Olajuwon, Hakeem 1963–

views updated May 18 2018

Hakeem Olajuwon 1963

Professional basketball player

At a Glance


Akeem the Dream Olajuwon, who in 1991 changed his given name to its original Arabic spelling Hakeem, is considered one of the best centers playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA). While most of his teammates and rivals got involved with the sport in grade school, Olajuwon didnt play the game until his senior year in high school, because basketball was virtually unknown in his homeland of Nigeria. Growing up in the capital city of Lagos, he excelled at the more popular games of handball, soccer, field hockey, and the high jump. Seeing his skills in these activities, Ganiyu Otenigbade, a coach at Lagos State, convinced Olajuwon to give the American game a try. Once I start playing basketball I dont play those other sports again, Olajuwon told John Capouya of Sport. Its the movement, theres a feel to it. When you shoot it and make the basket, its just a good feeling. Basketball is a cool game.

It wasnt long before 17-year-old Olajuwon was leading the Nigerian basketball team in the All-African Games. Although they were unable to catch the traditional leaders from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Egypt, the tournament provided invaluable experience for the young center, and later that year Olajuwon took the junior Nigerian team to a bronze medal performance at their All-African tournament. After graduating from high school, he briefly attended the Baptist Academy, then transferred to Moslem Teachers College. It was during his sixth month there that Olajuwon was spotted by a U.S. State Department official, who offered to take him on a six-campus tour stateside. Olajuwons family had always wanted him to attend an American university, so the invitation was enthusiastically received.

Olajuwon arrived in New York City on a chilly October day in 1980. I thought it was too cold for me to live in this country, he told People magazine writer Kent Demaret of his reaction to the climate in the northern United States. He found the warmer weather of Houston, Texas, much more appealing, however. His sponsor had spoken highly of Guy Lewis, the coach at the University of Houston, and Olajuwon was excited about their meeting. Lewis was skeptical, despite rumors of the Nigerians phenomenal raw talent. He told Demaret, Ive had hundreds of foreign kids referred to us over the years. Frankly, they just dont play basketball in most

At a Glance

Born Hakeem Abdul Ajiboia Olajuwon; professionally known by anglicized version of given name, Akeem, through 1991; surname pronounced oh-LAHJ-oo-wahn; born January 23, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria; son of Alhaji Salaam Olude and Alhaja Abike Olajuwon (cement dealers). Education : Attended University of Houston, majoring in business technology, 1981-84; also attended Baptist Academy and Moslem Teachers College, Nigeria, Professional basketball player for the Houston Rockets, 1984.

Awards: Named Most Valuable Player in NCAA Final Four Championship, 1981; numerous shot-blocking and rebounding titles; Rookie of the Year and number one NBA draft pick, 1984.

Addresses: Team Houston Rockets, The Summit, 10 Greenway Plaza, Houston, TX 77046.

countries the way they play it in the U.S. But in Olajuwon he saw the exception to the rule.

At nearly seven feet tall, Olajuwon possessed more speed and agility than most players of his size, and he was filled with a tremendous desire to win. He was also undisciplined, underweight, out of shape, and far too polite on the court, but those things could be changed. In January of 1981, he entered the University of Houston as a business major on a full athletic scholarship.

Throughout his first year on the college basketball scene, Olajuwon was viewed by many as little more than a curiositywith the usual spear chucker slurs reserved for a native African, wrote Sports Illustrated contributor Curry Kirkpatrick. The polite, soft-spoken ways of his culture were considered droll on the Texas campus, and his naivete and supposedly limited English became legendary. In fact, English is the primary language of Nigeria, and Olajuwon spoke it fluentlyas he spoke French, Yoruban, and three other African dialects. Houston sports director Jay Goldberg told Sports Illustrated, I think he meant to present an illusion of dumb. On purpose. He was testing people to see whom he could trust. Discussing his first months in the United States with Capouya, Olajuwon remembered: They try to make me doubt myself or make a joke about Africa, though they havent even been there. Thats not funny to me. People think all of Africa is the jungle because thats what they see on TV. But Lagos is like New Yorkcrowded, people walking 24 hours a day. If you live there you can live anywhere in the world.

