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Basketball legend with his 18 seasons in the NBA and his two titles in the best championship in the world, the naturalized Nigerian American Hakeem Olajuwon remains an avid observer and actor of his sport. Retired from the field since 2002, the lanky pivot always closely analyzes the league and the new dynamics of his discipline, especially when the new players come from Africa.
RFI: Hakeem Olajuwon, in your time (1984-2002), there were two African pivots dominating in the NBA, the Congolese Dikembe Mutombo and yourself. How did you perceive at that time the fact that you were among the only representatives of Africa in the best basketball league in the world?
Hakeem Olajuwon: It was quite strange at first for me to be honest with you, because when I came to the United States to play at the University of Houston, I met a lot of young Africans who wanted to break into basketball. But the number of chosen ones for the NBA was, and still is, very, very limited. When I started with the Houston Rockets, I also quickly felt that people in Nigeria were following me very closely, and expecting me to perform miracles in two strokes, three movements. I felt pressure, but it helped me to keep moving forward and getting up every day to have a great career in the league. At the time, the NBA had very few foreign players, and the chance that was given to me was a real godsend, so I had to give everything to get there. I had to succeed, I had no other choice or option on the table.
You are very close to Mutombo, who was also a very tough opponent for you. For the African players in the league today, you and Dikembe Mutombo are seen as pioneers, and when they meet you, one feels enormous respect and extremely strong admiration…
Dikembe was very physical, with his long arms and his will to win, he was a real lion who fought on every ball! He left me with several bruises on my body after each match, with his elbows very “active” if I may say so (laughter). We’ve been great friends since we started at university, and we’ve paved the way for all the African players who have come to the league since our time. It’s an honor for me to see that African players ask us for advice, and there’s great respect between us, an almost father-and-son relationship with some because we’re veterans, close to the age of their own parents (laughter). I’m always in awe of seeing that they know everything about my game, about the kind of player I was, and they very often ask me for advice, which I give with great pleasure.
Today, the number of African players in the league is constantly increasing, with gondola heads, who have become stars of the league, such as Cameroonians Joël Embiid and Pascal Siakam for example…
You know, what’s been happening for years with the massive influx of African players into the NBA makes me really, really happy. I’ve been waiting for this for quite a long time, and to see new guys coming in every year, but also becoming the most important players in certain teams, it’s a sign that things are moving forward. Unlike my time, when scouts only focused on inside players and didn’t look at Africans who could play point guard, full-back or winger, scouts and sporting directors now look at absolutely everything. As a result, we have guys like Hamidou Diallo (Guinea, Fullback, Detroit Pistons), Josh Okogie (Fullback, Phoenix Suns, Nigeria), and Pascal Siakam (Winger, Toronto Raptors, Cameroon), who are important in their respective teams. In Africa, there is talent everywhere. You just have to give them an opportunity.
What do you think can be expected for the years to come?
I think the number of African players in the league will increase further, year after year. The NBA invests a lot on the continent, between the Basketball Africa League and the Academies, but also with the African stars who inspire young people on the continent and show them that anything is possible. I’m really excited about what’s next for African basketball because there’s talent everywhere. The future of the NBA is partly in Africa. I’m sure. In ten years, there will be more than fifty African players in the league, I’m sure. In my time, the number of foreign players was quite low, whereas today the league must have almost a third of players who were born outside the United States. It’s this kind of evolution, the internationalization of basketball, that I really like.
Joël Embiid is not far from winning the title of MVP of the season, and we see some similarities between him and your game…
Joël has the complete “package”, he is an excellent player, an exceptional pivot. I enjoy watching him play, it’s always a pleasure. He has a great sense of the game, he can do everything, and dribble, shoot from close range or three points for a guy of this size and stature, I can tell you that it’s super complicated. But he defies the laws of physics and has an ultra-wide palette, and I’m not surprised to see him in the MVP discussion every year. He’ll get it at some point, I’m sure. Nikola Jokic got it twice in a row, Giannis also got it twice in a row, and I’m sure Joel will get it twice at least as well.