Olajuwon, Hakeem Abdul

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OLAJUWON, Hakeem Abdul

(b. 21 January 1963 in Lagos, Nigeria), basketball player who starred on the University of Houston team and the professional Houston Rockets, whom he led to consecutive National Basketball Association (NBA) titles in 1994 and 1995.

Olajuwon was the third of six children born to Salam and Abike Olajuwon, middle-class Muslims who owned a thriving cement business in Lagos, Nigeria. A gifted athlete, he was a soccer goalkeeper from an early age before learning to play team handball as a junior at Muslim Teachers College, a high school in Lagos. Olajuwon did not play basketball until late 1978 when, at the age of fifteen, he joined the school's basketball team coached by Ganiyu Otenigbade, who taught him to play the center position.

Richard Mills, a U.S. coach who was head of the Nigerian National Sports Coaching Institute, spotted Olajuwon playing in a pick-up game in Lagos and invited him to play with the Nigerian National Team. The other players were older, bigger, and stronger than Olajuwon, who was still in high school, and he saw limited action. Mills then selected the seventeen-year-old Olajuwon for the Nigerian Junior National Team and, just two years after he began playing basketball, Olajuwon starred in the All-Africa games in Luanda, Angola. The Nigerians lost in the semifinals to the Central African Republic, but Olajuwon, the tournament's Most Valuable Player (MVP), impressed the opposing team's U.S.-born coach, Chris Pond, with his size and quickness. Pond called various basketball contacts in the United States and arranged for Olajuwon to visit six schools, including St. John's University and the University of Houston.

Olajuwon arrived in New York City in October 1980. Shocked by the hustle and bustle of the airport and New York's cold weather, he cancelled his trip to St. John's and flew straight to Houston, where he asked a taxi driver to take him to the "University of Austin." The driver figured that Olajuwon meant the University of Houston, and when Olajuwon arrived on campus, the coaching staff immediately knew that they had struck gold. The six-foot, eleven-inch Nigerian was offered a full scholarship.

At the suggestion of head coach Guy Lewis, Olajuwon, who weighed barely 190 pounds in 1980, "red-shirted," or sat out, his first year to mature physically and learn the fundamentals of basketball. Olajuwon spent the summer after his freshman year playing basketball at Houston's Fonde Recreation Center, where he gained toughness in frequent match-ups against the bruising Moses Malone, who was then playing for the Houston Rockets.

In his first year of college basketball, Olajuwon played a minimal role in the Houston Cougars run to the 1982 Final Four, where they lost to the University of North Carolina. That summer, he began a seven-year relationship with Lita Spencer, a student at Rice University. The two never married, but they had a daughter together in 1988. In 1983 Olajuwon blossomed as a player, leading Houston on a twenty-two-game winning streak while averaging over twenty points and twenty rebounds per game. Olajuwon became known as "The Dream," and the Cougars, who also had Clyde Drexler, Larry Micheaux, and Michael Young, were nicknamed "Phi Slama Jama" for their high-flying, dunking style of play. Olajuwon led Houston to victory over a potent Louisville team in the national semifinals, but the heavily favored Cougars lost to North Carolina State in the title game. Olajuwon was named the MVP of the Final Four.

In 1984, with Drexler gone to the NBA's Portland Trailblazers, Olajuwon became the focal point of the Houston team, leading the nation in rebounding, averaging 13.5 per game, and field-goal accuracy with 67.5 percent, while earning Player of the Year honors. He led the Cougars to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship game, but Houston lost again, this time to the Georgetown Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing. After the 1984 season, Olajuwon opted to turn professional.

By winning a coin toss against Portland, the Houston Rockets were awarded the first pick in the 1984 NBA draft and selected Olajuwon ahead of such players as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Though Jordan beat out Olajuwon for Rookie of the Year honors in 1985, Olajuwon teamed with seven-foot, four-inch center Ralph Sampson to form a "twin towers" front line that transformed the previously porous Rockets defense into a championship caliber unit. The Rockets reached the NBA Finals in 1986, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. The next year, Sampson injured his knee and the Rockets lost to the Seattle Supersonics in the second round of the playoffs. In December 1987 the Rockets traded Sampson, leaving Olajuwon with little interior support and dooming the team to three straight first-round playoff defeats. Despite the Rockets' mediocre play, Olajuwon excelled, becoming the first player in NBA history to record 200 blocks and 200 steals in the same season in 1988–1989. In 1990, he recorded the third "quadruple double" (when a player records 10 or more in four personal statistical categories in one game: Olajuwon scored 18 points, had 16 rebounds, 10 assists, and 11 blocked shots) in NBA history.