During his first season with the University of Houston team, Olajuwon never played a full game. He built up his endurance, ate plenty of steak and ice cream to increase his mass, and learned the aggressive, American style of play. Professional basketball star Moses Malone, then with the Houston Rockets, played one-on-one with him to sharpen his defensive skills. By the next fall, Olajuwon had become the most feared college basketball star in nearly a decade, according to Kirkpatrick. That year he led the University of Houston Cougars to a 31-3 record. The team came within two points of winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, and he received the Most Valuable Player award in what turned out to be the first of three consecutive years of Final Four NCAA appearances. It wasnt surprising when he was designated the NBAs number one draft pick after his graduation in 1984. The Houston Rockets signed him to a six-year, $6.3 million contract, enabling him to make the transition from collegiate to professional sport without leaving his adopted hometown.

In his first years with the Rockets, Olajuwon was teamed with 7-foot-4-inch-tall forward Ralph Sampson in an alliance known as the Twin Towers. They started their first season with an eight-game winning streak to lift Houston out of its perennial position at the bottom of the division. Although Sampson was traded in 1987, Olajuwon has stayed with the Rockets, signing a ten-year, $20 millin contract extension in 1986. By the time that agreement expires, he expects to be on his way out of professional sports. He has already used the business skills learned at the University of Houston to establish his own corporation, through which he invests and manages his salary. He has full African distribution rights for Etonic sneakers and is negotiating with the company to build a manufacturing plant in Lagos.

Health problems have repeatedly cast shadows over Olajuwons sports career. A shoulder injury before the 1988 season led to rumors of drug use, which he rebuffed by offering to put up $100,000 against $1,000 from anyone who doubted that he would test clean for drugs, with the losers money going to charity. That offer is open for as long as Im in the league, because Ive never done drugs and I dont plan to, he told Capouya. Then in 1989 he missed the exhibition season because of thrombophlebitis, a painful blood clot in his left calf resulting from a kick from another player. Blood-thinning medication paved the way to a successful comeback from that incident, and Olajuwon returned with the relentless energy that is his trademark. Hes like a wolf chasing a reindeer, Capouya quoted Houston Rocket Cedric Maxwell as saying. He just chases and chases and chases. Finally, its the reindeer who wears out, stops and says, kill me. It will be less painful.

On January 3, 1991, Olajuwon again fell victim to injury on the court. Chicago Bulls center Bill Cartwright elbowed him in the face, fracturing the bony socket surrounding his right eye. He underwent surgery to repair the damage and minimize the risk of double vision in the future, but two months elapsed before he returned to the court. Critics predicted that the Houston Rockets would crumble without Olajuwon at the helm. Olajuwon himself had frequently derided some of his teammates for their seemingly lackadaisical approach toward winning games. But during his absence, the remaining Rockets regrouped and developed a new team approach to playing basketball. Olajuwon, either humbled or impressed by the teams success without him was very mindful of what had been achieved, observed Richard Hoffer in Sports Illustrated.

Recurring health troubles continued to plague Olajuwon in late 1991. He was hospitalized in November after experiencing heart palpitations during a game, but doctors indicated that he would be able to resume play after a period of rest.


Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1991; March 25, 1991.

Christian Science Monitor, February 6, 1985.

Jet, May 21, 1984; January 28, 1991; April 1, 1991.

Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1990.

Newsweek, November 26, 1984.

New York Times, March 29, 1983; June 20, 1984; February 16, 1985; November 21, 1989.

People, December 5, 1983; December 17, 1984.

Sprot, November 1984; April 1988.

Sports Illustrated, November 28, 1983; March 4, 1991; April 8, 1991.

Washington Post, March 2, 1991.

Joan Goldsworthy

Olajuwon, Hakeem

views updated May 08 2018

Hakeem Olajuwon


American basketball player

Seven-foot Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon has a rare combination of strength, footwork, and speed that put him on the short list of the best big men to ever play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). On the defensive end, his shot blocking abilities are legendary, and on the offensive end he can score with a dunk, a jump hook, a drop step, and a fade away. After playing seventeen years of his eighteen-year career for the Houston Rockets, and winning two NBA titles during the 1990s, Olajuwon announced his retirement from professional basketball on December 2, 2002.

