Other than Bin Laden himself, at least until May, perhaps nothing has eluded Americans more in the past decade than moderate Islam. Desperate for contrasts to the men who hijacked those four airplanes in the name of their religion, some have turned to men like Faisal Abdul Rauf, Tariq Ramadan, and even, amazingly, Anwar al-Awlaki, who the New York Times hailed in October 2001 as a visionary leader, part of a “new generation capable of merging East and West.”
But it turns out the ambassador for Islam we needed was hiding in plain sight, despite standing nearly 7 feet tall. After a storied pro basketball career in Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon was traded to the Toronto Raptors a month before the twin towers came down.
As he was for all boys in Houston during the 1990s, Olajuwon was a polestar of my childhood and adolescent hero-worship energies. His abilities as star center for the Rockets were so unfathomable to us that they almost became commonplace.
We spent humid afternoons in our driveways imitating Hakeem the Dream’s signature move. Called the Dream Shake, the maneuver was famous for freezing countless opponents like David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal in their shoes. Holding the ball in the post, Olajuwon’s Dream Shake began with a sudden pivot. His back to his opponent, Olajuwon could turn left and shoot, turn right and shoot, fake one way and shoot the other, or suddenly drive in, the defender reeling, the ball rolling off his hand and effortlessly through the net.
Those days, little was known about the tenets of Muslim faith. Fans in Houston and elsewhere—including me—became familiar with events like the hajj and Ramadan through Olajuwon. His piety, an aspect of his life that grew in lockstep with his ascent as a star player, seemed widely received as an admirable, relatable trait during the early-to-late ’90s, years in which he was a cherished figure in Texas. When Olajuwon changed the spelling of his first name from Akeem to Hakeem in 1991—or “corrected it,” in his words—I considered it to be part of what made him both incomprehensible and great.
During the 1996 controversy in which Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem on the grounds that it conflicted with Islam, a provocation that incited vocal hostility in NBA arenas across the country, Olajuwon spoke out passionately against Abdul-Rauf’s stance. He cited the Quran’s imperative to be a good citizen. It was an imperative that Olajuwon took seriously.
“The difference must be distinguished between worship and respect,” Olajuwon said in an interview at the time. “Islam orders you to obey and respect, as long as you are not worshiping anything other than God. … Islam is a religion of peace. You don’t attack. You explain.”
If my neighborhood was any kind of statistical sample, it’s safe to say that Olajuwon’s prime years in Houston begot more clumsy, 5-foot-4-inch prepubescent centers than any era since. Even today, on the rare occasions that I play basketball, when I find myself in the low post with the ball in my hands, there’s a muscle-memory impulse to try an ill-considered Olajuwon move—the Dream Shake as some kind of cardiovascular madeleine.
Olajuwon’s game was preternaturally graceful. His agility was the alchemic product of his childhood athletics in Nigeria: his quickness from playing handball, his footwork from years of soccer. During dead moments in games, fans at the Summit, the arena in Houston, became accustomed to seeing their favorite player casually lift a stray basketball from the hardwood with his feet and deftly dribble it like a soccer ball before handing it off to a referee. It’s no surprise that Olajuwon was so unique: His game was something of a third language crafted from dialects that few else in the States had even heard before.
Yet Olajuwon didn’t actually touch a basketball until he was 15, when he joined a local tournament in Lagos, his hometown. He was taken with the game and began to train. In his era, college recruiters generally didn’t take much notice of international players, but Olajuwon garnered enough interest to fulfill an unlikely dream of attending college and playing basketball in America.
In the fall of 1980, a 17-year-old Olajuwon arrived in America for the first time to visit St. John’s University. He found New York unbearably cold, and he left for Houston after only a few hours. Within a year, he’d become a college star at the University of Houston, playing in three Final Fours as a part of a “Phi Slama Jama,” a frenetic team featuring the explosive Clyde Drexler. Olajuwon would become the last player to date to win the NCAA Tournament Player of the Year award even though his team lost the championship.
As a No. 1 draft pick for the Houston Rockets in 1984, Olajuwon paired up with the 7-foot-4-inch Ralph Sampson to create a basketball duo known as the Twin Towers. Olajuwon became a star center, the first foreign-born league MVP, a two-time champion, and, as a naturalized American citizen, a gold medalist with the 1996 Olympic Dream Team.
Aside from his foreign name, Olajuwon is remembered most for his game, not his background. For me, both mattered. As a Jewish kid in the WASPy part of town, during those uncomfortable years in which I was always explaining things (no food one day; no bread another), I saw in Olajuwon a figure who was different in a way that also meant good.
As far as basketball players go, he was uncharacteristically humble. Olajuwon would break into a wide, embarrassed smile when fans would chant “M.V.P.” from the stands. Years before a troubled Stephon Marbury did it to rehabilitate his image, Olajuwon affixed his name to affordable basketball shoes to give fans an alternative to expensive Nikes and Reebok Pumps. He carried a compass with him to other cities and arenas so he always knew which direction to face when praying to Mecca, as he did five times a day. What would Daryl Morey, the statistics Svengali and current general manager of the Rockets, have made of this player who often got better during Ramadan, an entire month where he consistently averaged 40 quality minutes a game despite fasting and not drinking water?
Like for many stars, Olajuwon’s decline came slowly and inexorably. In August 2001, he was traded for draft picks to Toronto, where he played one limited season and retired. Unlike many stars, Olajuwon didn’t trade his life as a player for a coaching spot on the sidelines, a front-office position, or a television-studio chair. He moved to Jordan (the country) to study Arabic—the fifth language he speaks fluently—and opened the Da’wah Center, a mosque and Muslim cultural center in downtown Houston. Along with his wife, Olajuwon spends much of the year in a farmhouse outside of Amman. The rest he spends in Houston overseeing his burgeoning real-estate empire. He pays only cash for new developments, as Islam forbids charging or carrying of interest.
In 2005, the Compaq Center, the new name for the arena that had once been Olajuwon’s Summit, was purchased by Lakewood Church and became the mega-pulpit of Joel Osteen. That same year, reports surfaced that a few charities once given money by Olajuwon’s mosque in Houston were later linked to the Islamic terrorist groups al-Qaida and Hamas. While Olajuwon was never investigated for wrongdoing, the disquieting story went national at a time when insinuation and indictment were close cousins. “There is no way you can go back in time” Olajuwon told the New York Times in 2005.
Olajuwon was enshrined in the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008. The same year, outside the arena in downtown Houston, the front office of the Rockets erected a simple monument to Olajuwon. The monument, in compliance with Olajuwon’s faith, does not feature his image, only a replica of his jersey and a long-etched list of his accomplishments as a player.