Six years should be long enough for Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon, formerly of Lagos, Nigeria, to become wise in the ways of America, a land where most professional athletes won't look you straight in the eye and tell you exactly what's on their minds.
Two days ago, Olajuwon stood before reporters assembled here for the NBA championship series and boldly predicted that the Rockets would not lose to the Boston Celtics on their home floor. There were no breezy rationalizations, no excuses for his team's drubbing by the Celtics in the opening two games of the series. That was then; this is now.
Sunday, with Olajuwon scoring 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds, Houston moved back into the picture with a 106-104 victory, which only meant that today, on the eve of Game 4, Olajuwon could thumb his nose at another American sports tradition: pressure.
"Where is there pressure?" he said. "I believe in my team; I know we can do it. Why not say it? I knew the series wasn't over. You guys didn't give us a chance because we lost two games in Boston. But if you think you can win, there is no pressure. You just have to go out and do it."
You see how simple it is? Forget that Boston's Larry Bird is playing his own little game in his own little world, while Houston guard Lewis Lloyd, who is averaging almost 10 points less in this series than in the Rockets' previous playoff games, has nearly disappeared as well.
Olajuwon seems to have forgotten about both men and is concentrating instead on carrying the Rockets.
Olajuwon, a 7-foot second-year player, is exhibiting the same sort of physical and mental persistence that was in evidence when he almost singlehandedly destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference final. He averaged 31 points and 13 rebounds in the Rockets' 4-1 series victory over the defending NBA champions.
Against the Lakers, Olajuwon was omnipresent. He seemed to grab every loose ball. That hasn't quite been the case against the Celtics -- Olajuwon has averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds in the current series -- but there's no doubt that Boston is very much aware of him.
That is proven with each entry pass a Rocket makes to Olajuwon in the low post. Besides Robert Parish or Bill Walton, his nominal defender, there is help from Bird and either of the Boston guards, Danny Ainge or Dennis Johnson. Every time Olajuwon touches the ball, there is a double- or triple-team.
"We'll maybe double-team Ralph Sampson Houston's 7-4 center/forward, who scored 24 points with 22 rebounds in Game 3 if he starts to hurt us," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "Akeem, if he gets the ball anywhere in the paint, it's just like a layup. And he's so quick that you can't guard him with just one man because he's liable to get into foul trouble, and they'd go to him even more."
Clearly, Olajuwon has arrived. He has made the All-Star Game in his first two seasons in the NBA and is considered one of the top three centers in the league. All this from a man who grew up as a soccer goalie and has played basketball for less than a decade.
"When he first got here, you could tell that he hadn't played the game," said Boston center Greg Kite, a native Houstonian who played against the younger Olajuwon in the city's legendary summer leagues. "I remember in his first year at Houston, he didn't play much; the second he was an all-America. Now look at him. It would take me 60 years to make that kind of progress."
Some people believe that Olajuwon's success has a lot to do with his inexperience in the game. Rockets swing man Robert Reid says Olajuwon wouldn't be the player he is now if he had tasted the good life in America during his youth, that his desire wouldn't be as keen. Olajuwon denies it.
"This is the only way I can play because I love the game so much," he said. "There is nothing else I can do."
In a sense, Bird and Olajuwon are very much alike, linked in the pursuit of the perfect jump shot, the ideal rebound, the total game. On the court, they are there for all to see. Off the court, both men are somewhat enigmatic, preferring privacy to the bright lights their stardom normally would draw. Olajuwon's teammates make no pretentions of sharing an intimate acquaintance with him.
"I know he's a great rebounder and a fancy dresser, but that's about all I could say," said center/forward Jim Petersen. "Everything else would be cliche from somewhere. I guess if I knew him better off the court I could talk about him more, but I don't."
Even Sampson, his so-called fellow Twin Tower, says there isn't much more he can tell, either.
"I think we're close, but I don't know him off the court," he said. "We're playing so much and with all the travel that when we come home we tend to go our separate ways. I think that'll change in the future, though. I'd like it to."
Olajuwon says there's no doubt that he's an "open" person, just as likely as anyone else to be lured by a good game of checkers. Still, he concedes that people here don't know him as well as those in his native land.
"This is my second home. I can't compare Houston and Nigeria," he said. "I can't compare people I just met with people I grew up with."
He has a a number of friends here, but those relationships are taking a back seat to the championship series.
"Now isn't the time to hang out with my friends. I can do that after the season," he said. "People ask me if I'm having fun now. This isn't fun; I'm trying to get a ring. The series is business. After it's over, it'll be fun."
Should the Rockets manage to emerge with their first title, life will become far more than that for Olajuwon, at least in Nigeria, where already he is regarded as something of a national hero.
"I'm the only person playing sports abroad," he said. "The president of the country meets me at the airport when I come home."