By Alex Parrish
There are two topics to never bring up at a dinner party, so we’re told – politics and religion. Few things simultaneously unite and divide people quite like politics and religion. Yet Americans seem to have an innate passion for discussing and debating these topics, often vehemently. Most people are fine with a person being religious, so long as that religion stays private. Personal enjoyment or fulfillment is a fine role for religion to play, but the tone changes when religion moves from descriptive to prescriptive. Such movements of religion out of the private, individual sector into the community, work, or political sector violate the role in which many people believe religion ought to function.
This external movement of religion is a primary reason religious discourse has motivated strong reactions in even daily conversation, and one of the most provocative religions happens to be Islam. For some, Islam represents a belief system half a world away – a system with hauntingly beautiful prayers sung in an unfamiliar language to an unknown deity, a culture composed of strict regulations for food and clothing, all practiced in a region that has become a battleground. For others, Islam is understood through the lens of radicalism. Islamic extremists, they assume, executed every explosion, gunshot, and hostage crisis. Thus, for these people, Islam is a religion to fear, battle, and send back to the world from whence it came. The understanding of Islam in America is not binary. There are a number of ways Islam is seen, not least of which comes from the millions of practicing Muslims in the country. How influential is Islam in the daily lives and work of these practitioners?
Enter sport – the supposed great equalizer. Islam and sports in America have a complex history of superstardom and controversy. Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, American converts to Islam, represent two of the most beloved athletes in American history, and also two of the most controversial. They were perhaps America’s introduction to Islam. They changed their names and were outspoken on issues of race and politics. They also became legends in their respective sports – boxing and basketball. In any list of the greatest athletes in the twentieth century, Ali and Abdul-Jabbar are near the top. Aside from being a personal faith, Islam had a function for these athletes. It gave them names, voices, and missions that transcended their athletic abilities. They were not alone.
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon
America encountered a different kind of Muslim athlete in 1980. Akeem Olajuwon, a basketball player from Lagos, Nigeria, arrived in Houston, Texas, to begin his education at the University of Houston. After redshirting for his first season and training in the offseason with NBA great Moses Malone, he joined Larry Micheaux and future NBA teammate Clyde Drexler as part of the high-flying Cougars squad that was dubbed “Phi Slama Jama.” Despite three consecutive trips to the Final Four (’82, ‘83, ’84) and two consecutive trips to the national title game (’83, ’84), Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama never won the title.
The Houston Rockets of the NBA drafted Olajuwon number one overall in 1984, a draft class often considered to be the most talented class in NBA history. By usual basketball standards, the beginning of Olajuwon’s career was phenomenal. Consistent averages of over twenty points and eleven rebounds, plus staunch defensive prowess made Olajuwon one of the most exciting and talented players in the NBA. He reached the NBA Finals in his second season, but lost to the juggernaut ’86 Boston Celtics. The loss in ’86 was his third championship loss between college and the NBA. Something was not going right.
The next few seasons after the Finals loss were difficult for the Rockets and Olajuwon. The Rockets made personnel decisions that frustrated Olajuwon, and he voiced his opinions, much to the chagrin of the organization and fans. He was considered by many to be selfish, and much of the blame for the team’s shortcomings and firings was placed on his shoulders. He also experienced challenges in his personal life, ending a relationship with the mother of his young daughter in 1988. Professional and personal difficulties were beginning to take a toll on Olajuwon.
It was during this period that Olajuwon rededicated himself to the religion of his youth, Islam. Islam was not a primary focus for Olajuwon prior to 1988-89 season. He had not observed many of the restrictions and regulations for diet and holidays, and he began to commit himself to the religion through the community and teachings of a newfound mosque in Houston. Of this, Olajuwon said:
I would arrive at the mosque after practice each day and I would pray and study, and before I knew it, it was eight at night. Then I would go to the home of one of my fellow Muslims where his wife would put out tea and plenty of food and we would study some more. I was trying to memorize some of the chapters and verses of the Qur’an in the beautiful rhythmic tone in which it is recited properly. My time became very valuable to me, there weren’t enough hours in the day to read. I had found a community, and I felt completely at home.
The next few seasons after Olajuwon’s rededication to Islam, the Rockets and the NBA at large were going through changes. The days of the Twin Towers in Houston were gone. So too were the days of the Showtime Lakers and the dominant Celtics. The early ‘90s belonged to two teams – The Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, both of the Eastern Conference. The Rockets of the Western Conference faced several early playoff exits, but the future seemed bright, and Olajuwon continued to be a force.
The Rockets were changing for the better, and so too was Olajuwon. He embraced the “correct” spelling of his name, adding an “H” and asking to be called Hakeem instead of Akeem. He described the reaction by the media to his name correction:
Lew Alcindor had changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Keith Wilkes had become Jamaal Wilkes; they had been Americans with English names and the changes had meaning beyond just spelling. The press knew I had changed my life when I rededicated myself to Islam and they immediately took this as a symbol of that change. I told the reporters, “I’m not changing the spelling of my name, I’m correcting it.” If they were looking for a meaning, that was it. It was kind of what I had done with my life – I hadn’t changed it fundamentally, I had corrected it to where it should have been all along….
