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Athlete's Fasting Puts a Spotlight on Islam

Sports: Basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon says adhering to Muslim dietary restrictions during Ramadan is his duty to God--and it helps his game.

February 17, 1996|From Associated Press

HOUSTON — The television, radio and newspaper reporters huddle around Hakeem Olajuwon after a shoot-around on the day the Rockets, the defending National Basketball Assn. champions, are scheduled to meet the Chicago Bulls.

All strain to hear the answer to one reporter's question: "Are you or Michael Jordan the best basketball player in the world?"

Olajuwon diplomatically says it is hard to say who the best player is. Then he leaves the court to discuss a subject closer to his heart--the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"All this now is sports, it's worldly," he says, pointing to the court from a seat in the auditorium away from the lights and attention.

He is about to speak of another world, a world of faith where serving God is more important than an NBA championship ring.

"Giving you the time is not a favor. It is a duty," he tells a religion writer.

As Sandy Koufax gave pride to followers of a minority faith when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, so has Olajuwon given increased visibility to Islam by his decision to follow the fasting requirements during Ramadan.

Ramadan, which began Jan. 21 or 22 with the sighting of the new moon, celebrates the month in which God revealed the Koran, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset during the holy month.

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On a typical day, Olajuwon gets up at 5 a.m. for breakfast, then does not eat again until a light meal after sundown. He will have his main meal after the game. During the course of the month, he will lose 10 pounds.

It is a special sacrifice for a professional basketball player, who must face off in a battle of strength and desire against other superbly conditioned athletes each game. No one takes more of a pounding than an all-star center constantly jockeying for position among other 250- to 300-pound athletes.

Islamic law would actually give Olajuwon an out--travelers are not required to fast--but he has not taken it.

Olajuwon says the option was meant for ancient times when traveling by camel over difficult terrain was a hardship. That does not compare with an NBA player's life on a modern airplane.

Besides, he says, his game has never been better.

"I feel much better. I feel lighter, faster, much more mentally focused," Olajuwon says. "When God prescribes something, it is for your best interest."

He also realizes that in a nation where Islam still must struggle for acceptance, his visibility as one of the NBA's leading players gives him a special responsibility.

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'My role is very important because Islam has been misunderstood, especially in America," where people often associate the religion with terrorism, he says.

"You have to educate the people," he says. "Islam is a religion of peace . . . submission and obedience to the will of God."

Muslims must demonstrate the beauty of Islam, he says.

"These are God-conscious people. They are dignified. They honor their word," he says. "The quality of a believer should reflect in their character."

If sportswriters have sometimes questioned the effects of the fast after a subpar performance, Olajuwon's teammates have been supportive.

Clyde Drexler says the other Rockets understand that the fast is an act of faith for their center.

"I respect anyone that actually lives their [faith] . . . that's not a hypocrite," Drexler says.

However, it is not primarily for his team, or Muslims in America or any other person that Olajuwon adheres to the fast.

"Your main purpose in doing everything is for the pleasure of God, to please God regardless of what other people think," he says.

Like the Prophet Muhammad, Olajuwon now plans to extend his fast to Mondays and Thursdays through the rest of the year.

It is something he has done off and on before, Olajuwon says, but he now has decided to make a commitment to fasting two days a week year-round.

Still, don't feel sorry for the big guy.

Not only does fasting improve his game, but a smaller stomach means less back pain. And the fast helps clean his system of impurities, he says.

"Your whole body goes through a change. It's like a rebirth," Olajuwon says.

So the continuation of his fast should not be reassuring to opponents looking for any advantage in the playoffs as Olajuwon attempts to lead his team to a third straight championship.

"If they only knew," he says, "they would be fasting."

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