The NBA named its 75th anniversary team in October. Of the 75 players selected, six legendary international players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Hakeem Olajuwon – etched their names in history, paving the way for hundreds of other players born in the stranger.
In part one of our four-part series, we take a look at Ewing from Jamaica and Olajuwon from Nigeria.
The first foreign-born players
The NBA opened its first season in November 1946 with a game between the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskers in Ontario, Canada.
Hank Biasatti, an Italian-Canadian player and the first international player to hit an NBA pitch, was on the Huskers roster. His NBA career was short-lived, but it was the start of something much bigger.
More than 30 years later, a foreign-born player was selected as the first overall pick for the first time: Mychal Thompson of the Bahamas in 1978. Thompson proved to be a special choice as he won two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. His greatness also paved the way for his son Klay Thompson, a three-time champion with the Golden State Warriors. The net of highly competitive international talent has only grown stronger over the years.
In 1984, the league reached at least 10 international players for the first time, and that number has grown significantly over the decades.
“It took a while in the ’90s,” said Kim Bohuny, senior vice president of international basketball operations for the NBA. Washington Post. “A lot of our teams were like, ‘Do we want international players or not?’ They always had this label of being soft, not good in defense, just great shooters.It’s completely changed…now all 30 teams have an international player.
At the start of the 2021-22 season, a record 121 international players from 40 different countries were named to league-wide rosters.
“I think what’s great is that if you’re a young boy or girl from any country in the world, you believe you can make it here,” Bohuny said. “That’s the biggest difference in my mind. Before they hope maybe I could make it to the NBA one day.
The 80s: Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing
In 1984, Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon was selected as the first overall pick by the Houston Rockets. It was a draft class full of talent, as Michael Jordan finished third. While playing among legendary competitions during his career, Olajuwon became one of the best players in NBA history.
Olajuwon’s passion for basketball started in Lagos, Nigeria. At the age of 15, he played for the first time in a local tournament. Olajuwon eventually ended up at the University of Houston, leading the basketball team to the Final Four in all three of his seasons.
“Coming from Nigeria, my first Final Four was very difficult to digest what it meant. It’s the same to be a member of the Hall of Fame,” he said in 2008 after being selected to the Hall of Fame.
His nickname “The Dream” preludes just how otherworldly his list of accolades is, including being named MVP, two-time Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He became the only player to win a Championship, MVP, Finals MVP, and DPOY in the same season. Olajuwon is also one of only four players to have recorded a quadruple-double.
In 1994, the 7-footer met another big-man legend when they collided in the NBA Finals. Jamaican-born Patrick Ewing was drafted No. 1 overall in 1985. Ewing came to the United States at age 11, becoming a well-recognized high school basketball talent. He ended up at Georgetown University where he led the team to a national title in 1984.
This trip brought him to a pivotal moment. If not for Ewing’s 22-point, 22-rebound performance in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, the New York Knicks would have had to wait much longer to end their 20-year Finals drought.
These powerhouse players have faced each other for seven games in the fight to become NBA champions. While Ewing’s strength defined the Knicks’ playoffs for several years, he never had the chance to bring a trophy to New York.
“He was a thorn in my side for many years,” said Ewing in 2008, who also faced Olajuwon in college. “We have accomplished a lot. He’s from Nigeria and I’m from Jamaica so we didn’t know the game. The first time I played him was at the NCAA tournament. I thought, ‘Jesus God, this man is so strong and so nimble.’ He’s an incredible competitor. We’ve had our battles over the years. Unfortunately, there is one that I would have loved to win in 1994.”
Olajuwon pushed the 1994 series to seven with a clutch block that secured Houston’s first NBA title. As a 10-year veteran, he averaged 29.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.86 blocks per game. Olajuwon wouldn’t stop there, leading the 6th-seeded Rockets to a straight title in 1995 with an Orlando Magic sweep of Shaquille O’Neal.
The Rockets became the only team other than the Chicago Bulls to win consecutive chips in the 1990s.
During a time when the league was all about defense, Ewing continued to reign supreme in many of the same categories as Olajuwon. Two decades later, Ewing still holds first place in points, rebounds, blocks and steals for the Knicks franchise. He was named All-Star and Rookie of the Year 11 times during his career. He was also part of the famous Olympic “Dream Team”.
“It was my second Olympics – mine, Michael [Jordan]and chris [Mullin]. We played together in the 1984 Olympics and we had a great team then. But the cast of this team – it was the best of the best. I knew it was going to be something special,” Ewing said in the QG Dream Team Oral History.
Olajuwon’s jersey (#34) and Ewing’s jersey (#33) hang in the rafters for Houston and New York, respectively. The Rockets also built a bronze monument in honor of Olajuwon outside the arena in 2006. The longtime rivals were both inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what it means to be a Hall of Famer,” Olajuwon said in 2008. “It’s a great honour. I still can’t believe that I’m in the same company with all these great legends.
Ewing returned to his home island of Jamaica in 2018, where he led his alma mater Georgetown University basketball team to an OT victory in the Jamaica Classic. Olajuwon also paid homage to his roots later on, returning to the court for an NBA Africa Game in 2015 where he knocked down a classic jumper.
“I think the players feel responsible for giving back. There’s a long tradition, and it’s a tradition that started long before me, and before Michele [Roberts]. We both inherited. And when we go to a place like Africa and talk about our game values, talk about fitness and healthy living, discipline, leadership, teamwork – all of those things are what build great communities said NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Sports Illustrated.
This just goes to show the impact international players have on the NBA’s global relationships and basketball in general. Only a few years later, the league partnered with FIBA to launch the Basketball Africa League. The BAL was made up of 12 teams representing 12 African countries, where Zamalek won the first ever BAL Championship and Walter Hodge was named 2021 Hakeem Olajuwon BAL MVP.
— Basketball Africa League (@theBAL) May 30, 2021
“I have this conversation with sports ministers in countries all over the world: sometimes there’s the notion of when the next big player is going to come?” Silver told the Washington Post. “As opposed to, when are we going to develop the next great player?”