HAKEEM OLAJUWON: ‘The Dream’, Nigeria’s richest Basketball Champion

 

Introduced to basketball at the age of 15, standing 6 ft 9 in” (206 cm) tall helped him land the center position for the Nigerian national team. Hakeem Olajuwon “The Dream,” the retired Nigeria-born basketballer, who rose to stardom with the Houston Cougars on a collegiate level, and then playing the center position for NBA teams, the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors, ranked as one of the richest people in National Basketball Association, NBA.

Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon was born to Salim and Abike Olajuwon, middle-class Yoruba owners of a cement business in Lagos, Nigeria. He was the third of six children. His parents raised Olajuwon along with his four brothers and one sister in a one-storey, three-bedroom red concrete house in a neighbourhood 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 Teachers 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 in the Nigerian national basketball team, which took third place in the All-Africa tournament in 1979. The following year, Olajuwon travelled to the United States to visit college. Disdaining the cold wind that greeted him when he arrived New York in October of 1980, Olajuwon enrolled in the University of Houston, which offered him both a place in the basketball team and a much more familiar climate.

Olajuwon arrived Houston in 1980. With no fanfare he took a taxi from the airport to his meeting with University of Houston Coach, Guy Lewis. The fact that prior to his coming to the United States in 1980, he played for a Nigerian junior team in the All-Africa Games which created some problems when he tried to play for the United States men’s national basketball team. FIBA rules prohibit players from representing more than one country in international competition, and such player must go through a three-year waiting period for any nationality change. Olajuwon was ineligible for selection for the “Dream Team” as he hadn’t become a US citizen. He was a raw prospect who redshirted his freshman season but he also was a marvelously talented athlete with a tremendous work ethics. Under the tutelage of NBA star, Moses Malone, he soon developed the grace and skill that would make him an unstoppable force in the NBA.

After redshirting his freshman year in 1980-81 because he had not gotten clearance from the NCAA to play, he played sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 1981–82. Olajuwon helped the Cougars to make it to the final four but they were eliminated by the eventual NCAA champions, North Carolina Tar Heels, led by James Worthy and Michael Jordan. During summer, Olajuwon became a regular at the top notch pickup games at the legendary Fonde Recreation Center, where future Hall of Fame center, Moses Malone held court and helped Olajuwon to refine and hone his skills. Olajuwon sought advice from the coaching staff about how to increase his playing time, and they advised him to work out with local Houston resident and multiple NBA MVP winner, Moses Malone. Malone, who was then a center in the NBA’s Houston Rockets, played games every off season with several NBA players at the Fonde Recreation Center. Olajuwon joined the workouts and went head to head with Malone in several games throughout the summer.

He returned from that summer a different player. He and his teammates formed what was dubbed “Phi SlammaJamma”, the first slam-dunking “fraternity”, so named because of its above-the-rim prowess. In his sophomore and junior years, he helped the Cougars advance to consecutive NCAA championship games, where they lost to North Carolina State on a last second tip-in in 1983 and a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team in 1984. Olajuwon won the 1983 NCAA Tournament Player of the Year award, even though he played for the losing team in the final game. He is, to date, the last player from a losing side to be granted this honour. Drexler departed for the NBA in 1983, leaving Olajuwon the lone star in the team.

After leading Houston to two consecutive NCAA finals and after the 1983–84 season, Olajuwon debated whether to stay in college or declare early for the NBA draft. He decided to leave after his junior year and was drafted by the hometown Houston Rockets first overall in 1984, ahead of Michael Jordan. Immediately, he turned the losing Rockets around.

Olajuwon became the face of the franchise and one of the league’s premier rebounders and shot blockers, as well as a center nimble enough to defend guards on the perimeter, dribble like a point guard and execute his “Dream Shake” series of spins and fakes in the point. He did this even when, as a devout Muslim, he observed the holy month of Ramadan, during which he did not eat or drank during daytime.

At that time, before the NBA Draft Lottery was introduced in 1985, the first pick was awarded by coin flip. At the end of the 1983-84 season, in which he topped the NCAA with 13.5 rebounds per game, 5.6 blocked shots per game and a 67.5 percent goal percentage, Olajuwon was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. A lucky toss placed Houston ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers. They reached the NBA finals in 1986. Olajuwon was considered the top amateur prospect in the summer of 1984 over fellow collegians and future NBA stars, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, and was selected first overall by the Rockets in the 1984 NBA Draft.

Olajuwon was an instant star in the NBA, displaying stunning quickness and agility en route to 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game as a rookie center. Listed at an even 7 feet (though he was closer to 6’10”), he formed one half of Houston’s formidable “Twin Towers” duo with 7’4” Ralph Sampson.

In 1987, he was named to his first NBA All-Defensive team, as well as his first All-NBA team. He would be named to 6 All-NBA teams in his illustrious career. Olajuwon averaged at least 22.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game each season from 1986-1990. The Rockets would make the playoffs in 8 of Olajuwon’s first 9 seasons in the league, but never advanced beyond the Western Conference semis until 1994.

