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Fairy Tale Comes True for New Clipper

Pro basketball: The story of Olowokandi's rise from obscurity to the No. 1 pick is almost too good to be true.

June 25, 1998|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VANCOUVER — Attention Michael Eisner, have I got a script for you. Pure Disney.

There's this kid, see, a 7-foot Nigerian-born college student in England who is a great athlete--a soccer player, and a track star, but not a basketball player. Never even played the game.

He comes into the gym with a couple of fellow athletes one day at Brunel University in Uxbridge, England, and they spot a basketball in the corner behind some exercise equipment.

They start throwing the ball around and it feels pretty comfortable to the kid, who is 18 at the time.

He rents a few NBA videos from a store and starts thinking he can do this. So he pulls out a directory of American colleges, lets the book drop open to a random page, sticks his finger down and finds it on University of Pacific.

Sounds good.

He calls the school, tells an assistant coach who answers the phone he's a 7-footer and that he'd like to play basketball. The coach tells him they don't have any scholarships left. No problem, says the kid, I'm not looking for one.

Then come on out, he is told.

Wait, it gets better.

The kid, who doesn't know the high post from a high five, learns the game, learns the rules, and keeps improving and improving and improving.

After three seasons, he enters the NBA draft and becomes the No. 1 pick.

Hard for movie fans to swallow? How about sports fans?

Because this scenario is not a movie script, but a news story. The player is 23-year-old Michael Olowokandi, who was made the first pick in the 1998 draft by the Clippers on Wednesday.

And even he had trouble grasping how far he had come and how fast he had risen.

"I pretty much had the No. 2 thing in my mind or the No. 3," said Olowokandi of his own mock draft.

When he awoke Wednesday morning, he was told by his agent, Bill Duffy, that the Clippers, who had been set to take Arizona guard Mike Bibby as recently as 10 days ago, had decided instead to take the Pacific center, making him the first player from that school to go in the first round, much less the first pick.

"I couldn't believe it," Olowokandi said. Bibby himself told Olowokandi, backstage before the draft at GM Place that Olowokandi would go first.

"Here we are," Olowokandi told the media after the announcement, "and I still can't believe it . . . especially when you consider where I came from about three years ago. The last five minutes [before the draft] felt like five hours."

This is a story in progress. Nobody is saying Olowokandi is a finished product. "Right now, he is just starting to hit it," said Bob Thomason, Olowokandi's coach at Pacific. "He went from good early on [when he first got to Pacific] to really good in the middle to unbelievable in the end."

Now comes another huge step in Olowokandi's unlikely story, the difficult leap from a small college to the NBA. One minute you're playing San Jose State, the next you're staring into the face of Laker center Shaquille O'Neal.

"I am a whole lot more confident," Olowokandi said, "going into the NBA than I was going into college."

Check back with him in November.

"This is a perfect ending," he said, "to an unimaginable basketball fantasy."

The Clippers hope it's just the beginning.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

New Clippers

* Michael Olowokandi: Project or phenom? The potential for this untested giant from Pacific was too great for even the Clippers to pass up. Imagine if he had played basketball in high school?

* Brian Skinner: A 6-9 player from Baylor with extremely long arms, he can play defense, block shots and bang bodies. He needs to work on his offense.

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