During 1988 Olajuwon began regular visits to a Houston mosque and started to study the Muslin holy book, the Qur'an, intensively. In March 1991 he changed the spelling of his name from "Akeem" to "Hakeem" to reflect the proper Arabic spelling. That summer, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and returned with a determination to integrate Islam into his everyday life. This new commitment led Olajuwon to fast each year during the month of Ramadan, despite the rigors of the NBA schedule. In 1992 Olajuwon became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Rockets management when his request for a new contract led them to claim that he faked a hamstring injury as a negotiating ploy. The Rockets missed the playoffs for the first time in Olajuwon's career. He nearly left the team before the 1992–1993 season, but eventually ended his dispute with the Rockets management and signed a four-year extension worth $25.4 million. In the 1992–1993 season, under new head coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Olajuwon was the runnerup to league MVP Charles Barkley, but the Rockets lost to the Supersonics in the Western Conference semifinals. On 2 April 1993 Olajuwon was sworn in as a United States citizen.

In game six of the 1994 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks, Olajuwon blocked John Starks's potential series-winning three-point shot at the buzzer. The Rockets won game seven, and Olajuwon became the first player in NBA history to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Finals MVP honors in the same season. In 1994–1995 Olajuwon was reunited with college teammate Clyde Drexler and, after suffering through a below-average season due to anemia, he excelled in the playoffs, helping Houston overcome a 3–1 deficit to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals. The Rockets then beat the San Antonio Spurs, and Olajuwon was the Finals MVP again in a four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic.

In 1996 Olajuwon won an Olympic gold medal playing for the U.S. "Dream Team" in Atlanta. The next year he was named one of the fifty greatest players in NBA history. In 2000 he married Dalia Asafi; they have two children.

Olajuwon's career appeared to be in jeopardy toward the end of the 2000–2001 season when he underwent treatment for blood clotting that might have sidelined him for a year, but he quickly returned to the lineup. His seventeen-year career as a Rocket ended in August 2001, when he was traded to the Toronto Raptors for two draft picks. The twelve-time All-Star left Houston as the Rockets all-time leader in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks, and as the city's most popular athlete of all time.

Olajuwon brought a rare combination of size and grace to the NBA, using speed and quickness more than strength to outmaneuver defenders. He developed incredible foot-work playing soccer and team handball in Nigeria that enabled him to make basketball moves seldom seen in players his size. His fast feet and great sense of timing also made him an intimidating defender; he is the NBA's all-time leader in blocked shots. Olajuwon's best offensive move came to be known as the "Dream Shake," a move adapted from his days playing soccer, where he faked to the middle of the court, then spun to the baseline to shoot a fade-away turnaround jumper. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's "Sky Hook" and Wilt Chamberlain's "Dipper Dunk," the "Dream Shake" is one of the unstoppable shots in NBA history.

The most comprehensive source of information on Olajuwon is his autobiography, Living the Dream: My Life and Basketball (1996), written with Peter Knobler. Jerry Briggs, "Phi Slama Jama—Houston's Most Famous (and Tallest) Fraternity," San Antonio Express-News (18 Jan. 1996), is a look back at Olajuwon's talented Houston Cougar team. Bob Ryan, "American Dream," Boston Globe (7 July 1996), traces the events that led to Olajuwon's selection to the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Robert Marquand, "Hakeem Olajuwon: An Athlete and a Gentleman," Christian Science Monitor (5 Feb. 1997), examines the impact of Islam on Olajuwon's life and career. Michael Murphy, "End of Dream? From Raw Talent to Icon, Olajuwon Does It All Here," Houston Chronicle (14 Mar. 2001), looks back on Olajuwon's Rockets career and his place in Houston sports history.

Daniel Massey