From Handball to Basketball

Hakeem Olajuwon was born on January 21, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria. His parents, Salaam and Abike Olajuwon, owners of a concrete business, raised Olajuwon along with his four brothers and one sister in a one-story, three-bedroom red concrete house in a neighborhood inhabited by Nigeria's relatively small middle class. During his childhood, Olajuwon played soccer as a goalie and excelled as a team handball player. He did not play basketball until he was a high school senior at Moslem Teacher College, after a Nigerian basketball coach spotted the six-foot-nine-inch, 170-pound Olajuwon on the soccer field and talked him into trying the game.

Although Olajuwon instantly loved basketball, learning to play was difficult because basketball games were not televised in Nigeria, and soccer dominated the nation's sports news. Nonetheless, under the tutelage of coach Richard Mills, 17-year-old Olajuwon quickly became a leader on the Nigeria national basketball team, which took third place in the All-African tournament in 1979. The following year Olajuwon traveled to the United States to visit colleges. Disdaining the cold wind that greeted him when he arrived in New York in October of 1980, Olajuwon enrolled in the University of Houston, which offered him both a place on the basketball team and a much more familiar climate.

Two Trips to the Final Four

Olajuwon's adjustment American basketball was not easy. After sitting out the first year as a redshirt freshman, Olajuwon joined the Houston Cougars for the 1981-82 season, but, now seven feet tall, he suffered from frequent back spasms, caused by growing pains and simply being out of shape. Still learning the game, he was also consistently in foul trouble, but from the start he was a natural shot blocker. Throughout the season he worked on increasing his weight with lots of steak and ice cream and worked one-on-one with Houston Rockets star Moses Malone to improve his defensive skills and learn the more aggressive-style of American basketball.


1963Born January 21 in Lagos, Nigeria
1979Plays for Nigerian national basketball team
1980Enrolls at University of Houston as redshirt freshman
1982-84Leads University of Houston to the final game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament two consecutive years
1984Selected as the number one overall pick in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by the Houston Rockets
1992Reaffirms Islamic faith
1996Marries Dalia Asafi
2001Diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg; traded to the Toronto Raptors
2002Announces his retirement

By his second season, Olajuwon had become one of the best college basketball players on the court. The trio of Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Larry Micheaux, known as the "Phi Slamma Jamma," tore through the season, posting a record of 31-3. Favored to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament in 1983, Houston lost, 54-52, in the final seconds of the last game when North Carolina State University threw up a buzzer-beater shot, a play that still earns a place on sports highlight films two decades later. Despite losing, Olajuwon was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. With Drexler and Micheaux gone the next season, Olajuwon became a one-man show, averaging fifteen points per game and leading the nation with 13.5 rebounds per game. Although Houston once again made it into the final game of the NCAA tournament, the Cougars failed to win the title, losing 84-75 to another future superstar center, Patrick Ewing , and his Georgetown Hoyas.

Hakeem "The Dream"

Foregoing his final year of college eligibility, Olajuwon was selected as the number one overall pick of the 1984 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Olajuwon, paired with seven-foot-four-inch Ralph Sampson in the front court, had a stellar rookie year, averaging 20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, and finished second to Jordan in the Rookie of Year voting. During the 1985-86 season Olajuwon averaged 23.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and led his team to face the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals, but lost the series four games to two.

The next several years of Olajuwon's career proved frustrating. Although his personal statistics remained impressive, Olajuwon struggled with injuries and an overall weak team that failed to produce playoff wins. By the end of the 1991-92 season, Olajuwon was demanding that Houston management trade him. Instead, Houston brought in a new coach, Rudy Tomjanovich, who worked to keep Olajuwon in a Rockets uniform. The year proved to be a turning point for Olajuwon and the Rockets. Under Tomjanovich the team began to once again post wins, making it into the second round of the NBA playoffs before losing to the Seattle Supersonics in seven games. Personally, Olajuwon found new focus in the Islamic faith. After making his first trip to Mecca in 1992, he began to pray daily, carrying a prayer rug and compass (to find Mecca) wherever he went.

NBA Title Times Two

By the 1993-94 season Olajuwon was at the peak of his career. His undefendable fade-away jump shot, combined with his powerful dunks and tenacious defense under the basket proved a nearly unstoppable combination. Posting a season average of 27.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game, Olajuwon was named the NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP). Facing star center Ewing and the New York Knicks in the NBA finals, Olajuwon won his first NBA title, defeating the Knicks in seven games. He was also named the MVP of the finals. The following season the Rockets, who were plagued by injuries throughout the regular season, surprised many by returning to the NBA finals, this time facing center Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic. Olajuwon dominated at both ends of the floor, and the Rockets took the seven-game series in four games. Olajuwon, once again named the NBA Finals MVP, ended the season with his second championship title.

