Interview with Hakeem Olajuwon

Often remembered for achieving greatness, even while observing fasts in Ramadan during the playoffs, Hakeem the Dream catches up with TIM

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No doubt one of the most admired NBA players of the past 20 years is a man who came from Africa and quickly established a reputation as being one of the best centers in NBA history. He was pick No. 1 in the draft, most valuable player several years after that and led his team, the Houston Rockets, to championships.

I recently caught up with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, Texas, a few days after the NBA announced him to be the NBA ambassador to Africa.  We talked for hours about his life to be featured on “That’s Some American Muslim Life.” His life is simply fascinating — how he discovered basketball and in that process, learned to balance his religion. The full story will be released by the end of the summer. Until then, here are some questions we asked him about basketball in general. We have edited his answers for clarity and space.

Amina Chaudary (TIM): The business of college basketball has changed a lot since your days at the University of Houston. CBS has signed a $10+ billion contract with the NCAA for broadcast rights to March Madness. This issue has now become a hot topic. What are your thoughts on paying college basketball or football players? What did you think about it when you were a player and what do you think now?

Hakeem Olajuwon: It’s a free enterprise and [you have to look at] how much value they are adding, which you know, everything is based upon their value. … Not all of them are going to play in the that would be the chance for them to benefit from their contribution.Not just a basic scholarship that they offer them.

TIM:  Sports plays an interesting role in society. The greatest sportsmen have platforms to speak out on issues and really affect how the public thinks about some very critical issues facing the world. Perhaps the best example of this is Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his title for refusing to enter the draft. Some people have been critical of modern-day athletes who are more likely to avoid controversy in favor of being marketable. Michael Jordan famously said, “Republicans buy shoes, too,” in response to a query asking why he wouldn’t endorse a Democratic candidate during a Senate race in North Carolina in a 1990 campaign. Recently, LeBron James has been very vocal in his criticism of Donald Sterling’s ownership (of the Los Angeles Clippers) after Sterling’s comments about race came to light. How do you see this role of popular sports stars? Is it their responsibility to get involved in political issues? Are there causes or concerns you personally would support or address publicly?

Olajuwon: ​Well, the problem is the freedom that the sport gives you without getting to politics. Unfortunately, you cannot now separate it because people cannot be truthful; they have to be politically correct. There’s no more sincerity. What we had before was freedom of speech and freedom of expression without judgement.That’s why I don’t get into politics.

TIM: In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf received a lot of criticism for not standing for the national anthem, citing his understanding of Islam as his reason. He left the NBA two years later to find success overseas. What do you recall of that incident? As a practicing Muslim who was also in the NBA at the time, what did you think of the controversy and did you reach out to Mahmoud at the time?

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stands with his teammates and prays during the national anthem before the game with the Chicago Bulls on Friday night, March 15, 1996, in Chicago. Abdul-Rauf, saying that the U.S. flag was a symbol of "oppression and tyranny," was suspended Tuesday for sitting down during the national anthem. Friday was Abdul-Rauf's first game back. The Bulls went on to beat the Nuggets 108-87. (Michael S. Green/AP)
Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stands with his teammates and prays during the national anthem before the game with the Chicago Bulls on Friday night, March 15, 1996, in Chicago. Abdul-Rauf, saying that the U.S. flag was a symbol of “oppression and tyranny,” was suspended Tuesday for sitting down during the national anthem. Friday was Abdul-Rauf’s first game back. The Bulls went on to beat the Nuggets 108-87. (Michael S. Green/AP)

Olajuwon: Mahmoud was a very good friend of mine. I think he made a mistake on his stands. Maybe today, he would make a better decisions. He’s a great guy, I don’t think he intended to create a controversial issue which became very negative.

TIM: ​Did you talk to him about it, during that time?

Olajuwon:​Yes i talked to him, but it was already out there and it became very public and political. So i was just trying to comfort him because he was getting a lot of criticism from all angles. It was very stressful for him and his basketball career at the time.

TIM: You and Shaquille O’Neal had a special relationship, and Shaq to this day says you were the only center in the league he felt he could not intimidate. Tell me about your mental approach to the game that gave you that edge. You have talked about your faith playing a role in that, how so?

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Olajuwon:​ Wow, that’s a big compliment coming from Shaq because Shaq is an intimidating figure. If you see Shaq — his physique, how big and strong — and I have tremendous respect for him, and his ability. Every time he gives me that kind of compliment, I am always amazed, that wow, he really feels that way? I didn’t think that. So that was a huge compliment coming from Shaq. But I didn’t realize what I was doing, I was just finding ways to be effective against him because he has a tremendous size advantage over me, so I have to look for other ways to distract him, to be more effective towards him. I didn’t know what I was doing. But for him to say that, I think that says a lot about him, that he is so confident to be able to give me that kind of compliment.

