Why you should care
Because ‘The Dream’ inspired an entire continent.
It’s hard to know if the 17,000 sweaty witnesses crammed inside “The Pit,” University of New Mexico’s famed basketball arena, truly appreciated what they had come to see. Few could have predicted that the 1983 Final Four semifinal matchup between the University of Houston’s legendary “Phi Slama Jama” and Louisville University’s “Doctors of Dunk” would change the way college basketball was played forever. Even fewer were aware that Houston’s soft-spoken sophomore center, the giant from Lagos swatting every shot in sight, would soon become the face of the global basketball expansion.
That game was an exposition in breaking barriers. Both squads were known for their high-flying, frenetic style forged on urban asphalt, and both were credited with “returning the dunk” six seasons after the move was legally reinstated. Mostly, though, the greatest forgotten game in college hoops history served as Akeem Abdul Olajuwon’s first big moment on the big stage.
He became a smarter, quicker defender and developed the smooth offensive postgame that would become his world-famous ‘Dream Shake.’
Down 41–36 at halftime, the Cougars rode their 7-foot Nigerian center in the second half, storming back for a 94–81 victory and a trip to the NCAA finals. Four dunks by Akeem, known today as Hakeem, aka “The Dream,” in the final five minutes capped his 21-point, 22-rebound, eight-block outing. Though the game became overshadowed by Houston’s buzzer-beater upset loss to North Carolina State in the championship bout, it epitomized a new era of college basketball ushered in by the Cougars. “Phi Slama Jama,” the aptly named rim-rattlers led by Olajuwon and fellow future Hall of Famer Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, ultimately appeared in three straight Final Fours between 1982 and 1984. Houston attacked the basket like no team before, popularizing a style wildly different than the more puritan “High Post” offense propagated by basketball’s dynastic oligarch, John Wooden — a man who forbade his UCLA Bruins from employing “the dunk shot.”
With Olajuwon in tow, style of play was far from the only thing that separated Houston from its competition. Olajuwon was the first known basketball recruit to come over from Africa, offered a spot on the team solely on the confidence of a friendly tip paid to the late coach Guy Lewis. As Olajuwon tells it in his autobiography Living the Dream: My Life and Basketball, he met a Peace Corps volunteer named Oliver Johnson when the young man visited Lagos on a whim. After completing his time in Kenya, where he’d been stationed, Johnson had a few weeks to kill before returning to America. He spent his free time convincing soccer-crazed African children to try basketball. When he met Olajuwon, the 17-year-old was a soccer player and team handball enthusiast. Eventually, of course, Olajuwon decided to try the sport and realized that his gangly frame and massive stature was no longer a detriment to athletic success.
Olajuwon’s college choice was based more on weather than hoops. During his first trip to the frigid U.S. Northeast, Akeem asked: “Which school is in the hottest climate?” By all accounts, Olajuwon was no finished product when he arrived in Houston later that year. In fact, Coach Lewis didn’t even meet him at the airport. “I called him a cab,” said Lewis in Filip Bondy’s Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever. “I thought he was 6′5.”
While size matters, it’s skill that sets players apart. With barely one year of practice, Olajuwon was nowhere near ready to play major Division 1 basketball. He was redshirted his first year, then averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds as a freshman in 1982. That summer, Lewis arranged for daily training sessions between Olajuwon and Houston Rockets center Moses Malone, then a two-time NBA MVP and the most dominant big man in basketball. Going against Malone all summer brought out the best in Olajuwon; he became a smarter, quicker defender and developed the smooth offensive postgame that would become his world-famous “Dream Shake” — an array of spin moves and pump fakes that left defenders in the dust.
With the gains in technique, Olajuwon took off. In 1984, his third and final college season, Olajuwon averaged nearly 17 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks (leading the nation) per game. He was a consensus first-team All-American and was drafted first overall — two spots ahead of Michael Jordan — by the Houston Rockets, who had traded Malone. He enjoyed 17 NBA seasons, averaging 21.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, and led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.
With success comes imitation, and soon after Olajuwon’s NBA debut, the foreign floodgates opened. “The NBA is a copycat league,” ESPN analyst and scout Fran Fraschilla says. Manute Bol was recruited from the Sudan in 1985 and Dikembe Mutombo from the Congo in 1991, but Africa remained relatively untouched by the NBA until the 2000s. Meanwhile, Europe became the hot spot for basketball talent mining. But thanks to Olajuwon, Mutombo, Bol and a few forward-thinking executives, basketball camps and education programs began being held in the African players’ home nations.
Five Africans were selected in the 2016 NBA Draft, and there are currently 14 Africans on NBA rosters. Soon the league hopes to increase those numbers dramatically by launching NBA Elite, a system of educational training academies across Africa, China, India and Australia. Just as Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors and the first African executive in the NBA, dreamed of becoming his idol, Olajuwon, as a youngster in Zaria, Nigeria, thousands of African youths can now look to their NBA icons as tangible models for athletic success.