Congratulations to Hakeem Olajuwon for being named to the Class of 2008 for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame yesterday.
This reminds me of this one time in the summer of 1995 when I escorted Hakeem around a trade show in Munich, Germany. It was the ISPO Show, the annual mega-fair for sports equipment and fashion suppliers.
At the time, Hakeem was working for the 2-time NBA Champion Houston Rockets. I was working for NBA Properties in a job with the title Director of International Licensing.
To leverage its popularity in Europe, the league was an annual exhibitor at ISPO They would meet and discuss plans with international licensees like Starter, Champion, and Spalding, all of whom were also there.
In 1995, NBA International decided to hire Hakeem as its spokesperson.
Since I am fluent in German, my role that day was to help accompany Hakeem around the show as he visited various licensees before stopping at the NBA booth for interviews.
I knew I would be doing this, even before my arrival in Munich. The league planned everything. But on the way to Europe, my non-stop flight was canceled and I was re-routed through Copenhagen Airport. I was waiting in line for something alongside 2 men that I took to be Nigerians. So I asked them how to speak “Nigerian” which is really Yoruba, which is Hakeem’s native language.
The most important thing you can say to a Nigerian, they told me, is a very simple phrase.
It means, in effect, “Wassssuuuup?!” or, more accurately, “How are you?”
In Africa, greetings are big. Big as in important, and big as in the more heartfelt and strong it is, the greater the lasting impression.
So when I first saw Hakeem, from a distance, I shouted “Báwo ni!” with a big smile. When I got within range, instead of shaking hands we did one of those man-hugs, the modified handshake embrace usually reserved for teammates, country-mates, or close friends. We hit it off right away.
My erstwhile Nigerian tutors in Copenhagen predicted this would happen.
As we walked around the exhibit halls, we chatted about this and that, and Hakeem expressed an interest in visiting with his NBA colleague Patrick Ewing. Patrick was in a nearby exhibit hall pushing his own line of namesake brand sneakers.
When we got there, the two star centers were cordial, respectful, and friendly with one another, despite their heated career-long on-court rivalry.
How does all of this fit in?
Well, for one thing I note that every single NBA player I met that day in Germany was eventually enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame! LOL!
I also note that Hakeem’s agent at the time, who I met later at dinner in a fancy Munich restaurant called Der Käfer, was Ralph Green, who eventually became the head of Nike Basketball.
Mainly though, I note the importance of choosing to take advantage of a moment, to make the effort, to single out a phrase in another man’s language, as a genuine gesture, and how far that can go.
What if we all tried that more often, in whatever language? Or in our own language with our own people sometimes?
Or just, “How is your day so far?”
Try it some time. Make history now.