TIM:​ There is a lot of rumor and talk that he is a Muslim. Do you have any knowledge of that?

Olajuwon: ​​I heard that too, and he knows about Islam.

TIM:​​ Did you ever talk to him about it?

Olajuwon:​ I talked to him about Islam many times. He said to me he was going to Hajj. So, I don’t know. When I was in Nigeria, I didn’t understand My true Islamic responsibilities,but I grew up as a Muslim.  So, I think he is a Muslim but I don’t think he understands what the responsibility of a Muslim is. I don’t know how much he studied about Islam and the details of his responsibility.

TIM:​ Michael Jordan recently included you on his pickup team of five along with Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and James Worthy. Who is your all-time starting five? If you were playing pickup, which four guys would you want to make sure you kept the ball?

Olajuwon: Of course, Michael Jordan. I will pick Shaq, James Worthy and John Stockton.

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TIM:​ What a game that would be! There are all sorts of YouTube videos of you training the next generation of stars like Dwight Howard, LeBron James and others. First, I have to say that your footwork is still better than all of them! Second, what was your approach to the center position that gave you an edge that we have not seen since you left the league? The center position is no longer the dominant position it was during your time. How has the league and the game changed in this regard?

Olajuwon:​ That’s a very good question. Sometimes you read some of these reporters who are talking about the league being no longer the same, that basketball is changing and moving away from the center position. But the game cannot move away from the center position, it’s always been that way, you need to find a big man to play that role of the center. It’s a global search for big guys. So, they are not changing, it’s just a rare commodity and that’s what makes it special. The impact the center position gives in the game of basketball is a primary position. They are calling it the center, center of gravity. Everything goes around it. The center position. It’s a difference in defense only. We are talking about, first of all, intimidation. That’s not statistics, you don’t see statistics intimidation, you don’t measure it, you can’t quantify it because it’s a game changer. The impact of the game is from that position. If you have enough block shots, rebound, intimidation, skills, not just on defense, there is not any other position in basketball. Among guards, there is no intimidation, block shots, you can rebound but you don’t have an opportunity like the big win. Just on defense only there’s intimidation, block shots, steals, rebounding and clogging the lane, making it so difficult for the opponents to penetrate. There’s no other position in basketball that can give you that much on defense, so it’s a game changer. On offense, your guards and coach shouldn’t have to worry about direction. The focal point for the ball is the center position, and  if he gets the ball inside its very difficult to guard skilled big man one on one. So you have to double team which gives the opportunity for an open shot outside. That’s why the centre doesn’t go to the negotiation table with statistics, but they’re the game changers.

Hakeem Olajuwon after winning the 1993-1994 NBA MVP.
Hakeem Olajuwon after winning the 1993-1994 NBA MVP.

TIM:​ In February 1995, you won the NBA Player of the Month. That also happened to be Ramadan and you were fasting. Could you reflect on that for us? What lessons came out of that month for you, playing at the highest level of sports while at the same time focusing on your spiritual pursuits?

Olajuwon:​ When I was playing, I didn’t realize how much of an impact I would make on people, Muslim or non-Muslim. We played a lot of games during Ramadan. On national TV, the announcers were commenting about Ramadan, and this raised the awareness to the general public and we made all the Muslims very, very proud. So, today, everywhere I go, I see Muslim families telling their children that before they were born, I was playing on national TV, playing in the high level, while fasting. To encourage their kids, who think they can’t fast because they have practice or have school. They would tell the kids that I would play through Ramadan while fasting and that really made a huge impact, but that was not my intention. It was Ramadan, I was fasting and I was playing. So, I was just being myself, but looking back now and seeing the feedback from the people, I thank Allah so much that He has honored me. In many ways, I was doing just my duty, but that was impacting a lot of people and making them proud. So, I feel so grateful to Allah for giving me that opportunity while I had that chance to make that impact. And thankfully it impacted all the people — more than I realized.

TIM: Unfortunately, you never had a chance to meet Michael Jordan and his Bulls in the finals during your prime. How would that matchup have turned out, your Rockets team of the mid-’90s against Jordan’s of the same time?

