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Olowokandi Is Making Big Strides

Pro basketball: Once awkward 7-foot center is becoming a force for the Clippers. Re-signing him is considered key to team's future.

March 29, 2002|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was once languid, but now he's driven. He was awkward; now he's smooth. He was timid; now he's fearless. He was an afterthought; now he's a go-to guy. He was booed; now he's cheered.

Perhaps the day Clipper center Michael Olowokandi's game changed coincided with the day his life changed.

Arrested in the early-morning hours of Dec. 1 after a scuffle with a former girlfriend, Olowokandi spent the rest of the night in the Manhattan Beach jail. The Los Angeles County district attorney declined some weeks later to file charges against him, but the experience was difficult for him.

"Obviously, it alters who you are to a certain extent," said Olowokandi, 26, who stands 7 feet and weighs 270 pounds. "It was an unfortunate situation. I'm still friendly, cordial with her. She didn't use good judgment. She said things to the police to get at me. Did it change my perception of people? I can't let things change who I am. I guess I should be more careful with people. I am a trusting person by nature.

"I'd hate to be in a position that when basketball is over I've become a changed person, that I'm not a fun-loving person."

It has been obvious to longtime observers of Olowokandi that he has become more assertive on the basketball court since his arrest. He appears to be more willing to stand up for himself.

Olowokandi got into an altercation with Shaquille O'Neal in the closing moments of the Clippers' loss March 15 to the Lakers, then suggested to reporters that O'Neal "needs to grow up." He became so angry at a referee's decision in Tuesday's loss to the Sacramento Kings that he kicked the ball the length of the court, drawing a technical foul. He also has become more of a floor leader, taking his teammates to task for all manner of transgressions.

"It's truly a remarkable turnaround," said Bill Walton, a TV commentator and former NBA standout. "Here's a guy who didn't seem all that interested in playing basketball, much less being a top player. Industriousness and enthusiasm, two cornerstones of John Wooden's 'Pyramid of Success,' were two traits that I didn't associate with Michael Olowokandi."

Consider that Olowokandi had only seven 20-point games during his first 31/2 seasons in the NBA but has eight since Jan. 28, including a career-best 30 points in a March 8 victory over the Chicago Bulls. He is averaging 16.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in 13 games this month. His overall averages this season are 10.2 points and nine rebounds.

Question is, has Olowokandi's metamorphosis from "robotic stiff," in the words of Walton, to "showing his competitive fire" (Walton again) ensured his swift departure from the Clippers? Will he be too good to keep beyond this season or next?

There has been much speculation about Olowokandi's future in recent weeks and there's certain to be more. If he's not signed to an extension, he'll be a restricted free agent July 1, with the Clippers able to match any outside offer.

Olowokandi said last week that he has heard nothing from his agent, Bill Duffy, or Clipper management about a new contract. But he's not worried--at least not yet.

Certainly, it wouldn't be the first time a professional athlete was motivated to improve his play because he sought the security of a bigger and better deal.

But Olowokandi insisted he is focused on a game he is only now, in his seventh season of organized play, beginning to master. He's leaving the contractual matters to his agent.

Besides, the Clippers are locked in their first playoff chase since 1996-97, and as remarkable as it sounds, Olowokandi is helping to lead them. Anyone who has seen Olowokandi wheel and deal on the low block in the last few weeks has been impressed.

"I thought Olowokandi was incredible," San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said after watching him score 26 points and take 17 rebounds in the Spurs' victory over the Clippers on Monday. "He definitely was all over the floor. He really kept us honest down there and really made a game of it."

Walton thought so much of Olowokandi's play that he sought him out after the game to offer a few kind words. "I told him, 'Michael, congratulations, you've become a real basketball player,'" Walton said.

Clipper forward Corey Maggette put it another way: "I feel Michael Olowokandi has improved 300% from where he started. He has become a dominant big man. The sky is the limit for him. But they still need to pay him that money."

In many ways, Olowokandi is a test case for just how serious the Clippers are about keeping perhaps the NBA's best young team together until it fulfills its potential. Olowokandi's growing presence in the middle has allowed All-Star Elton Brand to concentrate on his more natural position, power forward. Brand already has said that his future with the team is tied to Olowokandi's.

Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor wants to keep Olowokandi in the fold.

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