Between 1990 and 1993, Olajuwon visited Mecca, became a citizen of the United States, signed a new contract, and won his first Defensive Player of the Year award. His career was starting to come together and things were falling into place. Michael Jordan shocked the world by retiring abruptly after the Bulls’ third consecutive championship in 1993. If there was a time to win, it was in the 1993-1994 season. And the Rockets did win. They started fast, winning fifteen straight games to start the season and stood at a 22-1 record through the first twenty-three games. Houston finished the season with a record of 58-24. Their success did not end with the regular season. The Rockets worked their way through the Western Conference playoffs, reaching the NBA Finals. Along the way, Olajuwon was awarded his second Defensive Player of the Year award and his only NBA Most Valuable Player award. The Rockets defeated the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals, and Olajuwon was awarded the NBA Finals MVP. He remains the only player in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year, season MVP, and Finals MVP in the same season. The Rockets repeated as champions the following season after Clyde Drexler was traded to Houston and reunited with Olajuwon. Olajuwon was again named Finals MVP.
After the ’94-‘95 season, Olajuwon’s championship and MVP windows were shut. Jordan returned, leading the Bulls to three straight championships. By the time of Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, age and injuries had caught up with Olajuwon. He retired from the NBA after the 2001-2002 season at age 39, which he spent in Toronto with the Raptors. Olajuwon’s influence was not limited to the basketball court. He was active in his community and responded to violence and murder over basketball sneakers by introducing an affordable sneaker with Spalding. He also had high-profile relationships with celebrities like Mike Tyson. These relationships were fueled by his passion for Islam and the desire to see his friends make the same positive choices he had made.
Olajuwon tells his story as one of alignment. When Olajuwon’s priority was basketball, he had a certain amount of success, but ultimately came up short of the ultimate prize – a championship. Even in his marital relationship, Olajuwon nearly had what he was looking for, but the union ultimately ended. It was when he rededicated himself to Islam that Olajuwon saw his life change. Conforming to the tenets of Islam, travelling to Mecca, and fully immersing himself into his religious life opened the window for ultimate professional success. For Olajuwon, Islam was the piece missing from his life, and when he fully embraced the religion, his life properly aligned. Islam gave him a (corrected) name, a voice, and a mission, on and off the basketball court.
The Role of Religion in American Sports
There’s a scene in the first episode of the TV show Friday Night Lights, where a young boy asks star high school quarterback Jason Street, “Mr. Street, do you think God loves football?” Expanded to include all sports, this question reflects a tension in the minds of many athletes. Is there a God, and if there is, what influence does this God have in the outcome of games and careers? Perhaps there is a deeper understanding at work to the lip service many athletes pay to their respective deity upon achieving success or during a moment of crisis. Perhaps these casual mentions of God and even the uncomfortable treatises by players on God’s involvement in the team’s success are part of the liturgy of religious athletes; the sincere, earnest belief that their deity not only cares but directly influences their individual and team success.
The purpose of this post is not to argue the theological merit of Olajuwon’s or any other athlete’s religious claims. Whether or not a particular deity imparts athletic skill, opens championship windows, or dooms particular teams or players to failure or injury is beside the point. Religious athletes do see a real correlation between their success and religion, and thus are performing a ritual when they publically correlate their sport and religion.
Not every religious athlete will approach religion with the zeal and personal changes Hakeem Olajuwon thought he needed to display. Some athletes will promote an “all in” approach to his or her religion, while others will appear to be only casual adherents. Criticizing or dismissing an athlete when he or she speaks about religion takes away from the human element of sports that makes them so engaging. Athletes are not passionless, thoughtless individuals who only speak about their sport, their charity, and how they are preparing for the season. At the same time, the voices of non-religious athletes contribute to the humanity of sport. With the rise of religious “nones” in the United States, the question of the role of religion in the nation will continue to be asked.
A final point stems from recent events, namely the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, that have killed over 120 people. Many have been quick to blame religion or react in fear against the Muslim community for the actions of a radical group. Discriminatory policies proposed by government officials have fueled xenophobia, and some have already expressed fear and reacted to the voices and actions of radicals, instead of listening to the voices and actions of millions of Muslims who condemn such senseless violence and hatred. Among those voices are athletes like Hakeem Olajuwon, who spoke of the principle of the kindred spirit of all human beings taught in Islam when he said:
[We] are, all of us, descendants of the same parents; we are brothers and sisters, diverse as we may be…. [Humans are diverse in order] to know one another, to complement one another, and to constitute together a beautiful mosaic, united in diversity and diverse in unity. That divine call is a powerful statement against all forms of racism, narrow nationalism, and false claims of superiority. Its only criteria for superiority are righteousness, moral behavior, and benevolence to fellow human beings.
Such a statement shows the value of religious voices in sports and displays the wisdom of a religious athlete: divide not in fear, but unite toward the common good of our fellow human beings.
Alex is a master’s candidate in theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, hip-hop and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Drexler left for the NBA after the ’83 season.
 Though Olajuwon did win the tournament Most Outstanding Player award. See http://blog.chron.com/bayoucityhistory/2015/04/olajuwons-bittersweet-ncaa-tourney-award-this-forgotten-day-in-houston/.
 It is worth noting that in a draft class that included Hall of Fame players Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Oscar Schmidt (perhaps the greatest player to never play in the NBA), and Michael Jordan, Olajuwon went first overall.
 All stats and career figures are from http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/o/olajuha01.html.
 All personal accounts of Olajuwon, unless otherwise stated, are taken from his autobiography, written with Peter Knobler, Living the Dream. http://www.amazon.com/Living-Dream-My-Life-Basketball/dp/B000I3AVBW/ref=oosr
 Olajuwon and Knobler, Living the Dream, 198.
 Olajuwon and Knobler, Living the Dream, 206-207.
 This pilgrimage is called a Hajj, and is one of the five “Pillars” of Islam.
 Olajuwon and Knobler, Living the Dream, 267.