SUGAR LAND, TEXAS — Hakeem Olajuwon was driving his children to school in Birmingham, UK, when he heard the news on BBC Radio that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.
It was a shock to Olajuwon, who had said he had too much faith in America and its citizens to vote Trump into the highest office. But quickly the Hall of Fame center tried to find some silver lining in the outcome.
“I was thinking maybe this will be good for the U.S. economy as a businessman, and maybe he can restructure things to where everyone is happy — from that perspective,” Olajuwon says.
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Now, via an executive order, Trump is following up on his campaign promise of a ban on Muslims entering the United States. He and his staff are saying it’s not explicitly a Muslim ban, but it’s been widely interpreted as exactly that. And it’s a thinly-veiled ban based on religious tests, something Olajuwon and so many others didn’t know was still possible today.
“I can’t believe it’s actually happening that he’s trying to implement that,” Olajuwon says.
The eyes of the sports world are on Houston this week as the Patriots and Falcons prepare for Super Bowl LI (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX). But the eyes of the world are on Trump’s America after the president decreed a temporary ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Olajuwon, the best-known Muslim in Houston, is arguably the greatest living Muslim sportsman following last year’s death of Muhammad Ali.
We met Wednesday morning at a fitness center near Olajuwon’s Houston home, where he’s back living for a few months after moving his family to England, where his daughter is enrolled in college. Olajuwon returned to the U.S. last Monday before the ban was instituted (though it won’t affect him since he was born in Nigeria) and spoke with SI.com at length about his faith, his optimism, the ban, Trump and why, for more than two decades now, he’s felt the calling to be one of the most prominent spokesmen for Islam in the country.
This week is busy for Olajuwon. He attended a Rockets game Tuesday night before facing a slammed schedule that includes Yao Ming’s jersey retirement ceremony Friday at the Toyota Center. When I reached out to Olajuwon’s people for this interview and explained why I wanted to speak with him, he fit me in because he felt an obligation to speak out.
“It’s not a burden. It’s just a responsibility. I’m a public figure. I’m a Muslim. We don’t have too many public figures that can really speak up. If I don’t, then I’m not taking my responsibility,” Olajuwon says. “I said I have to take the responsibility to speak up. Not to speak against the government because I want (Trump) to be successful. It’s a benefit for all of us. But (for him) to be fair. A good deal is when both sides are happy. We can’t exclude some people or countries. He can say it’s not against Islam, but really, indirectly, it is.”
Olajuwon has been known for his calm demeanor ever since he rededicated himself to Islam early in his NBA career. He is the very best of Islam, and he lets his faith guide him before anything else. It is for that reason that he remains optimistic about a Trump presidency.
A two-time NBA champion, the 1994 NBA MVP and one of the greatest centers to ever lace up, Olajuwon attended college and played 17 of his 18 professional years in Houston, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. In 2010, Muslims made up 1.2% of Houston’s population and it was ranked as the ninth-largest Muslim capital in America.
Olajuwon says Muslims’ first responsibility is to demonstrate the true teachings of Islam to their neighbors. He wants Muslims to reach out to more people and break through stereotypes and Islamophobia. The next step, he says, is for Muslims to know and properly defend their rights.
What worries Olajuwon more than anything, though, is when a Muslim kills innocent people in the name of Allah. The entire religion and its 1.6 billion adherents come under attack when a Muslim commits an act of terror. That isn’t Islam. That, Olajuwon says, is the opposite of Islam.
“They (a shooter) say ‘Allahu Akbar.’ What does it mean? It means God is the greatest,” Olajuwon said. “So you go and kill innocent people? And then we are responsible for their action.”
There’s a distinct unfairness to it. First, the idea that Muslims in a community must play respectability politics to curry favor with their neighbors is disheartening. Furthermore, other religions or races aren’t persecuted when evil is carried out. When Dylann Roof shot nine black worshippers in Charleston in 2015, no one called on a temporary ban of white men from South Carolina while extreme vetting took place.
“That’s right,” Olajuwon says. “And that’s where it’s not been fair. And of course, that’s politics.”
To be a Muslim is to obey the law of the land and be a good citizen. Olajuwon told the New York Times that in 1996, and it hasn’t changed in the past two decades. When Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sat for the national anthem before NBA games in 1996, he sat because he said the country had a history of oppression. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee for similar reasons this past NFL season, and Olajuwon, like all of us, sees sports and politics becoming more intertwined today than ever before.
He wants players to use their platform in a positive way and stand for a greater cause. But he must also walk by his faith.
“When you put it in Islamic perspective, it’s different,” Olajuwon says. “Politically you can protest. But that’s not what Islam requires you to do. It’s not an official position of Islamic belief. That’s my point.”
Just like athlete protests, Olajuwon’s faith interceded into his voting practices, too. He did not cast a vote against Trump and for Clinton and even today, in the face of what is ostensibly a religious ban, Olajuwon still has no misgivings about that.
“I would regret if I voted and it went against what I believe,” he says. “So no regrets in that sense. But he can still be good for America if he can be humble and make that adjustment (by lifting the ban). He can surprise a lot of people. That would be a good surprise. I’m hoping that way. We’ll see.
“This is an opportunity that can really redirect a lot of things. He has the opportunity right now. The first step is not looking too good right now, but it’s still the first quarter.”
The Dream is full of optimism — more than most of us. He can’t shake it.