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 the best players of all time?
HO: No question about it. Anytime I played against Patrick in college or the pros, I knew I was playing somebody like myself. You don’t get too many challenges that take you to a higher level. He definitely made me better, because I had to play my best to compete.
ES: Let’s talk about your childhood. You grew up in Nigeria and played soccer and handball, but you didn’t start playing basketball until you were seventeen. Isn’t that a little late to pick up the sport that you are known for being so extraordinary at?
HO: Growing up in Nigeria, or anywhere outside the U.S., you realize how big soccer is in the world. It’s a huge sport. So I grew up in a place where the kids didn’t want to play basketball. They said, “Basketball is American.” In addition to soccer, my sport was also team handball. I was very good at team handball. I played for my state, Lagos. I was the captain of the team. I was a very good scorer. But both of those sports had similarities to basketball: the footwork, the high jumps. It was amazing. It was the ideal situation for someone who wanted to play basketball ultimately but didn’t start out playing it. These sports prepared me to be an athlete. When you’re an athlete, you can play any sport.
ES: What eventually got you interested in basketball?
HO: When I saw a few guys handling the ball. Their ball-handling skills were so cool—you know, dribbling between the legs and behind the back without looking. The ball was, like, magnetized in their hands. I was intrigued by that, by the agility and the grace of the sport.
ES: You were recruited to play, right?
HO: Yes. At the national stadium, the handball court is next to the basketball court. Every time the basketball coach would see me, he would tell me, “Handball is not your sport. Basketball is your sport.” The coach, Coach Ganiu, tried to get me onto the basketball court for a long time. When he finally did, the team was practicing. He called the assistant coaches and the rest of the team to one side of the court, and he called a point guard and me to the other side. He gave me the concept of my position [center] in basketball, of how important it is. It was unbelievable the way he described my role—I clearly saw myself doing it. He said, “This is the paint—you know, it’s painted red, because that’s blood. It’s very physical in there. And you, in your position, rule that lane. You rule the court. You rule the middle.” He gave me this concept of domination: Dominate the middle, dominate the paint, you know? Anything that’s in the paint, you’re dunking it on offense. You don’t think layup or any other shot. When you get a ball in the paint, there’s no different thought: You go in for a dunk.
ES: That explains the Phi Slama Jama mentality at the University of Houston—you were already a dunking machine.
HO: Exactly. When you dunk on people, they start getting out of your way. And on defense, the concept Coach Ganiu gave me was the same: Anything that comes in, you block it. He told me to come back for two more practices. And during those he would stop everything if I didn’t get the ball. He would tell all the players on the team, “Anytime you see my big man run the floor, you have to give him the ball.”
ES: You were literally the center of everything.
HO: It was a privilege. I played the most important position on the team.
ES: How did the U of H coaches become aware of you?
HO: I was put on the Nigerian national team, and we played an African tournament. We went to Angola—my first exposure internationally. Our confidence level was high because we had a lot of young, very tough players. Even though we lost to Central Africa, I was the most valuable player of the tournament. After the game, the coach of the Central African team, Christopher Pond, who was from North Carolina and had coached in many countries all across Africa, came to our hotel that night and advised me not to go back to Nigeria. He said, “They will try to keep you there so you can play for them. But you need to be in America.” He said he would pick me up the next day and take me to the American embassy in Angola. And he did. He had a list of different schools and different coaches, but when he picked up the phone, he called Coach [Guy] Lewis [at the University of Houston]. He told him, “Coach, I have a player here who you will love. Seven foot tall, he’s going to dunk everything.” Before he arranged a visa for me, the consul general at the embassy wanted to know if they would give me a scholarship. Coach Lewis told the consul general, “If he’s as good as they say, we’ll give him a scholarship.”
ES: What did you think of Houston when you first got there?
HO: When I first came to Houston, I thought, “America!” So it was exciting. When I caught a taxi from the airport, they almost took me to Austin because I struggled to say the h. He said, “Austin?” But the driver realized it couldn’t be Austin, because who would be taking a taxi that far?
ES: I can’t imagine what they thought of you when you arrived on campus—and what you thought of them.
HO: It was a dream come true, you know? When I first got there, Coach Lewis was waiting for me, and he said, “You might want to watch the players.” So we went outside, and I saw the players running—some seven-footers, some six-six, some six-nine. A big team. As a competitor, you have to ask yourself, “Can I compete on this level?” In Nigeria I was dominating, but everyone had told me, “You can’t do that in the States. You will play against guys of your size.”
ES: But you held your own.
HO: When I was ready for my turn and got in there, they immediately saw that I owned the middle, that I was a shot blocker. A shot blocker is like the police. Imagine you’re driving and you see a police car; you slow down. When the shot blocker is in the lane, it’s a different game. After two blocks, they’re going to change their shots. They know immediately that they can’t go through the middle. The way I play the game, they know that they have to be legitimate to score. If they’re not legitimate, they’ll be rejected.
ES: So began a great college career.
HO: One of the best. In my college career, I went to the Final Four three times. We went to the Final Four my freshman year, and I didn’t even know what the Final Four was.
ES: At the end of your junior year, you decided to enter the NBA draft rather than graduate.
HO: As a player, your goal is the NBA. During my freshman year, when I went to see the Rockets play, I was real excited because I realized, “Man, I can play in the NBA.” I would see somebody make a move and drive and go to the basket, and I’d think, “Wow, I could have blocked that. Somebody should have blocked that.” I thought maybe there must be something that I didn’t see.
ES: You were drafted number one overall, ahead of some kid named Michael Jordan. That’s still amazing to me.
HO: It goes back to what my coach in Nigeria told me: When you’re a center, you’re the most important position. That’s it, you know? Michael Jordan proved to be exceptional. But the Rockets never regretted for one second making me the number one pick. They needed a center. You’re a center, you rule the draft.
ES: Was the NBA everything you thought it would be?
HO: I didn’t know how the NBA was supposed to be. It was a life experience. I’d read about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Dr. J. I had their posters in my room in college. Now I was playing games with the great players I’d admired for a long time. It was amazing, but at the same time, I had to win games. I had to beat them. I realized that even though they were at the end of their careers, they had the experience. It was a battle, but after a while I found I was one of the best too—and then, all of a sudden, people started coming out from behind to challenge me. So I had to defend myself.
ES: What do you think of the NBA today?
HO: It’s a different generation—a natural progression from the generation of Kareem, Artis Gilmore, Moses, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird to my generation, Michael Jordan’s, Charles Barkley’s, Patrick Ewing’s to a new generation. I hear from some people that the league is so soft that they don’t have centers, but you can see what a Tim Duncan is doing in San Antonio. They say he’s a forward, but he’s not a forward. He’s big. He’s playing center.
ES: You still like watching basketball?
HO: Except for the playoffs, I cannot watch a whole game now. Every time I watch it, I see people take bad shots. I see a lot of fundamental mistakes. These are pros. I mean, when you get to the pro level, your decision-making should be better. Your basketball IQ should be higher.
ES: How’s your basketball IQ these days? Could you get back on the court and play in the pros today?
HO: Well, I play pickup games every summer. The fundamentals are still there. I’d have to go back to the basics of training at a high level. But the skills, the moves, that’s a gift—that’s talent. You don’t lose that.