Evan Smith: It’s 10:15 p.m. in Jordan, where you and your family live, and you’ve just returned home from the mosque. Your faith is just as important to you today as it was when you were in the NBA.
Hakeem Olajuwon: Once you have your foundation, it’s established. It’s the spiritual growth that builds honesty, punctuality, keeping promises—all these qualities. It builds character. It develops kindness and generosity. It makes you a better person.
ES: Was your family religious, or is this something you gravitated toward as you got older?
HO: My parents were very religious, so I grew up in a very devout Muslim home. It was enforced. The principles were there, as well as the values.
ES: How much time during the day do you devote to your faith?
HO: My religion is a lifestyle. We pray at certain times of the day, a total of five times a day. That’s the way it is all around the world. It doesn’t mean I’m religious; every devout Muslim does it. The fourth prayer is at 4:15 in the morning here, so I have to be awake. I sleep heavy so that I can get up early.
ES: You really get up at four o’clock in the morning to pray?
HO: At 3:45. The sunrise never catches me in bed.
ES: You’re going to turn in when we hang up, right? You’re not going to get more than a few hours of sleep.
HO: But this is normal. I wake up around 3:45 so I’m ready for prayer. I have to wash up and freshen up, and I get to the mosque fifteen minutes before the prayer so I can read the Koran and study. That time of the day is so beautiful because it’s so peaceful and quiet—there’s no rush. I absorb and study well, and that sets the whole mood for the day.
ES: How long have you been in Jordan?
HO: I used to come here every summer while I was playing [for the Rockets]. I would train here.
ES: You’re there full-time now?
HO: Eight months here and four months in Houston. But Houston is still my base.
ES: Other than practicing your faith, how do you spend your days?
HO: I’m here with my whole family, so I drive the kids to school. Then I start my exercise, which is hiking in the mountains. We live in the mountains. It’s beautiful when the sun is coming up. Walking like that in the morning, you don’t feel like you’re exercising. When I come back, I have my breakfast, and I try to catch up on my sleep. I’ve got to feel strong. By the time I wake up, at around eleven o’clock, all that I’ve done in the morning seems like the day before. Then I run errands. I go to Amman for meetings, lunch, or business opportunities.
ES: You’re doing business over there, as you are back in Houston.
HO: Sometimes I have the opportunity to buy land. If there are places to buy, I look.
ES: That’s good work coming out of pro sports.
HO: As I see it, it gives you the sense of accomplishment, of security, stability. The challenge is to make the right decisions, the right investments. It’s very difficult. Imagine a player who comes out of college without any experience and has to rely on the advice of a financial manager he didn’t know before. The field of investing is very complicated. You have to be willing to take risks. You cannot afford to lose. It’s not easy to do, which is why you see a lot of players make bad investments and end up in a bad position.
ES: When you go to Amman for your meetings, I assume you’re also finding time to pray there.
HO: There are mosques everywhere—wherever I am, even when I was playing in the NBA. You don’t belong to just one mosque, you know? Depending on the time of day, the same prayer is prayed everywhere in the world. It’s all about institutional knowledge of the rituals. There are no surprises. And it’s in one language: Arabic.
ES: How is your life different when you are in Houston?
HO: I’m busier in Houston. My primary business, which is real estate, is there.
ES: I bet everybody in Houston loves to say, “I’m in business with Hakeem Olajuwon.” You must get offered a lot of deals.
HO: No. These are institutions. They look at numbers.
ES: They don’t care how cool you are?
HO: They buy high-profile, strategic locations. They have to have them—that’s the bottom line. If Marvy Finger wants to build a high-rise in downtown Houston and is looking for the best location, he has to find out who owns the land.
ES: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you now is because you’re being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this month. Are you excited?
HO: Of course. It’s a great honor. When I was playing in college and the pros, most of the articles called me a “future Hall of Famer.” So you get that idea in your head. You feel secure and confident that you’ll be elected to the Hall of Fame, but it’s different when it actually happens.
ES: You’re already recognized as one of the best players of all time.
HO: Well, if that’s what they feel.
ES: You don’t think of yourself that way?
HO: I never thought of myself as one of the best, but I have a competitive nature. I play to win.
ES: That’s all you care about?
HO: Even when I’m playing a pickup game, I play to win. All other accomplishments are by-products of the desire to win.
ES: I see Patrick Ewing is also being inducted. You have a long history, going back to your days in college, when you played against him in the 1984 NCAA championship. Do you think he’s one of