Giannis Antetokounmpo may be tearing up the sheets in the NBA but he is not the first player of Nigerian descent to make such an impact on the league. That honor rightly belongs to none other than the renowned center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Popularly known as The Dream, Olajuwon moved from Nigeria to the United States to play college basketball at the age of 17. He subsequently went on to mesmerize the NCAA division so much so that by the time the NBA draft came up, he was picked first overall, above players such as Michael Jordan.
What followed were 18 flourishing years of pro basketball during which Olajuwon accumulated numerous accolades including back-to-back championships. He impressed fans and critics with his excellent combination of defensive and offensive skills. He also recorded impressive stats and went down as one of the greatest centers in NBA history. Olajuwon has now retired but his impact can never be forgotten especially in light of all he had to conquer to achieve them.
Starting as a Handball and Soccer Player in his Native Nigeria
Hakeem was born on January 21, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria to parents Salaam and Abike Olajuwon as the third of six children. Raised by his middle-class parents who owned a cement business, Olajuwon played soccer and handball during his secondary school days at Muslim Teachers college, Lagos, Nigeria. He was only introduced to basketball at age 15, marking the birth of an American basketball legend, and soon joined the Nigerian National basketball team under Coach Richard Mills, leading the team to win third place in the All-African tournament in 1979.
A year later, Olajuwon relocated to the United States to try out for the basketball team at the University of Houston. Being a lowly potential recruit, no one from the school even came out to meet him at the airport and he was asked to find his way all by himself. This left the young boy distraught, as he was all alone in a foreign land, but he buckled up and did the needful. He eventually gained a scholarship to play for the basketball team (Houston Cougars), under coach Guy Lewis and went on to impress with his strength, footwork, agility, and speed.
For his first year, Hakeem received a redshirt thus making him ineligible to play. In his second year, he returned with abysmal stats and this affected his playing chances. Seeking to make himself better, Hakeem sought out the advice of the coaching staff and they told him to train with NBA pros living in the city. He took this advice to heart and returned with a bang for his third and fourth years; taking the Cougars to consecutive NCAA last four appearances (1993 and 1994) and winning the player of the year award in 1993. He became a local hero for the town of Houston and was nicknamed The Dream for his eye-opening skills, and effortless moves that ‘looked like a dream’.
Brilliant Debut in the NBA and Subsequent Downturn in Fortunes
Despite a draft class that featured greats such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon was drafted by the Houston Rockets as the first overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft. He subsequently went on to reward the franchise’s faith in him by turning around their fortunes. Teaming up with Ralph Sampson to become a formidable duo in Houston called ‘Twin Towers’, Olajuwon posted incredible stats as the Rockets made it to the playoffs in his rookie year. He and Sampson then took the team all the way to the NBA finals the following season but they lost out to the Boston Celtics.
Given such early antecedents, many people in the city of Houston concluded that it was just a matter of time before they would land a championship but that was not to be. First, Sampson suffered a recurring knee injury and was traded off thus leaving the sole burden on the shoulders of Hakeem. The center eminently rose to the occasion and continued to return incredible stats each season but the burden was just too much for him alone and as such, the Rockets only made it to one playoff between 1987 and 1992. Such poor returns left everyone on a short fuse and matters were further complicated by happenings off the court.
Olajuwon was unhappy with the relatively small amount that his contract was paying him and sought an increase. His team however refused to comply and things went downhill from there. The player accused the team of only caring about their bottom line and not signing quality players to beef up the rooster while the Rockets accused him of faking a hamstring injury to avoid playing. Insults and suspensions became the order of the day and many concluded that the damaged relations between the two sides were irreparable. They thus expected that Olajuwon would be traded to another team but he miraculously remained in Houston.
Winning Back-to-Back Championships for the Houston Rockets
Following the easing of tensions, The Rockets gave Hakeem Olajuwon an improved contract. They also hired new coaches and young players and this spurred the Nigerian star into leading them to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. The first title came at the expense of the New York Knicks and Olajuwon was simply in imperious form as he went on to win the NBA MVP, NBA Finals MVP, and defensive player of the year awards as well.
Their second championship came against the Orlando Magic and Hakeem went on to be named NBA Finals MVP again. Following that fantastic 1995 season, Olajuwon spent six more years with the Rockets before moving to the Toronto Raptors in 2001 and eventually retiring in 2002. Even though the center never tasted another championship, his previous titles as well as the stats he posted was enough to make him an indisputable legend of the sports.
A Look At Some of Olajuwon’s Career Honours
Hakeem Olajuwon received many accolades over the course of his 18-year long professional career. They include NBA Champion (2x), NBA MVP (1), NBA Finals MVP (2X), NBA All-Star (12x), All-NBA First Team (6x), Defensive Player of the Year (2x), NBA All-Defensive First Team (5x), NBA Blocks Leader (3x), and NBA Rebound Leader (2x).