Career Statistics

HOU: Houston Rockets; TOR: Toronto Raptors.

Retirement and Beyond

In 1996 33-year-old Olajuwon married 18-year-old Dalia Asafi under the traditional Islamic custom of a prearranged marriage. As Olajuwon aged, his minutes on the court and statistics took a natural decline, and Houston management began planning a future beyond his presence on the court. During the 2000-01 season Olajuwon was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg and benched while he took a series of blood thinners. At the end of the season Olajuwon's contract expired, and Houston management decided to free themselves of Olajuwon's hefty salary and traded their premiere center to the Toronto Raptors. Olajuwon already has plans for life after the NBA. He has significant real estate investments in Houston, which he operates under his company Palladio Development Ltd.

A shoo-in to the NBA Hall of Fame, Olajuwon matched up against some of the best centers to ever play the game, including Bill Walton, David Robinson , Ewing, and O'Neal. His ability to perform in the company of such talent proves his place in the NBA history books. Upon his retirement in 2002, the Houston Rockets announced that a life-size statue of Olajuwon would greet fans outside the team's new downtown arena.


Living the Dream: My Life and Basketball, Little Brown, 1996



Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Contemporary Newsmakers 1985, Issue Cumulation. Detroit: Gale, 1986.

Sports Stars. Series 1-4. Detroit: UXL, 1994-98.

Who's Who Among African Americans, 14th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.


Blinebury, Fran. "Hakeem Olajuwon." Sport (January 1994): 42.

Bloom, Barry M. "Dream Fulfilled: Two Straight Titles Have Rocketed Hakeem Olajuwon into Another Dimension." Sport (November 1995): 22.

D'Alessandro, Dave. "If This is It for Olajuwon, Basketball is Losing an Artist." Sporting News (March 26, 2001): 18.

D'Alessandro, Dave. "Olajuwon Must Alter His Game for Good of the Team." Sporting News (November 22, 1999): 52.

"Dressing Down." Sports Illustrated (February 20, 1995): 14.

Gietschier, Steve. Living the Dream: My Life and Basketball [book review]. Sporting News (February 19, 1996): 8.

Kirkpatrick, Curry. "The Liege Lord of Noxzema." Sports Illustrated (November 28, 1983): 106.

Lee, Spike. "Slam Dunk." Interview (February 1994): 66-67.

McCallum, Jack. "A Dream Come True." Sports Illustrated (March 22, 1993): 16.

McEntegart, Pete. "4 Toronto Raptors: Surrounded by a Young and Deep Supporting Cast, Hakeem Can Dream about Another Shot at a Championship." Sports Illustrated (October 29, 2001): 126.

Montville, Leigh. "The Stuff of Dreams." Sports Illustrated (June 12, 1995): 28.

Sarnoff, Nancy. "Center of Attention." Houston Business Journal (January 26, 2001): 14.

Starr, Mark. "Good Enough to Dream: After Two NBA Titles, Hakeem Olajuwon is Running out of Worlds to Conquer." Newsweek (November 6, 1995): 70-71.

Wulf, Steve. "The Dream is Again Sweet for the Rockets." Time (June 19, 1995): 63-64.


"Akeem [Hakeem] Olajuwon." Sports Stats.com. http://www.sportsstats.com/bball/national/players/1980/Akeem_Olajuwon/ (December 11, 2002).

"Hakeem Olajuwon." National Basketball Association. http://www.nba.com/ (December 11, 2002).

Sketch by Kari Bethel

Awards and Accomplishments

1983Voted Most Outstanding Player of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four
1984Named First Team All American; selected first overall in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by the Houston Rockets(
1985All Rookie Team
1985-90, 1992-97NBA All Star
1987-89First Team All NBA
1987-90, 1993-94NBA First Team All Defense
1993IBM Award
1994NBA Most Valuable Player; NBA championship with Houston Rockets
1994-95Won back-to-back NBA championship titles; named Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals
1996Selected as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History; "Dream Team" Olympic gold medal