Kandi Man seeks to conquer
In the first of our occasional series following "Brits in the NBA", Britball editor Mark Woods throws the spotlight on the young man who went from Sussex to LA in quickfire time, Los Angeles Clippers' Michael Olowokandi.
In the week that the one man circus that is Dennis Rodman rolled into Los Angeles, the City of Angels was getting used to the sight of its newest basketball hero strutting his stuff on the parquet. At just over seven foot tall, Michael Olowokandi is the new kid in town but uniquely one who calls the UK home, his domicile the leafy expanse of East Sussex rather than the playgrounds of South Central.
Chosen by the Los Angeles Clippers with the first pick of the annual college draft last summer, 23 year old Olowokandi is tipped for greatness due to his tremendous athleticism and an eye for the basket. However his route to the NBA is already the stuff of legend. In just three years, this son of a Nigerian diplomat has made the journey from basketball novice to the best league on this planet, learning the game from scratch at an astonishing rate.
A keen all-round sportsman at school in Sussex, the giant's sporting energies were until recently channelled into the very different discipline of long jump, the English Schools record his finest achievement. It was only when as a first year student at London's Brunel University, the cajoling of friends to try the sport to which his height lends a natural advantage finally set the engineering student on the path to millionaire riches.
"I remember competing at Meadowbank (in Edinburgh) for Newham & Essex Beagles and at that point by no means was basketball even at the back of my mind . Shortly after, one of my team mates suggested I try playing basketball."
Deciding to explore a move across the Atlantic to pursue the sport, Olowokandi consulted a directory of colleges to determine his best course of action. "I just happened to open the book to Pacific for no particular reason," he explained." I just wanted to ask an American college, any college, if my (college) units were transferable."
Happy to provide an answer was Tony Marcopulos, the assistant coach at Pacific University in California, an institution with no previous history of basketball excellence. In taking a risk on this unknown voice at the other end of the telephone, they could scarcely have believed their good fortune as gradually the uncoordinated, raw youth who stepped off the plane matured into the finest player of his graduating class. Enough of an improvement for the Clippers to take a calculated risk with his signature.
"When he came in and worked out, it was amazing the improvement he had shown since the end of the college season," admitted the Clippers' Vice President Elgin Baylor. "We knew he had the mentality to play in this league, but until that day we weren't sure he had the tools."
The Clippers are the Partick Thistle of the NBA, under achievers resting in the perpetual shadow of their cross town neighbours, the LA Lakers. Without a win in the opening eleven games of this campaign, Olowokandi admits he cannot alone bring an instant reversal of fortune at the club.
"We're a team in search of an identity. We've lost back-to-back games, and hopefully we can overcome that. The thing is even in our losses the guys are positive, the guys work hard and are willing to learn. I'm happy to get better, and think that we can get better as a team and stay on the positive side."
So far the signs have been overwhelmingly impressive, the Kandi Man's best game to date a 17 points and 15 rebounds showing against Vancouver Grizzles a fortnight ago. But in a week where England's defeat of Belarus moved them one further rung up the international ladder, does the Clippers centre intend to showcase his talents in a British vest ?
" Yeah, if that is a possibility in the future, definitely. Like I always said, I grew up in England and that's were my friends are and that's where I come home. Definitely that is where my heart is."
Olowokandi's story so far may be the stuff movies are made of but now the real work begins. However if commitment and resolve count for anything, this seems certain to be one sporting story with a happy ending.
A version of this feature also appeared in Scotland on Sunday.
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