A Champion's Journey

A Champion's Journey

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For basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon,true success meant rediscovering the lessons of childhood.

The crowd roared as Hakeem Olajuwon,the 211-centimetre star centre of the Houston Rockets,grabbed a pass.The score was tied late in the final game of the 1985 NBA playoffs between the Rockets and the Utah Jazz.

As Olajuwon spun towards the basket,he brushed against Jazz centre Billy Paultz who crashed theatrically to the court.Olajuwon expected Paultz to be called for a foul,but the referee pointed at him.An offensive foul.Angry,Olajuwon suspected that Paultz had been sent in to provoke him.Olajuwon,a muscular 113 kilos,was known to lose his temper.The next time Paultz came over to guard Olajuwon,the Rockets centre struck the man's face.None of the referees witnessed the blow but Paultz and his Jazz teammates were furious.They outplayed the Rockets the rest of the way and won the game,104-97,eliminating Houston from the playoffs.

Afterwards,in the silence of the locker room,Olajuwon slumped miserably in a chair.He had travelled so far to reach the NBA--literally a 16,000-kilometer odyssey--but it would take yet another crucial journey before he could become a true champion.And that journey would lead back to his youth.

Bitter Fights::Hakeem Olajuwon grew up in Lagos,Nigeria,a teeming West African port where blaring cars competed in the streets with cattle herds.His parents,Salam and Abike,operated a small cement business.Young Hakeem's passion for football sometimes caused him to neglect his homework.Abike would scold him."Studying your school-work is more important than playing," she would say."Education is the key to your future".

Even more than education,however,Abike and Salam revered Islam and were both staunch Muslims."God loveth not aggressors," Abike would say, quoting the Koran.Hakeem was taught that people should live in harmony with one another.Respect and compassion for others were at the heart of Islam.Hakeem looked forward to Fridays because he got out of school early to attend the mosque.On the way home he would hear the Azan,the song-like prayer used to summon people to worship.He loved its high-pitched sound and would stop in his tracks to listen.Lost in its lyrical beauty,he would remain rooted in place till the last haunting tones faded into silence.

By age ten Hakeem was nearly 183 centimetres tall and towered over the other children.He would often get into bitter fights after being taunted about his height.One day Hakeem was sent home from school after he knocked a boy down who had been teasing him.'I'm in for it,' Hakeem thought,looking at his father's stern visage."I have to fight,or the other boys will think I am weak," he explained.

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His father listened carefully and finally said "It is their weakness until you fight them.Then it becomes yours.A man cannot achieve real strength until he learns patience and humility." The boy vowed to follow his father's counsel.

Raw talent::In 1980,17-year old Olajuwon,now 203 centimetres,was playing handball when a man called out to him."Hey,Big Man,come with me and I'll teach you a big man's game." He coached basketball,a sport Hakeem had never played.Yet within months,the towering teenager was a starter for the Nigerian junior basketball team.He was sitting in a hotel room after a game when he got a message:an American named Christopher Pond wanted to see him.Pond coached the basketball team for the Republic of Central Africa.Impressed by Olajuwon's potential,Pond telephoned several American college coaches he knew,all of whom agreed to give Olajuwon a tryout for a scholarship.Hakeem,who had his visa within 24 hours was stunned;he couldn't believe he was off to the land where basketball was born.

Abike and Salam had been too busy to see their son play basketball,but they knew he was good.Still,neither was ready for the news that he had a visa and potential scholarship offers in America.When they supported his decision,it was one of the proudest moments of his life.Less than a month later,Hakeem stood in his parents' living room,plane tickets in hand. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime," his mother said,hugging him. "But we will miss you terribly".His father embraced him."Be careful,be humble and work hard," Salam said. "You represent your family and country.People will judge us by how you act." Hakeem nodded sadly,then walked to the waiting car.

Tough Adjustment::Of the five schools Pond had contacted,he was highest on the University of Houston."I feel sure Coach Lewis will give you a scholarship," Pond had said.Tough and hard-nosed,Coach Guy Lewis thought he had seen it all.But neither he nor his players were ready for the sight of Olajuwon clothed in a bright dashiki,a cape-like overcoat,on the first day of practice.Although he wore Western clothes in Nigeria,Olajuwon wanted to establish his African identity.

Hakeem shook each player's hand,then bowed his head,a sign of respect in Nigeria.Some of the American players laughed at him,but Olajuwon remained respectful,as his father had taught him.As Hakeem dressed for practice,the equipment manager asked for his shoe size.The size 13 sneakers he wore,the largest he could find in Nigeria,were too small for him.But he asked for that size anyway.The polite Nigerian didn't want to ask for something they didn't have.The team manager looked skeptically at Hakeem's feet and brought him another pair-size 16.Pulling them on Olajuwon couldn't believe when they fit perfectly.For the first time he didn't have to curl his toes when he ran.

