The Olajuwon Shortage
January 03, 2012, 05:51 AM
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Why was I wrong? 

More than 30 years ago, in the fall of 1981, I first heard about a freshman basketball player at the U. of Houston, Akeem Abdul-Olajuwon, a center generously said to be a seven footer who would post big numbers one night, then nothing much the next night: hardly unexpected for a kid who had only been playing basketball at all for about three years. 

He was the first African basketball player I could remember, and my thinking at the time was that he wouldn't be the last. After all, American-born blacks were pretty good at basketball and there were a lot more where they came from in Africa, so Olajuwon would likely be only the first of a long line of African-born stars.

This wasn't an unusual concept at the time—for example, a Rice U. professor in Houston named Max Apple wrote a 1994 movie starring Kevin Bacon, The Air Up There, about a scout looking for the next big thing in Africa.

Olajuwon continued to improve and Houston went to the NCAA Final Four all three years he was there. The Houston Rockets picked him over Michael Jordan (and Sam Bowie) as the first choice in the NBA draft. He posted some spectacular numbers (the only player ever to have over 200 blocks and 200 steals in one season, I believe) , then started to fade on offense, then, after changing his first name to Hakeem to signify his renewed Muslim faith, he made a resurgence. He led Houston to two NBA championships ('94 and '95) during Jordan's weird minor league baseball sabbatical, winning a season MVP award and two NBA Finals MVP awards, which might be the higher honor. A most satisfying career. Olajuwon is widely admired as an unquestioned Hall of Famer. In his retirement, he has become a well-known businessman in Houston. 

In early 2010, there were said to be 25 African basketball players in the NBA, which is about 1 out of 14. If true, that's quite a few, but looking at the Wikipedia page, it looks more like there 25 in history.

The odd thing, though, is that Olajuwon, the pathfinder, remains, by a significant distance, the best black African basketball player ever. (The only born-in-Africa player since him to win MVP awards is Steve Nash, who is white.) That's what I wouldn't have expected in 1981. If you had told me then that he would be an NBA superstar, I would have guessed that somebody even better would have come along from Africa since then.

But, that hasn't really happened.

How come? Here are some speculations:

First, Olajuwon was really, really good. And he kept perfecting new moves up into his 30s. So, the first being the best was just a fluke.

Second, basketball may have changed a little since his time, away from being a game for big galoots from wherever toward players who are more sophisticated basketball players. Most sports have become more technical, with more tutoring used early in life. 

Third, Africans tend to be quite short due to poor nutrition and poor health. 

Fourth, AIDS, although the West African countries weren't hit as catastrophically.

Fifth, soccer is just a steamroller in Africa (as in most of the world), so even big galoots aren't playing basketball.

Sixth, maybe there are differences between African-Americans and Africans that weren't apparent in 1981.