the top two nations will qualify for the Olympics. For several days preceding the big game, in Lagos, the local papers were chock-full of rumors that Olajuwon was coming to play for the home side. "Our golden boy of world basketball...our great patriot," wrote Ayo Ositelu in The Punch. On Oct. 2, Ositelu was ecstatic: "Today he arrives in Nigeria to help the team qualify for Los Angeles." On Oct. 7, Ositelu despaired: "It may take negotiations at a higher government level to secure his services." Of course, Olajuwon wasn't about to leave Houston.
Fat ugly lizards scaled the walls of the 7,000-seat National Sports Hall on game day, Oct. 8. The arena, despite being only a decade old, emits an aura of early Palestra: dark, dingy, claustrophobic, homers in waiting. Even three-quarters full, the place was a caterwauling madhouse with stompers and shakers and tambourines and Yoruban talking drums that did not cease beating. The crowd did not shut up. The flags never stopped waving. Villanova-LaSalle had nothing on Liberia-Nigeria. It was wonderful.
The play itself was of midlevel NAIA caliber, featuring a lot of walking-up of the ball and sparse defense, but the African game has become much more physical since Olajuwon departed. Players traded swats and bumps and flung one another into the basket supports with abandon. All Africans seem to be able to shoot, which makes up for their being unable to catch. The chalkboard scoreboards, windup clock and dingdong bell for time-outs lent a primitive air, but nothing was more bizarre than the hysterical turmoil rampant among the brain trust on the Nigerian bench. Salaam Olajuwon, having entered the gym to witness the first basketball game of his life, sat at midcourt, his eyes agog.
The home team protected a lead deep into the second half, but Liberia switched to a half-court trap and rallied for a 62-53 advantage. Suddenly the primary coaches, OBJ and Roderick Robinson, Co-Coach Emmanuel Chagu and Mike, none of whom had ultimate authority, were joined by at least half a dozen other state and club mentors—Uncle P, chewing on his stogie, wisely abstained—who gathered at the bench during a time-out and were screaming angrily at the team. Even a woman, Uche Nebedum, a secretary from the basketball office and a former women's coach, bullied her way into the huddle and loudly berated the home squad.
The commotion seemed to have an effect. The good guys tied the game at 78, but Liberia scored with three seconds left to win 80-78. Very few fouls had been called and no dunks were even attempted. "Our people do not have the mind yet to dunk," Yommy Basket had said in Houston. Afterward, Chagu was interviewed. "You could probably tell the problem," he said. "The game is not part of our culture. Emphasize, please, that we need assistance."
Would Olajuwon have made a difference? "You tell me, my friend," said Tunji Fagbemi, the assistant chief director and organizing secretary of the National Sports Commission, who may have more titles than players. "You see, we do not know how good Akeem is because of the time when he left. He was only very tall with potential. Only a twig. We know about him what we hear, and that is al! we know. Akeem gave us his word he would come back. We sent him the airplane tickets. But then his college practice was to start, and we understand how Americans take basketball like religion. Akeem must be an oak by now. They say a tree does not make a forest. But do not tell me they are not planting the entire woods around this one."