Almost 14 years ago, a towering Nigerian teenager first set foot in the United States. He wanted an education; in return, he offered great, but unrefined, basketball talent. His path since then has taken him to the NCAA Final Four three times and NBA Finals twice and the NBA All-Star Game nine times. He has been name defensive player of year twice and, last month, both the league's most valuable player and MVP of the NBA finals.
"But," say Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, "I strive for higher goals now. If I don't achieve anything more in basketball than what I have today, that's more than enough. I will be thankful for what I've been given."
What Olajuwon, now 31, listens to more than anything else in life is the words of the Qur'an. "I have recommitted myself to my faith," he says. Last May he bought a handsome old bank building in downtown Houston, and he plans to convert it into a mosque.
His religions beliefs had been an important part of Olajuwon's youth in cosmopolitan Lagos. But he drifted away from practicing his faith when he became a University of Houston basketball star in a glorious era of fast breaks and flying dunks that fans still recall as "Phi Slamma Jama."
"That period of my life was exciting and fun," Olajuwon says, "with no worries." As top pick in the NBA draft, his life was good but something was missing. Olajuwon's play on the court continued to improve, but his demeanor, studded with emotional outbursts at officials, opponents and teammates, did not. "In those days I had no patience," Olajuwon admits. "I didn't follow the faith devotedly. I was with my teammates, doing what they wanted to do.
"After a while, I realized most of the people I was around had no direction, no spiritual knowledge, because they were only concerned with material things. Finally, I realized what I had left behind, and I decided to recommit myself to my faith I was hungry to seek knowledge," Olajuwon says. "I did a great deal of reading and study to find out about my obligations as a Muslim." At 28, he made the Pilgrimage to Makkah.
The trip gave Olajuwon a deeper understanding of his religion. "Rich or poor doesn't matter there," he says. "Money or social status cannot help you. [Islam] teaches you humility and equality, patience and tolerance, self-restrain and self-control. Other players around the NBA say that Olajuwon has learned those lessons well. These days, he rarely gets upset over an official's call or an opponent's play. "I'm still the same person, but I will not be the aggressor," he says. "people ask me how you can be religious in such a violent sport, but good and evil always have to fight in one form or another. I never really changed, but I grew as a person. There's is a difference."
Olajuwon says he doesn't want people to look up to him just because of his latest award. "If you feel joy about what you've accomplished, then you've had a successful career, " he says. "All of us are seeking the truth in our own way. God is the only judge."
Terry Blount is a sportswriter for The Houston Chronicle.