It’s a Tuesday morning inside a quiet community centre near the heart of Birmingham where a few of the locals have gathered to pit their wits in the name of sporting triumph.
One figure, from parts slightly further afield, towers above all. Hakeem Olajuwon still has all the moves. A shimmy. A shake. Forehand. Backhand. Smash.
“Some people play golf,” the Hall of Fame center declares. “I’d get asked: ‘what game do you play?’
“One day I was here, there was a ping-pong table. There was a league. And from that day, I found my new passion.”
Now 54, the fulcrum of the Houston Rockets two championship squads of two decades ago still looks every inch the chiseled athlete he was in his pomp. Yet these days, with his family base implanted in the English Midlands, he is more likely to be exerting energy in the cause of remaining top of the table tennis league than practicing his post moves and unleashing the hook shot that put him firmly in the conversation as one of the greats of the NBA’s modern era.
However, with five young sons who have only recently taken up basketball and are making exploratory steps to follow in such uber-sized footsteps, the man they once called The Dream has found a fresh engagement with hoops after linking up – quite by chance – with the City of Birmingham Club that has become one of his many second homes.
It was a friend of a friend who made the unlikely connection, recounts its director Rob Palmer. “She calls me and says ‘there’s a guy in the office that looks like he’s played some basketball. I said ‘go ask his name’. She comes back and goes ‘it’s Hakeem Olajuwon’. I thought ‘you’re having a laugh’. He got my number from her and eventually he calls me.”
The conversation surrounded whether room could be found for his boys at the Saturday morning sessions they held. Kirk Dawes, long a stalwart of basketball in the region but the club’s managing director, got involved. “We talked,” Olajuwon recalls. “We met with Kirk. I was very impressed because both of them are so devoted to the club.
“I brought the kids down. And I saw the potential of what this could become. Because basketball is so huge on a global level but in the UK, there is still so much room to grow. I said ‘what can I do to add value to the club?’ That’s how it started.” - Hakeem Olajuwon
Now he is the patron but foremost an active parent, showing up to lend a hand whenever he can. In Houston, the Nigerian-born, American-adopted goliath is the walking, living legend. In this corner of the world, he can waltz around the supermarket without a single selfie or autograph request. “I can just be normal and I want all my kids to be normal,” he reflects.
Enough that until they took it upon themselves to have a search on YouTube last year, the Olajuwon juniors had never seen even a clip of their famous father in majestic action. “I don’t want to put pressure on my kids,” the 1996 Olympic gold medallist says. “I want them to find their passion… like I do. Once they have that, I can push them. If they want to play, then they have to work hard. Do the drills. Have the work ethic. Then, I can guide them.”
Their initial enthusiasm has spiked, enough that chunks of his weekends were quickly blocked off to shuttle them back and forth. But many of the 1,200 kids who pass through the club each week – most too young to remember his exploits – have been shown basic skills or cunning moves from someone who had few equals in his ability to dominate in the paint.
“Every Saturday morning,” Dawes reveals, “he’s there – getting involved, coaching the players, talking to the parents. You have this guy coming to mini-tournaments. It’s not like he’s popping in. He’s so committed to his other many roles and getting a bit of downtime too.”
All help welcome. In August, Olajuwon ran a summer camp for several hundred children, bringing in coaches from Houston to share their expertise and assist the swathe of volunteers pitching in.
If his name was prominent then, other activities are much more discrete. The Nechells Centre, where much of the club’s work is based, was once caught in the midst of what passes for Birmingham’s gangland, societal unrest often spilling through its doors and leaving some aspiring hoopsters reluctant to come anywhere near.
“You had robberies,” reveals Dawes, who has worked extensively as a police mediator. “Some of our kids were defending themselves with knives, just to get here. For years now though, this has been a no-go area for gangs. We got kids here and said ’let’s sort this out and what is out all about?’ And now they’re left alone when they come here.”
Such impacts made me even keener to provide an assist, Olajuwon adds. “You’re talking to kids who don’t really have a goal or have had bad influences. They can come to the court, start playing the game and fall into a positive attitude and positive thinking. It’s amazing. That’s why the city needs to realise the impact this club is making in the community.”
Having an association with the Olajuwon brand is opening doors. There are grand plans to do more if backers sign up and finances swell. “They need the infrastructure to feed it,” Hakeem acknowledged. “Getting corporate sponsors involved. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Much is already in progress. Next year, the Hakeem Olajuwon Academy is set to open its doors in partnership with a local further education college. A pathway, he hopes, that might guide some towards American universities and the opportunities provided by athletic scholarships.
Perhaps, in due course, the return of a professional franchise in Birmingham that has greater endurance than some of the failed attempts made since the Bullets met their demise.
They already know the perfect name. The English league has a re-branded team in its fourth division for this new season: The City of Birmingham Rockets. “Houston are very happy with it,” Dawes relates. “It’s a good link for us.”
Awareness is up. It brings perils too. “The enquiries coming in have rocketed,” Palmer confirmed. “But we’re wary of rolling it out and not being able to manage. It helps focus our mind on putting a proper structure in place.”
One that has Olajuwon as a quiet influence, the tower around which they can build, moving and shaking behind the scenes, making others dreams come true.
Turning another past-time into a smash hit.
“I feel in this structure, where you have an experienced team who can put it together, it just works,” he smiles.
“I can be an ambassador. And the youths can benefit. But it’s about what the guys here are trying to achieve. Not me.”