Brits aim for NBA stardom

Mark Woods

Among the crop of aspirants hoping to be selected in Wednesday evening's annual college draft of the National Basketball Association in Vancouver, are two young talents with strong ties to the UK. A road seldom travelled by our own elite players is opening up for both Michael Olowokandi and Andrew Betts, two players whose interest in the game was initiated in Britain, honed in the USA and who now rest on the cusp of the most lucrative basketball league on this planet.

For Michael Olowokandi, the journey has been nothing short of remarkable. The son of Nigerian diplomats, he was raised and schooled in London and the sport of basketball played only a peripheral part of his life until he arrived at Brunel University in London i 1994. Taking tentative steps into the game during his first year there, Olowokandi found a niche, and deciding to learn the game almost from scratch, the 2.10 athlete wrote to hundreds of colleges in the USA looking for a place. Choosing an unorthodox route and having only undeveloped potential and height, few replied despite his offer to pay his own way there, but eventually Olowokandi ended up in Pacific University's basketball programme. With intensive coaching and a will to learn, he now stands as a projected # 2 pick in the forthcoming NBA Draft, the annual ordered selection of new collegiate and foreign talent with the 29 premier clubs in world basketball.

With the basketball world at his feet, some coaches have remarked that Olowokandi still has room to improve his skills, an intriguing possibility for any future employer. Among observers of the game, he has a big future. Editor of Monter Draft News, Chris Monter, is a fan and gave this assessment. "Olowokandi has a good upside, runs the floor well and he has shown great improvement as an offensive player." If rankings go to form, Olowokandi could be appearing in a Toronto Raptors uniform some day soon, a huge leap from Brunel's humble BUSA competition.

Leicester born Andrew Betts has spent his last three years at California's Long Beach State, a period during which he has transformed his game from average to high class. Making his debut for Leicester Riders at the tender age of 16, Betts' gamble to try his luck in the US collegiate finishing school is set to pay off. Now 21, the 7'1 giant is reckoned by most experts to be a second round selection in the Draft, a similar fate which was borne by his England team-mate John Amaechi three years ago. Such a high ranking should ensure that he has at least a legitimate shot of making a NBA roster in October. Alternatively, the riches of southern Europe may beckon.

For England coach Laszlo Nemeth, having not one but two legitimate super-centres would be manna from heaven in his future plans for international improvement. In Betts' case, adding to his three caps is a virtual certainty, and this is a tally which would be more speedily increased should he end up on this side of the Atlantic.

However Olowokandi has shown no real desire to commit to the English team, thus far resisting the powers of persuasion of both Nemeth and Amaechi himself. Even if he does decide to throw his hat onto the Union Jack cause, his availability will be severely limited by the rigours of the NBA season. Like his fellow Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, Olowokandi may prefer to assess his chances of attaining Dream Team status which will certainly prove more profitable than cold weekends in Manchester.

Wherever they end up, both young men will serve to enhance the reputation of homegrown basketball, and the most re-assuring point of all is that there are a few more nuggets to come in the next few years. Grounds for real optimism.

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