Desire to Excel::On the suggestion of the Houston coaches,Olajuwon sat out a year to hone his game through intramural competition.When he joined the squad for the 1981 season,he quickly discovered that Coach Lewis's practices were tough.Flying elbows and slamming bodies were commonplace.There was a time when Olajuwon would have tried to avoid the contact.But by now he'd adapted to the American style of play.He told himself,'If that's the way the American's play basketball,then that is the way I must play.By the next season he had battled his way into the starting line-up and led the nation in block shots.The Cougars-the Houston University team-breezed their way to the finals but lost there.

Off the court,Olajuwon occasionally struggled with homesickness.It had been more than two years since he had seen his family and friends in Nigeria.And since his arrival in Houston,Olajuwon noticed that many Americans mistakenly associated traditional Muslims with Middle Eastern terrorists.True followers of Islam,he knew,abhorred violence.Hakeem remained religious,but was unsure of how best pursue his faith in his new country.

Yet what Olajuwon was certain of was his overwhelming desire to excel.During the 1983-84 season,Olajuwon's team played extremely well,but was again defeated in the finals.A short time later Olajuwon decided to forgo his final year of college and decided to become a professional basketball player.He joined his "hometown" team,the Houston Rockets.

Still a polite person off the court,Olajuwon seemed even more competitive on game day.Other teams discovered how easily they could arouse his anger.The price of his quick temper was steep.Olajuwon gathered technical fouls and was even thrown out of a few games.At times Hakeem also displayed a selfish attitude,trying to make every big play by himself.Without teamwork,the Rockets failed to reach their potential.In one post-game interview Olajuwon lashed out at several of his teammates.For days afterwards,sportswriters and fans reacted angrily."It's a free country," responded Rodney McCray,one of Olajuwon's targets,"but I've never been on a team where players talked about other players."

New Attitude::One afternoon the next year following a disappointing season,a man walked up to Olajuwon and said,
"Is it true you're a Muslim?"
"Yes," Olajuwon replied."How did you know?"
"Someone told me at the mosque," came the reply.
"Would you like to worship with us?"
That Friday the man led him to a modest Houston building.Olajuwon had passed it many times without realizing it was a mosque.The two men left their shoes on a mat by the front door and stepped inside.Olajuwon began to tremble when he heard the Azan,the beautiful and haunting sound that had stirred him as a child.

In the months that followed,Olajuwon attended the mosque regularly.He began praying five times a day and observing other Islamic rituals such as fasting on holy days.Giving himself over to the lessons of Islam,he found himself thinking,'These are principles I should take with me onto the basketball court.'

The 1990-91 season had barely begun when Olajuwon was elbowed in the face by Chicago Bulls centre Billy Cartwright.The blow broke several bones around Olajuwon's eye,keeping him out of action for 25 games.Surprisingly,the Rockets prospered without their star.As he healed and prepared to play again,the Rockets coaching staff wondered if Hakeem's return would disrupt the team's success.But assistant coach Carroll Dawson noticed a change in Olajuwon.He was more eager for instruction.During scrimmages he stunned everyone by zipping a pass to a teammate.

The greatest shock of all followed a practice just before Olajuwon's return to regular play."You don't have to play me," he told his coaches. "I don't want to mess up the team's rhythm." Now that Olajuwon was a changed man on the court,however,the coaches had no intention of benching their centre.Opposing teams were no longer safe putting two defenders on Olajuwon;each time a team tried to gang up on him,he would find an open man.At the same time,opponents found that they couldn't rattle him anymore.When defenders tried to shove him,expecting Olajuwon to ignite,he would slip around them for an easy score.

The inspired Rockets,with their new team ethic,ran off a 13-game winning streak,only to lose in the NBA playoffs to the Lakers.

Team Effort::In the 1993-94 season Olajuwon was named the league's Most Valuable Player(MVP).He was to receive the award just prior to the start of the second game of the Rockets' playoff series with Utah.Before the ceremony Olajuwon surprised his teammates. "If not for you," he said "I would not be MVP.I'd like all of you to accept the trophy with me." The crowd later erupted in cheers as Olajuwon and the Rocket squad hoisted the trophy in the air.Emotionally charged,the Rockets went on to beat Utah,advancing to the NBA finals against the New York Knicks.

After six games the teams each had three victories.Throughout the series the Knicks taunted Olajuwon,trying to throw him off stride.But in the championship game he responded with some of his most selfless play,continually feeding the ball to teammates.The Rockets won,90-84.

At the final buzzer,ecstatic fans poured onto the court.While his teammates slapped high-fives,Olajuwon stood alone by the sideline,cradling the ball.He was numb,scarcely believing he was at last a world champion.Across town,in Hakeem's home,were Salam and Abike.Hakeem had flown them in for the championship series,and now they watched on television as their son celebrated his victory.

Later that evening,when Hakeem arrived home,Salam clasped his son's hand tightly. "This is God's will.You have brought honour and joy to your family and country." he said.

As Hakeem looked into his parents' proud faces,he thought of the long road he had travelled to reach this night.And he realized that the greater gift,his faith,was the one he had received so many years before.
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