The Rockets began the 1993-94 season by winning their first 15 games. It was a harbinger of things to come – as it would prove to be the best season in franchise history in a number of fronts. Hakeem averaged a then-career-high 27.3 points per game for the season, as Houston won a franchise record 58 games in the regular season. They then marched through the post season, in a run that included an epic 7-game series against the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets went on to beat the Knicks in 7 games in the NBA finals, and Olajuwon won both the league MVP award and the NBA finals MVP award.

The promise of the Twin Towers faded with Sampson’s deteriorating knees, and an increasingly frustrated Olajuwon found himself putting up big numbers for mediocre teams. He became the first player in NBA history to record at least 200 steals and 200 blocks in a season during 1988-89, and led the league with 14 rebounds and a staggering 4.6 blocks per game the following year, though the Rockets fizzled early in the playoffs in both seasons.

On arriving the United States in 1980, Hakeem’s name was mistakenly written and addressed as “Akeem”. However, on March 9, 1991, after making his Muslim religion a bigger priority in his life, Hakeem Olajuwon made an alteration to his name from Akeem and changed it to the proper Arabic spelling, “Hakeem.” This change coincided with his seeming maturity as a player and leader on the court. He became a more active passer and perfected his “Dream Shake,” a series of fakes that left opposing defenders helpless.

The following season, the Rockets weren’t as strong in the regular season (finishing 3rd in the Midwest division), but were energized by a mid-season deal, as Olajuwon was paired with former Houston Cougars teammate, Clyde Drexler. The two paired up for another memorable run, this time finishing what they couldn’t accomplish in college — winning it all. After defeating league MVP, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals, the Rockets swept Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic to win their 2nd NBA title.

In 1996, Olajuwon enjoyed a pair of immense honours. After gaining American citizenship, Olajuwon was named to the US Olympic team that won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Another honour was being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, which was announced on October 29th of that year.

The Rockets would continue to pursue championship glory with Hakeem as their centerpiece, but would never return to the NBA finals with him. Olajuwon continued to be one of the game’s elite players, being named to the All-NBA 2nd team in 1996, and 1st team in 1997. Having secured his U.S. citizenship by becoming a naturalized American citizen on April 2, 1993, Olajuwon won a gold medal with the 1996 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team. Soon afterward, he was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history as part of a campaign to mark the league’s 50-year anniversary. He averaged 23.2 PPG in 1997, his last season with more than 20 points per game. Part of this was the cause of an additional prolific scorer, Charles Barkley spent 4 years with the Rockets from 1996-2000, and Scottie Pippen was acquired and played with the team in the 1998-1999 season.

The 1997 season began on a tremendous uptick for the Rockets, as they started the year 21-2. They went on to win 57 games in the regular season, the 2nd-highest total in franchise history. They advanced to the Western Conference Finals that year against the Utah Jazz, but were eliminated in 6 games. After being eliminated in the first round of the 1999 playoffs by the Lakers, Pippen was traded to Portland, leaving the aging Olajuwon and Berkley to lead the team.

After refusing a $13 million deal with the Rockets on August 2, 2001, Olajuwon was traded to the Toronto Raptors for draft picks, with a three-year contract that would give him $18 million. Olajuwon averaged career lows of 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in what would be his final season, as he decided to retire in the fall of 2003, due to a back injury. Shortly after retirement, his number 34 was retired by the Rockets.

Hakeem was named to the All-NBA First Team six times and to the NBA All-Defensive First Team five times. He finished with impressive averages of 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and a record 3,830 total blocks.

He was highly skilled as both an offensive and defensive player. On defense, his rare combination of quickness and strength allowed him to guard a wide range of players effectively. He was noted for both his outstanding shot-blocking ability and his unique talent for stealing the ball. Olajuwon is the only player in NBA history to record more than 200 blocks and 200 steals in the same season. On offense, Olajuwon was famous for his deft shooting touch around the basket and his nimble footwork in the low post. With the ball, Hakeem displayed a vast array of fakes and spin moves, highlighted in his signature “Dream Shake.”

Olajuwon married Dalia Asafi on August 8, 1996 in Houston. They have two daughters, Rahmah and Aisha Olajuwon. Abisola Olajuwon, his daughter with former wife, Lita Spencer, whom he met in college, represented the West Girls in the McDonald’s All American Games and played in the WNBA.

In addition to English, Olajuwon is fluent in French, Arabic, and Nigerian languages of Yoruba and Ekiti. He wrote his autobiography, Living the Dream, with co-author, Peter Knobler in 1996. During his 18-year NBA career, Olajuwon earned more than $107,000,000 in salary.

Olajuwon, who earlier in his career signed a shoe endorsement deal with L.A. Gear, later became the face of Spalding’s athletic shoe line and endorsed a sneaker that retailed in various outlets for $34.99. This made him one of the very few well-known players in any professional sport to endorse a sneaker not from Nike, Reebok, Adidas, or other high-visibility retail brands.

After leaving the hardwood, Olajuwon reinvented himself as a successful real-estate dealer in Houston and became a coveted instructor for NBA players seeking to improve their moves around the basket.

When not tending to business in Houston, Olajuwon spends his time with his family at a home in Jordan, where he studies the Koran.

Olajuwon was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, a fitting code to the career of one of the game’s all-time greats.

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