CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- It was back in 1980 when 17-year-old, pencil-thin Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon got his first taste of international competition. For Olajuwon, it was as a member of the Nigerian junior national team. And though he later would be known widely as one of the best centers of all time, Olajuwon couldn't even help get his team past the semifinals.
"It's always a very competitive tournament, and we wound up losing to Central Africa," Olajuwon recalled. "It was just my second year playing basketball, and that was my first international competition."
One would have guessed that, as Olajuwon grew in stature as a basketball player, his native land at least would have called him to represent the country in international competition. But it never did.
To return to international basketball competition, Olajuwon first had to become a U.S. citizen, which he did in 1993. And last year, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) -- despite a rule that forbids athletes who have played internationally for one country later to play for another -- granted Olajuwon the chance to join the U.S. basketball team.
Now, Olajuwon, 33, who has won two NBA titles and a Most Valuable Player award, gets a chance to add Olympic gold to his collection.
"This adds another special gift to my career," Olajuwon said. "When I was a kid, I dream of playing in the Olympics. This is like a crown on my career. You couldn't write a script any better than this."
Olajuwon said he would have been more than happy to represent Nigeria in international competition, if asked. But the big problem was timing, and with Olajuwon starring at the University of Houston and later in the NBA with the Houston Rockets, he never had the opportunity.
The move to become a U.S. citizen had nothing to do with basketball, although Olajuwon said he at times hears some criticism.
"When I became a U.S. citizen, there were some people in Nigeria who criticized me," Olajuwon said. "But I've been here over 10 years, my home is in Houston and a lot of family is in the United States.
"It was just natural. I'm still a Nigerian and I'm proud of it, but I'm a U.S. citizen."
And his Olympic teammates are proud to have him along, from Shaquille O'Neal, who calls Olajuwon his favorite NBA player, to Karl Malone, who has grown to admire his Western Conference rival.
"I think you can say that, yeah, this experience makes his status as a United States citizen official," Malone said. "I think Hakeem is saying, 'Thank God I became a U.S. citizen,' because if [Nigeria] had a team, I don't think he would want to be playing against us.
"But seriously, I've gotten to know Hakeem over the years, and he is one of the classiest guys in the league."
And now he's on a team that has one of the most impressive trios of centers ever assembled. Guard Gary Payton has said that his "most bizarre" team would include O'Neal at center, David Robinson at small forward and Olajuwon at power forward. Olajuwon joked that he's just hoping to get some minutes with so much talent at one position.
"I'm hoping I can play some small forward, to see what it's like to play with a big man," Olajuwon said. "With David and Shaq as teammates, you have to find another. It will be great, because we can just go out here and play, and not worry about fouling out."
That Olajuwon is not in top physical condition has shown during the week of practice that concluded yesterday. But that won't be a problem with coach Lenny Wilkens planning to juggle minutes equally among his players -- a move, Olajuwon said, that is not expected to pose too many problems.
"We have 12 leaders on this team, and the beautiful thing about leaders is that they are not afraid to take the back seat," Olajuwon said. "It's not a matter of who is driving, as long as you get there."
NOTES: Wilkens said that, though he plans to rotate lineups through the five-game tour, he definitely will start Grant Hill in today's first game against the USA Basketball 22-and-under team in Auburn Hills, Mich. . . . Robinson, Scottie Pippen and John Stockton -- all members of the original Dream Team -- were named co-captains. "I am? I didn't know," Pippen said yesterday, when asked about the honor.
Pub Date: 7/06/96