BIRMINGHAM, England -- The first time Hakeem Olajuwon's five sons fully understood what their father used to do was when they sat in the canteen at Nechells Wellbeing Centre, home of the City of Birmingham Basketball Club (COB).
It was lunchtime during Olajuwon's inaugural basketball camp for the COB last year and Kirk Dawes, the club's CEO, had put on YouTube clips of Olajuwon from his days with the Houston Rockets to entertain and inspire the refueling teenagers. Among the campers were Olajuwon's boys, who sat transfixed as they watched their father being drafted into the NBA, then scoring, rebounding and perfecting his signature "Dream Shake" move in the world's top basketball league.
It was the moment they realized how their dad, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, fit into the pantheon of sporting greats. That camp also was the first time some of Olajuwon's boys had even played the sport.
Why was Olajuwon, 54, a native of Nigeria who found fame in the United States, running a basketball camp in England? And how has he ended up playing a large role in helping steer the COB, a community-focused club that runs outreach initiatives in the UK's second-largest city? It's all the result of chance, family and love for the game.
It is pretty hard to miss the nearly 7-foot Olajuwon, but in a city where soccer is king, he can enjoy relative anonymity. News of Olajuwon moving his family to the area started seeping out in September 2015, when his daughter enrolled at the University of Birmingham and he dropped in to see its basketball team. (He lives part time in the United States, where he serves as an ambassador for the Rockets.)
Olajuwon eventually had a chance meeting at a local solicitor's firm with a woman whose husband worked at the COB. They introduced Olajuwon to Rob Palmer, who founded the COB in 2003, and Dawes, who couldn't believe their good fortune to meet the Hall of Famer.
The connection was also serendipitous for Olajuwon, who had been looking for a club where he could play with his sons. He also was eager to help advance basketball in England, where the NBA is popular on television but the sport is not played at a high level.
"Basketball is so huge on a global level," Olajuwon said, "but in the UK there is so much room to grow. So I looked at what value I could bring."
A partnership soon was established, and the first Hakeem Olajuwon City of Birmingham Basketball Summer Camp for kids ages 11 to 16 was held last year with 88 participants. Campers pay a small fee for the five-day experience. This year's second incarnation was on a bigger scale -- at the start of Tuesday's Day 2, 115 boys and girls were doing their best to impress as Olajuwon ducked under the doorway and onto the two courts.
The sound of more than 100 basketballs bouncing and shoes squeaking on the wooden surface was like hearing a group of mice awakening to the soundtrack of a bass drum, playing at 90 beats per minute with irregular tempo. All the while, Olajuwon stood watching -- and smiling.
"When I walked in this morning, I saw them in their uniform, the different size of the players and the volume, it was so impressive," Olajuwon said. "They're so happy to be here; there's an energy here. This is just as a result of what we've been planning for a year. To see the execution -- and to see how well it's organized -- I just couldn't be more proud."
The eyes of the teenagers kept thousand-mile stares as they bounced basketballs while coaches and directors encouraged and demonstrated. Kenneth Gamble and Donte Mathis, coaches flown over by Olajuwon from Houston for the camp, scanned the room, then dived in with advice.
Gamble -- who has mentored Wesley Iwundu, a second-round draft pick by the Orlando Magic this year -- said he was impressed by the raw talent on display in Birmingham. Last year, Olajuwon spotted Tyrese Lacey, a diminutive 11-year-old point guard with frighteningly quick feet and hand speed. Olajuwon paid to have the young player flown over to the States, where he played in a Nike tournament.
"This is an opportunity to link players -- at least if they don't play in the NBA, they can get a basketball scholarship to college," Olajuwon said. "Basketball is like a clique in the UK -- there are small numbers, but those who play the game love it, and it's growing so fast."
Pushing talent into the States' consciousness is only one goal for Olajuwon and the COB, which fields boys' and girls' teams in the second-tier English Basketball League's junior structure. They have long-term plans for an academy for players ages 11 to 18, and organizers hope seeds planted at the camp can someday lead to a team in the British Basketball League, the country's premier professional circuit. But those plans operate alongside the club's main focus of bringing the many diverse areas and ethnic groups of Birmingham together.
In addition to basketball training, the COB emphasizes the importance of community spirit, diversity and education. As many as 1,200 children and young adults participate in programs offered at the COB.
"We don't and never want to lose the essence of COB," said Dawes, who made a point of how much he appreciates Olajuwon's work with his organization. Dawes enjoys telling the story of how Olajuwon was walking through Malvern Park in Birmingham in early 2016 without seeing a basketball court. So he asked the city council if he could build one -- at his own expense. He flew over the materials from the U.S. to build a half-court setup.
Part of Olajuwon's role with the COB is to open doors to potential commercial partners and be the face of its rebranding as the City of Birmingham Basketball Rockets as they forge closer links with their better-known namesakes in Houston. But Tuesday, as he stood with one leg on each side of the court divide in Nechells, there was a huge smile across his face as he watched his sons taking part in the game they now love, an enjoyment that started in Birmingham.
"The boys are now searching on YouTube, looking for players," he said. "So it's amazing to watch them know their names, and their moves. It's something very different for me ... on their own, they are picking up the game."