Kandi Man vows to be free agency's sweetest deal
By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com
While numerous free agents are being flown around the country to be wowed, wined and dined, no team has put a full-court press on the big man from England.
Injuries and questions about the progression of his career are the main reasons. But big men with Olowokandi's size and skill are few and far between in the NBA, and the team that goes after the now-healthy center could be getting one of the league's top big men without a major fight.
"I was looking at being an All-Star last year," Olowokandi said. "I can unequivocally say that if it hadn't been for my injury, and I'm not making excuses and hate making excuses, but I'm pretty confident I would have been an All-Star. I'm pretty confident of that."
But during Olowokandi's first three years in the NBA, there was no All-Star appearance. He didn't even average over 10 points a game.
Olowokandi, however, had a breakthrough campaign during the 2001-02 season, averaging 11.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 32.1 minutes a game. In the last 23 games of that season, he showed promise of what was yet to come, averaging 16.5 points and 9.6 rebounds. What Olowokandi was last remembered for during that seasonm, however, was not his great finish but rather his candid, critical and truthful words about the tight-walleted Clippers that centered around players worrying about their contract situations.
Following a loss at Utah on April 3, 2002, Olowokandi said: "We didn't play together. I've said this before and I'll go on the record and say it again: Whenever you have a group of guys that are very uncertain of their future on the team, that will always happen.
"Whenever you have that situation, you will never, ever, ever have a basketball team. Not this year, not next year, not 10 years from now. I don't care how many players you draft and lottery picks you get, you will never have a basketball team."
The next day, the Clippers played without Olowokandi and were eliminated from playoff contention by Dallas. The day after that, Olowokandi was fined $50,000 by the Clippers for his criticism. The problem that Olowokandi spoke of was also the nemesis for the talented and disappointing Clippers last season. But over a year later, Olowokandi has some regret about saying those words.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut," Olowokandi said. "It really was tough. You have a lot of people that don't say anything and move along and progress, which is a good way to go. At the same time, when you have the coaches, players, everybody complaining ... you have a conversation with your GM and he complains to you. Things are really not the way you would like them to be and no one is saying anything. I didn't understand it.
"Whenever I say something, in the articles they make it seem like I said something isolated from what the rest of the team thinks. But the rest of the team and the coaches and the GM usually come to me and say, 'You know, that's right.' But you know what? Someone has to be the fall guy. That's basically what happened. That's probably the image I'd like to shake up the most."
Olowokandi dabbled in free agency for a quick second last summer by visiting the Denver Nuggets. Instead of signing Olowokandi to a long-term deal, the Clippers signed him to just a one-year, $6 million contract. That made him an unrestricted free agent this summer. He hasn't ruled out a return to the Clippers, though.
"Now, if the Clippers turn things around and do things, then sure, I might have to take a look at them," Olowokandi said. "I'm already here and have a place over here. But if you're going by history and what has happened in the past, the chances of me coming back are slim. But that isn't because of my doing. If the Clippers really wanted me to stay, they would have done something last year.
"So I'm not really a big fan of, 'We tried or wanted to.' No, no, no, no. If you want to get something done, you get it done. Sometimes that is a good excuse to say you tried but you didn't want to. I just want to put myself in a position where I'm around people that are very confident."
Olowokandi's bid to build on his solid 2001-02 season began poorly when he missed all eight preseason games with tendinitis in his left knee. Nonetheless, he averaged 14.1 points and 9.3 rebounds over the first 17 games last season, but on Dec. 1, the knee problems returned. Eventually, his troublesome left knee required surgery and he missed the final 2½ months of the season.
"I should have probably gone in and had my knee checked at the beginning of the season," Olowokandi said. "Nobody really gave me any answers. For what reason, I really do not know. I had to go elsewhere and see other doctors. Those are the ones that advised me to go elsewhere and get (my knee) cleaned out. ... I could still play with it, but I wasn't playing at the level I'd love to play at. Obviously, it became progressively uncomfortable for me."
Olowokandi says his knee now feels even better than it did back in college. And to prove that he is healthy, he is willing to work out for any team that is interested. How many upper-level free agents are willing to do that?
The Nuggets are Olowokandi's top choice. He's also getting interest from Miami, where he owns a house. There have been some teams that may be interested in trying to coerce the Clippers into a sign-and-trade for Olowokandi. Now that Jason Kidd isn't going to San Antonio, the Spurs may get into the mix.
But reality is that while the Kidds, Paytons, Malones, Mournings, Millers, Maggettes and Arenas are being flown around the country, Olowokandi has received just mild interest. But he does have skills and is now healthy.
"I am thousand percent sure that no one has seen the best," Olowokandi said. "I'm going to continue to get better and better."
There are some definite risks during this year's free agency crop. Alonzo Mourning has been plagued by kidney problems the past three years and didn't play at all last season. Andre Miller, Gilbert Arenas, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Elton Brand all are restricted free agents. Olowokandi? Taking a chance on a now healthy 28-year-old center with a mammoth frame and a challenge to prove he is one of the NBA's elite centers is definitely worth the gamble.
"He's a legitimate center," Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said. "There are very few legitimate centers out there."
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.