Olajuwon: You know, people ask this question all the time. Some say that if Jordan had not retired, the Bulls would have won the championship. What I say to that, the team that beat Chicago in 1995, Orlando Magic .Jordan was back on the Chicago team — but Orlando beat Chicago. And people were not giving Orlando credit, unfortunately. Jordan was there but the Bulls lost. They didn’t count that because he wasn’t there for the full season, he came back for half of the season. I don’t get in that kind of conversation. But you know, with the Houston Rockets against the Bulls, in the ’80s or ’90s, we matched up very well with them. We played them in the regular season. In the NBA finals, we never came. Only Allah, who can tell us what would have happened. But you know, we are very confident about that team, that we matched up with them, we beat them a lot of times in Houston, we beat them in Chicago, but in the playoffs, it didn’t happen so we are just happy with our destiny. That’s why we won. For me, personally, my competitors, my contemporaries, Shaq, Jordan, they played different positions. Jordan is a guard, he cannot play my position, I can’t play his position. So I played against the very best in my position, in my position, who are Shaquille, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and this was the championship series. There is always true center when you play against the best, the best competition that I have faced, Patrick and Shaquille and David, those are my contemporaries.

TIM:​ For Muslims in America, sports fill an important space, especially for youth. As a father, how do you see sports for Muslims living in America?

Olajuwon: ​Sports is universal. its important for them to play sports. its good for people to be athletic and that area is lacking in our community. Sports is good for health and for children, it gives them manhood, courage, teaches them team work and coordination. Sports is something that is so crucial, it makes everything. I see a lot of youth playing basketball around the masjid, so the Muslims that are raised in America must play basketball, that’s fundamental. If they ever have the opportunity to visit their parent’s homeland they have to represent that they grew up in America, where basketball is fundamental. You don’t have to play professionally, but the game and the love for sports should be in the DNA of every American born.

Hakeem Olajuwon's retired number
Hakeem Olajuwon’s retired number

TIM: ​A lot of people consider you the best two-way center in the history of the league. Who are your favorite centers in NBA history and whom did you look up to in building your game?

Olajuwon: It’s always good to know the history, to look at the history of the center position. We have Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell. Those are the grandfathers for the big men in basketball, they set the standard, you never can reach their pinnacle. Then we have other great centers, you look at someone like Shaquille O’Neal, a guy of that size, he has done more and is very skilled. Then Patrick who is physically tough, a warrior. Then you look at someone like David Robinson, he was in the Navy, a military kind of guy and very, very physical, skilled, quick. These guys, when I looked at my schedule when I was playing, I would only see Shaquille, Patrick, David, when are we playing them?After that, the rest of the schedule became secondary.

TIM: You famously dismantled David Robinson during the 1995 playoffs after he received the MVP award. In a recent interview, Robert Horry said you pointed to the trophy awarded to Robinson and said, “That’s my trophy,” and then basically bewildered him the whole series. Did Robert Horry remember that correctly?

Olajuwon: ​This is something that I kept saying to people. David Robinson won the MVP and there is no way you can question that. It was well deserved and I have tremendous respect for him; they won 60-something games that year. He played the whole season incredibly well. The award was given to him before the series started. But I was not playing for the award because I believed that we could win the championship. I was going for the championship, which we won, because after that, we went to Orlando, we beat Orlando. With David, he brought the best out of me because he was so great defensively, where I cannot just use a basic move on him. I have to use all kinds of different combinations to find ways to beat him and that’s how much respect I have for his ability. if I made any mistake, I would get my shot blocked. He was a great shot blocker, he was very, very quick, very active, and he is much taller than me, he is 7’1. So, I don’t have any advantage, except trying to get him off balance, make him move, do something so I can get my shot off. But because of his reflexes, one or two moves, he will recover, so I have to go three and four, he was forcing me to that level. So that’s what happened. And I kept saying this, well, everybody was saying that they gave him the trophy, it was my trophy and I was attacking him, everybody said this. I was not playing, I didn’t question the MVP award he won because I believed that he was truly the MVP that year. He played like that. I didn’t expect to win the MVP that year because we only wanted to succeed, we only won about 40-something games, we were the last seed in the playoffs. So, even with that, there was no expectation, it was unrealistic on my part to expect to win the MVPs. So that was the fact. And I got my MVP from the finals, which was more important. That’s the trophy there.

TIM:​ What’s one thing most people would be surprised to know about you?

Olajuwon: I think people are surprised about my shyness. Sometimes people will invite me to address the public and that was the most difficult thing for me to do, and they are always surprised. You play in front of so many people, a big audience, but here is a small group of people, all are kids, but it’s different. So I think I would say that, people are surprised to know that I am shy in front of a crowd.

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    Amina Chaudary is the Editor in Chief of The Islamic Monthly

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