The first time basketball legend Hakeem Olajuwon inquired about moving to the UK, he was mistaken for an African asylum seeker and politely told to fill out a form. “But I’m not fleeing anything. I want to move to the UK to give help and not receive it,” explained the seven-foot Hall-of-Famer.
That was three years ago, when the Olympic gold medallist’s daughter enrolled at the University of Birmingham and he dropped in to see its basketball team. They introduced Olajuwon to Rob Palmer, who founded the City of Birmingham Rockets club in 2003, along with the its CEO, Kirk Dawes.
The pair couldn’t believe their good fortune to meet the only NBA champion Michael Jordan said he ever feared. The connection was also fortunate for Nigeria-born Olajuwon, 55, who had been looking for a club where he could play with his five sons.
Olajuwon also was eager to help advance basketball in England, where the NBA – or National Basketball Association – is popular on television, but the sport is not played at a high level. “Basketball is so huge on a global level,” Olajuwon told HuffPost UK, “but in the UK there is so much room to grow. So I looked at what value I could bring.”
A partnership was soon established and the first Hakeem Olajuwon City of Birmingham Basketball summer camp, for kids ages 11-16, was given the green light two years ago, with 88 participants.
Its popularity has grown steadily, with 155 participants this year – nearly doubling the total at the 2017 event at the Nechells Wellbeing Centre in the city.
Campers pay a small fee for the five-day experience and have a chance to impress a basketball great. “The kids come from all over Europe and are of different sizes and speak many different languages, but they all speak basketball,” said Olajuwon.
“They’re so happy to be here; there’s an energy here. This is just as a result of what we’ve been planning for a a couple of years. To see the execution, and to see how well it’s organized, I just couldn’t be more proud.”
The sporting star is enjoying life in his new home town, where football is king and he can live in relative anonymity. A devout muslim, Olajuwon said he feels at home in multicultural Birmingham and often visits the city’s inner city suburbs, which are home to a large Nigerian community.
“I love Birmingham because its got such a great buzz and everyone is very friendly. As a practicing muslim I feel at home here and often pray at different mosques in the city,” he told HuffPost.
“I admit I didn’t know much about this city before my daughter decided to study business management here but I fell in love with the place straight away.”
He added:”It’s a different culture here. Nigerians of my generation always looked to move to the USA and I was the same, but I feel more comfortable in this country.
“I’m not famous here for a start and can go out to get some bread or milk from Tesco or Morrisons without being recognised.
“People here have shown me so much love and respect as a simple black man of African background rather than because of my fame.
“That’s been really refreshing and I feel welcome and safe in Birmingham,.”
Olajuwon, who speaks fluent French, Arabic and the Nigerian languages of Yoruba and Ekiti, still travels frequently to Houston in the USA where he spent practically all of his 18-year playing career earning more than $100m in salary alone and earning the nickname Hakeem the Dream.
But he’s not impressed by the political situation in the US and the usually reserved gentle giant is a critic of President Donald Trump and his anti-muslim policies. “As far as I can tell Trump is not very politically correct as you say in this country,” said Olajuwon.
“He’s turning the muslim community in the USA into victims and he’s blaming the country’s problems on this one small community.
“The extremists who say they are acting for Islam are not really muslims and Trump must know that but he labels all muslims as bad.
“I have met young muslims in this country at the mosques and they are frustrated at their condition but they remain positive and after not turning to extremism.
“I’m glad to act as role model and mentor to the youngsters in this city because they have a tough time here because of what some extremists have been doing in there name of our great religion.”
Olajuwon is clearly uncomfortable talking about anything other than basketball and ends the interview on a positive note.
Part of his role with the club is to open doors to potential commercial partners and be the face of its rebranding as the City of Birmingham Basketball Rockets as they forge closer links with their better-known namesakes in Houston.
“Basketball is so huge on a global level,” Olajuwon said, “but in the UK there is so much room to grow because it is still like a like a clique in the UK ― there are small numbers, but those who play the game love it, and it’s growing so fast.”