Hakeem Olajuwon: an Athlete and a Gentleman

This basketball superstar's Muslim faith is central to his life on and off the court

The seven-footer at the local mosque takes his place at prayers like every other worshiper - bending low, standing, bending, showing his devotion with no reserve.

This man is not just any worshiper, however. He is basketball superstar Hakeem Olajuwon of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, a certain Hall-of-Famer who lives much of his pro life "above the rim." On this occasion, he was in Boston for what became a blowout against the hapless Celtics.

Yet when it comes to his faith and its practice, the NBA center strives to be a devout member of his faith community - a good Muslim.

While headstrong when fresh from Lagos, Nigeria, and playing for the University of Houston in the mid-1980s, Olajuwon went through a profound change after twice visiting Mecca. Today he is considered one of the league's real gentlemen, in a sports world where talent often now combines with arrogance and disdain.

Olajuwon's faith takes on a special meaning during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began Jan. 9 for the world's 1 billion Muslims.

Making no exceptions

Ramadan, lasting a full lunar month, requires fasting from all food and drink from sunup to sundown. And since neither the Koran nor the Prophet Muhammad makes exceptions for NBA stars, Olajuwon doesn't either.

But rather than dread the 30-day sacrifice, perhaps understandable for an athlete who spends so much time traveling at odd hours, Olajuwon enjoys the holy month, which ends Feb. 9 or 10. Certainly his athletic performance has not suffered. On Jan. 19, he compiled 32 points, 16 rebounds, five blocked shots, and four assists in a win over the league-leading Chicago Bulls. Then in a Jan. 30 loss to Denver, he scored a personal season-high of 48 points.

"It is a special month. You look forward to it as a time of purification," Olajuwon says of Ramadan from a towel-strewn locker room in Boston's FleetCenter. "It isn't the food or not eating that is important. It is instead a time to focus on discipline and self-control."

The point is echoed by Nabeela Khatak of the American Muslim Council, who says non-Muslims and even many Muslims wrongly regard Ramadan as a mindless fast.

"It isn't about food, it is about using the time to restructure your spiritual life," says Ms. Khatak, who wryly notes that some Muslims gain weight during the fast because they start eating right after sundown, and don't stop. "And then there are Muslims who fast, but don't read the Koran. I mean, that's losing the whole idea," she adds.

To Olajuwon, faith is central. With a humility off the court that is matched by a fluid mastery on the court, he has become a kind of ambassador for Islam. He is looked on with awe by the children of America's estimated 4 million Muslims, who leaf through the sports pages daily, following his career.

Today he is one of the premier big men in the history of the NBA, a status that will be confirmed this weekend in Cleveland at the league's All-Star Weekend. As part of the NBA's 50th anniversary celebration, he and 10 other current players will be among the 50 all-time greats saluted by the league.

His basketball development has been startling since he arrived at the University of Houston as a raw talent with a soccer-playing background. He became known as "the Dream," the star of a team dubbed Phi Slamma Jamma that was the national runner-up in the 1983 and '84 championship tournaments.

Olajuwon was the first pick of the 1984 draft, which included Michael Jordan, and in 1994 and '95 led the Rockets to back-to-back titles. This past summer he played on the victorious US Olympic team, which consisted of players known for their character as well as basketball ability.

Olajuwon, called by Sports Illustrated the NBA's "most widely respected player among his peers, for his dignity and sportsmanship," is a model citizen. Rather than hang out with his Rockets buddies on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, he makes special arrangements in whatever city he is in to worship at the mosque.

Technically Olajuwon does not have to attend Friday prayers on road trips. The Koran excuses Muslims who are traveling. Yet in Olajuwon's logic, the exception does not extend to one earning an NBA salary. "With me, I have no excuse not to go. I can afford it and arrange it, so I consider it important to do."

His stand impresses his teammates. Forward Kevin Willis calls Olajuwon "a class-act guy, a very humble guy, very dedicated. His faith seems to help him focus. You have to respect that, respect his religion."

Like so many devout athletes, including Rockets guard Clyde Drexler, a Christian, Olajuwon doesn't make a distinction between his activity on and off the court. He brings his life of prayer to the NBA's fast-paced game.

"Discipline, order, patience, balance - when you come to play you think of those things and your mind is free," Olajuwon says. "Once you have tasted the faith, tasted the sweetness of faith, that is where real happiness and satisfaction is. I am recognizing the mercy of Allah and all He has done. I am not looking on the court for something different than my spiritual life."

Olajuwon, who became a US citizen in 1993, feels that in time Americans will regard Muslims as good citizens, and that the rise of hate crimes against them will taper off. "Islam is supposed to enrich the culture and the civilization," he argues. "We want to take it to the level where everyone is protected and respected. Being a good citizen is something automatic for a real Muslim. You have to have high standards."

View on American Muslims

Yet as someone born in Lagos, who speaks English, French, and four different Nigerian dialects and whose parents stressed education and travel (his father is a well-to-do cement company owner in Nigeria), Olajuwon also feels Americans can sometimes be a bit parochial - feeling their country's borders define reality. But he doesn't dwell on that.

Rather, he comments that many American Muslims are still sorting out their beliefs. Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who created a small stir last year by sitting during the US national anthem, "misunderstood" Islam, Olajuwon says. "The advice he got was not the best advice. He took things to an extreme, whereas Islam is a flexible faith, giving you a lot of choices."

His criticisms also extend to the views of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the originator of Million Man March in Washington last year. The Rev. Mr. Farrakhan's teachings are "outside Islam," Olajuwon says. "He is not teaching Islam. The call of Islam is not based on race or color but is universal. It is available to humanity, not to specific people."

Hakeem, who added an "H" to his first name six years ago, tries to live by that credo. He gives a brotherly bear hug to Soud Afhani, a civil servant with the Massachusetts highway department who picks him up at the ritzy team hotel before Friday prayers. In the locker room after the game, the star is patient with autograph hounds as well as with young reporters, one of whom asks, 'What was your most memorable moment in the NBA?"

He also gives his teammates credit for the evening's win over Boston. "The way we were passing the ball, things should go pretty well." Speaking of superstar teammates Drexler and Charles Barkley, Olajuwon says, "None of us are trying to prove anything; we've already proved it. That frees us up to play together. We all play to win and that's what makes us great. If we were a small-minded team, we would have more problems."

As for Ramadan, Olajuwon looks forward to laital-ul-quadr, the holiest of Ramadan nights. By tradition, that night the Prophet rose up from the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, and traveled through the seven Muslim heavens on a flying horse, visiting all the other prophets of Islam, including Adam, Abraham, Jeremiah, Moses, Jesus, and so on.

With the ending of Ramadan, known as eid-ul-fitr or celebration of breakfast, the next morning is a time of gift giving, mainly to children.

For many youngsters the gift will be an Olajuwon autograph. The big man wants it that way. It is his gift, and he couldn't be happier giving it.

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