Spiritual path of the legend: Hakeem Olajuwon’s Basketball success through Islam
Akeem Olajuwon was born in 1963 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was the third child among his seven other siblings. From a young age, his parents ingrained discipline, respect and honesty into his and his siblings’ daily lives, traits that Akeem gradually began to value later on in his career.
Since the start of his teenage years and up until the age of 17, Akeem played football, mainly occupying the position of goalkeeper which provided him with the necessary dexterity and assets, helping him valorise his strength and size in the sport.
Once he had discovered Basketball, however, Akeem instantly understood that this was the sport for him: “Basketball is something that is so unique that immediately I pick up the game and, you know, realised that this is the life for me. All the other sports just become obsolete”.
Upon turning 18 in 1981, Akeem decided to move to the United States to study at University of Houston and eventually play basketball for the university team – The Cougars. After nearly two years of intense training and close relations with the team members, he was a prominent figure in leading his team to the NCAA tournaments.
In 1983 the Cougars lost the competition. Nevertheless, Akeem Olajuwan still managed to receive the player of the year award despite being on the losing team, due to very outstanding play throughout the tournament.
In his early years of basketball, Akeem wasn’t the devoted Muslim he has grown to be today.
It is said that he would often get into fights on the court with other players, talk back to the referees and generally exhibit unruly behaviour within the University.
In 1984, the choice had to be made between placing his bets on his eventual drafting by the NBA, or continuing his studies in the University. Akeem made his choice and by a stroke of luck, he was selected by the Rockets in the 1984 NBA draft.
His career in with the Rockets was rather exemplary and without a doubt, he quickly became the leading player towards the season of 1988-89.
In the same year he became the third ever NBA player to perform what is called a quadruple-double, notably scoring 10 or more across four of five categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots) in a single game.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Akeem had taken up his spiritual route as a Muslim seriously, changing his name to Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon quoted saying: “I’m not changing the spelling of my name, I’m correcting it”.
He would study passages of the Quran whenever he could, in the morning, on the plane, before and after the game. Even during periods of Ramadan in competitions and playoffs he wouldn’t stop fasting and still be considered to be an elite centre player of the league.
At times, he was said to play even better during Ramadan which isn’t so surprising, as a trained mind and soul are as important to success in sport as having the physical capacities and talent for it.
After the end of his career, being an Iconic player of Houston he moved with his family to Jordan in order to pursue Islamic Studies and oscillated between his two homes.
At times, what we think to be limitations turn out to be the greatest asset in our life journey. Such was the case for Hakeem and his journey as a Muslim and as a professional basketball player. Walking the path of Allah (SWT) never limits an individual in what is most important in life, on the contrary, doors might open in places which at times cannot be anticipated.