This wasn't an unusual concept at the time -- for example, a Rice U. professor in Houston named Max Apple wrote a 1994 movie starring Kevin Bacon, The Air Up There, about a scout looking for the next big thing in Africa.
The odd thing, though, is that Olajuwon, the pathfinder, remains, by a significant distance, the best black African basketball player ever. (The only born-in-Africa player since him to win MVP awards is Steve Nash, who is white.) That's what I wouldn't have expected in 1981. If you had told me then that he would be an NBA superstar, I would have guessed that somebody even better would have come along from Africa since then.
Also, African stars in the NBA tend to be from the upper classes in Africa: Olajuwon's father was a big businessman, Dikembe Mutombo's father graduated from the Sorbonne, and Luol Deng's father was a Sudanese cabinet officer and diplomat in Sudan and Deng mostly grew up in London.