His jersey numbers have also been retired by the Houston Rockets and Houston Cougars, a testament to the undeniable impact that he made in both teams. At the national level, Olajuwon won a gold medal with the U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team in 1996. He also scored a total of 26,946 points, 13,747 rebounds, and 3,830 blocks in the NBA and remains the league’s all-time leader in blocked shots.
The Financial Rewards of his Mercurial Career
Hakeem Olajuwon was selected as one of the Greatest Players in the history of NBA and named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He was also inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2016.
After a successful NBA career, Olajuwon did not only become an instructor for NBA players, he also invested in real-estate becoming a successful dealer in Houston, Texas. From the real estate business, which he operates under his company Palladio Development Ltd, Olajuwon makes profits that exceed over $100 million.
The star, who was NBA’s international ambassador, further made a few endorsements with sports companies which include Etonic, LA Gear, and a multi-year contract with Spalding Men’s Athletic Shoes. Given all his efforts, Hakeem Olajuwon earned over $100 million in salary during his professional career and has his net worth estimated at $200 million.
Pre-arranged Union with Wife, Asafi
Olajuwon’s Muslim faith has had a big impact on several aspects of his life and one of them is his marriage. Back in August 1996, the NBA star got married to his then 18-year-old wife, Dalia Asafi, in a traditional ceremony. It was an arranged marriage because the couple had never seen each other even though they worshipped in the same Houston mosque.
Hakeem later revealed that in line with Islamic custom, there was no dating or boyfriend/girlfriend situation involved, rather the two families got together and spoke with each other and agreed to the matrimony. He also stated that even though his bride was much younger, she was 18 while he was 33, she possessed a maturity, knowledge, and wisdom beyond her years thanks to her religion.
The whole affair raised a few eyebrows given that it was radically different from what was obtainable in the American culture but the attention died down a few weeks later. Since then, Olajuwon and his wife have remained together and have welcomed several children including daughters, Rahmah and Aisha, and sons, Abdul and Abdullah. The boys are following their father’s footsteps into basketball and just like their dad, their love for sports started with soccer.
Abdul and Abdullah spent their formative years in Jordan and the UK and naturally fell in love with soccer. Their dad however cajoled them into giving basketball a chance and they ended up falling in love with the hoop game. The Olajuwons now spend a substantial amount of time in America and this is to give the two boys a chance to make it through the school sports system there. Hopefully, one of them would become a legend like daddy someday.
Complicated Romance with Lita Spencer
During his college days in Houston, Olajuwon met and commenced a relationship with a high school senior, named Lita Spencer, in 1982. The two remained together for the next six years during which they welcomed a daughter named Abisola Olajuwon. Things later went awry between the couple and they broke up. Lita then sued the basketball star in August 1988 for reneging on his promise to marry her. According to the lady, Olajuwon promised to marry her in July 1987 and gave her a ring to that effect.
He however based his fulfillment of that promise on her ability to conceive which she did by birthing their daughter in July 1988. Despite keeping to her own end of the bargain, Olajuwon failed to marry her hence the suit. The outcome of the suit is unknown to the public, but chances are that Lita did not success which forced her to sue her baby daddy for child support in December 1988. She asked for $4,500 monthly as well as a lump payment of $100,000 but the judge only acceded to $1,500 monthly and a lump payment of $10,000.
Meanwhile, the daughter in question, Abisola, is all grown up and has followed daddy into basketball as well. She played three years of high school basketball at Malborough School during which her team won three southern section titles. She later went on to play college basketball at the University of Oklahoma before being drafted into the WNBA in 2010. A center like her dad, Abisola spent four years as a pro during which she played for teams in United States, Israel, Belgium, Croatia, Spain, China, and Brazil.
She called time on her playing career in 2014 and now works as a coach for Eastern Michigan Eagles. Abisola maintains a good relationship with her dad. Even though they didn’t get to spend much physical time together while she was growing up, she nevertheless loves him as he was supportive of her dreams. Abisola is blessed with poise, and savviness and she gets this from her mother, Lita, who is now an entertainment attorney as well as a film producer.
Relocation to the Kingdom of Jordan
Hakeem Olajuwon has maintained a relatively low profile since retirement. Never one to bask in the spotlight even as a player, he has avoided it even more since calling time on his pro career and is living the life of a regular fellow. Olajuwon and his family split their time between the kingdom of Jordan as well as the American city of Houston.
The NBA star first got acquainted with Jordan during his days as a pro, as he often went there for training sessions, and consequently fell in love with the country. He relished the chance to live among his fellow Muslim faithful, thus, upon retirement, he relocated his entire family to the tiny nation. They now reside in a farmhouse and the NBA legend spends his days hiking and driving his children to school. He also attends the mosque regularly and observes Islamic customs.
When not in Jordan, Hakeem can usually be found in the city of Houston where he serves as an ambassador for the Houston Rockets. He regularly attends their games and does promotional work for the side. The Hall of Famer also organizes a training camp through which he helps players work on specific aspects of their games. Some players who have so far benefitted from his expertise include Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and Yao Ming.