There was a time not long ago when the Clippers were a joke, and the punchline always included their draft busts.
The epitome of their draft woes was none other than 7-footer Michael Olowokandi, aka “The Candy Man”.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Olowokandi spent his schooling years at Newlands Manor School in East Sussex, England. Michael’s family was fairly affluent, his father was a Nigerian Diplomat.
While in England he held school records in long-jump and triple-jump, but his basketball experience was only two years at an intramural level.
This made his journey from Brunel University in England to the United States, and basketball, a rather strange one. Nevertheless his basketball career began on his 20th birthday when he opened a page of Peterson Guide to American Colleges and University.
The first page he opened featured the University of the Pacific, a private school in Stockton, California. From there he made a simple cold-call to the university in hopes of playing basketball.
His coach at Pacific, Bob Thomason recalled the day of Olowokandi’s request.
“We usually have one coach in the office from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. every day, and that’s when Michael called,” Pacific coach Bob Thomason recalled. “He said he was interested in coming to an American university. We sent him the information. He wanted to come to Pacific, and we didn’t even have a scholarship for him. He still wanted to come.” (Hartford Courant)
In 1995, the 7-foot, 265 lb center enrolled at Pacific paying full tuition to play basketball and study at the private school.
Olowokandi was raw, as expected, but his bright mind allowed him to pick up the game quick.
“When he first played, he didn’t know where the low post was,” Thomason said. “I said to my staff, he doesn’t know anything. Let’s teach him how to go after a ball.” “Offensively, we ran 15-18 plays with three options each. He is an intelligent player. All you have to do is show him.” (Hartford Courant)
The extensive training from the coaches, and his play landed him a scholarship his junior year. In the 96-97 season Olowokandi helped Pacific reach their first NCAA tournament since 1979. They were eliminated in the first round by St. John’s
Olowokandi’s senior year saw a huge spike in his statistics, finishing the 97-98 season with a 22.2 ppg average along with 11.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He led all Big West players in those respective categories, and was named the conference’s player of the year.
However, Pacific would not make the NCAA tournament that year despite his excellence performance. With no years left of eligibility he headed to the NBA.
Regardless of his statistical growth at Pacific the experts considered him a project player given his three years of true basketball experience.
Arizona point guard Mike Bibby was considered the safe pick for the Clippers heading into the 1998 NBA draft. Still, general manager Elgin Baylor went with Olowokandi, who expected to fall to the Nuggets with their third pick.
“Seeing my name in the No. 1 spot is unbelievable, especially when you consider where I came from three years ago — not having played basketball — and then to this, not the No. 3 pick but the No. 1 pick,” (Sports Illustrated)
Still those same experts considered Olowokandi’s upside higher than Bibby’s and applauded their pick of the center.
The Clips went with NBA convention and selected the big, raw Olowokandi, who has much greater upside than Mike Bibby. (Sports Illustrated)
The Candy Man’s rookie campaign, was nothing spectacular but was no sign of the bust to come. He appeared in 45 games in the lockout-shortened ’98-99 season, and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
Olowkandi’s next two seasons were fairly similar statistics wise, averaging between 8-9 points, and 6-8 rebounds per game. Those stats were not expected from the former first round draft pick.
However his production improved in his final two years with the Los Angeles Clippers. In 2001 he averaged 11.1 points, and 8.9 rebounds, and in 2002, an injury-shortened season, he averaged 12.3 with 9.1 rebounds per game.
The injury sustained in 02-03 season began his sour relations with the Clippers, after returning from the injury the team refused to play him in March of that season.
This further hindered Olowokandi’s relations with The Clippers who suspended him the year before for speaking out on the Clippers.
Minnesota took advantage of this severed relationship and signed him for a three-year, $16 million contract in 2003. The move was expected to bolster a front court that already featured All-NBA power forward Kevin Garnett.
Olowokandi was eager to work with not only Garnett but team general manager Kevin McHale, who now had a center to anchor an already dynamic team.
“I was with my former team for five years and I did develop,” said Olowokandi, a former Los Angeles Clipper. “But I think there are so many more tools to learn here. We have a GM who is one of the best low-post players ever. I don’t think I could have picked a better situation.” (NBA.com)
However this wasn’t the first time that Olowokandi had received personal training from an NBA great, while a rookie in Los Angeles the Clippers hired the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabar to develop the raw talent.
Kareem’s time with Olowokandi put a damper on the notion that the raw center was very coachable. Kareem in 2011 recalled that Michael was very difficult to work with, and that he still had an issue with Olowokandi’s attitude during those training sessions years ago.
I have seen this process firsthand. When I coached for the Clippers, I had to deal with Michael Olowokandi, a player who perfectly fit the description “talented but uncoachable.” At practice, I would attempt to point out Mr. Olowokandi’s faults to him, ones he constantly repeated and resulted in lost possessions for the team or personal fouls that sent him to the bench. His reaction to my attempts to correct his bad habits was to take my input as a personal insult and embarrassment. He told me point-blank that he would not be criticized in front of the team. He stuck to his word and, as a result, had very few successful moments on the court playing the way he wanted to play. He took his place on the list of athletically gifted washouts who have been in and out of the league in the past 10 years. (ESPN)
This would give reason why his time with Minnesota did not live up to expectation whatsoever.
During his tenure with the Timberwolves he never played a full season due to injuries and poor performance. The center only averaged 6.5 and 5.9 points per game during that time.
Minnesota decided to cut ties with Olowokandi during the 05-06 sending him to Boston in a multi-player trade.
The 2006-07 season would be the last for The Candy Man. In that season he would only appear in 24 games for the Celtics, none of which he started. Olowokandi would finish his career averaging 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game, and would forever remembered by the NBA community as a bust.
Olowokandi’s poor relations didn’t end with the Clippers and Abdul-Jabar either. He no longer holds a close relationship with his alma mater.
This severed tie began after Michael received a letter shortly after being selected in the NBA Draft from Pacific requesting a donation to the school, the exact amount and reasoning aren’t quite clear.
Later his personal life would be exposed as his now ex-wife, Suzie Ketcham appeared on the reality show Basketball Wives, she was arrested during a taping of a reunion episode in 2010.
Olowokandi would make over $40 million in his NBA career, and appeared in the film Van Wilder. However the big man from Lagos could never fully develop in to the player many thought he was destined to be.
Read more of our “What the Hell happened to…?” series.