Two-time NBA champion Hakeem Olajuwon is renowned for leading the Houston Rockets to back-to-back titles in the 1990s.

Both times, he took the Finals MVP award. It’s a little different from getting out on the blacktop for a game of 3×3. But he’s been known to play it, although he might be scaling it back a bit.

“I still play three on three – the last time I played I had to ice my knee for three weeks afterwards!” he joked “But mostly I just shoot around.”

Now an on-off resident of Birmingham – in the midlands, not the one in Alabama – where his daughters are at university, the 1994 NBA MVP has two teams in his life. One is of course the Rockets, who he watches when he is over on business with his real estate firm, and the other is the City of Birmingham club.

“I’m helping them to raise the awareness of basketball. So I’ll really be the ambassador for basketball any opportunity I’ll get,” he said, at the launch of the 3×3 basketball event for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. More of that in a minute.

“I’ve been hearing from people how the Birmingham Bullets used to be a very good basketball club,” he added. “I’m surprised there isn’t a top team here. It’s the second biggest city in the UK and they have a diversity and love of sport.”

Maybe the recent runaway success of Netflix’s Last Dance Michael Jordan documentary will give the game an extra shove in the city and the UK as a whole. Hakeem thinks it could.

“I wasn’t surprised how many people watched it in the UK – they’re very well informed, whether they follow NBA basketball or they studied in the US, they’re more informed than your average citizen,” he said.

“Also at the time there was a lockdown and so many people were bored and desperate to see some sport – so the timing was perfect.”

The fact that Hakeem was the first pick in the same NBA Draft as Jordan (picked third) was also covered in Last Dance. It seems surprising now that the greatest player of all time was not the automatic first choice, but Olajuwon points out that the game has changed since 1984.

“You look at how basketball was, right?” he explains. “Someone playing at the centre position was always going to go at No.1, because of what someone at that position can do for the squad.

“At that time the big men were very dominating, it’s easier for big men to dominate, they are intimidating, they block shots and rebound and score – it’s much tougher for a guard to do. So when you see a big man in the Draft who can play, you’ll take him.”

That was then but the NBA is a different place now and No.3 was the one who made that difference.

“The Jordan era was the one that changed the dynamic of the game, because he could dominate the game from his position,” says Olajuwon.

He is still a jovial, affable, one of the world’s nice guys. And that gets in the way a bit when he comes to name his own 3×3 squad of four players from his era in the NBA, because he doesn’t to offend anyone.

“It’s a very tough question because you just have too much to select from – it’s not really fair,” he protests. “I could pick five different teams. And each of them could beat each other.

So let’s start with then obvious choice. “Of course Jordan,” says Olajuwon. But the next three? Maybe his former team-mate at Houston, Dream Team alumnus Clyde Drexler?

“I’m happy to pick Clyde because he’s my team-mate – but there are plenty of other players I can pick and I wouldn’t want to offend other people,” says Hakeem, Nigerian-born but who played for the USA in the 1996 Olympics.

Playmaker? “You have to go with John Stockton or Magic Johnson,” he says. “That question is too tough for me.” Maybe he’s the one who’s going to miss out.

“I could easily give up my place – you could replace me with Shaq, you could replace me with David (Robinson) or Patrick (Ewing) – easily,” he says, offering a hint at why he never became a head coach after retiring in 2002.

Problem is, he’s just too nice.

Birmingham 2022/ Lensi Photography

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