Hakeem Olajuwon’s five most impressive Ramadan performances
The Hall of Famer played Jordan, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing while fasting, but how did he fare?
When sunset strikes, all around the world Muslims are dunking samosas in chutney like Giannis Antetokounmpo posterizing Aron Baynes. In fact, during this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, fasts are being broken and thirst quenched just in time for the Splash Brothers to tantalize us with how wet they are.
Despite the challenge of fasting this year during some of the longest days of summer, Ramadan continues to be a festive time for Muslims who sacrifice their appetites in hopes of becoming closer to the divine. Just as Stephen Curry battles through a knee injury to achieve his ultimate goal of another NBA championship, so too are Muslims pushing through this trying month.
For many Muslim fans of the NBA, Ramadan is also a reminder of when their two worlds collided in the shape of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. In the mid-1990s, Muslims in America were misunderstood in much the same way they are today, conflated in popular imagination with terrorists rather than seen as ordinary American citizens. But then Olajuwon challenged himself to observe fasts while playing during the month of Ramadan and raised awareness of another aspect of what a Muslim could be. He wasn’t just The Dream. To many Muslim-Americans, he was the epitome of the American Dream.
Olajuwon told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears last year, “As for fasting, it is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan.”
Even his former teammates marveled at Olajuwon’s ability to play during the month. “There are 48 minutes to a game and for you to play 42 minutes of that 48 and not even be able to take a sip of water, that is just phenomenal,” Robert Horry once said.
But the story of Olajuwon’s greatness during Ramadan may not be so simple. A closer look through the archives of the Houston Chronicle shows that Olajuwon’s observance of Ramadan evolved during his time in the league.
During Ramadan in March 1992, Olajuwon was sidelined while being “embroiled in hostilities with the Rockets.” Things got so bad between the team and their star player that season, he at one point demanded a trade. At the time, Olajuwon was not fasting on game days, so he was grateful for the opportunity to complete his fasts despite being suspended from the team:
“They have suspended me, so I’m not making any money.
“But fasting is priceless.”
Islam’s lunar calendar means Ramadan shifts up about 11 days every year. This year it takes place through May and June, whereas when Olajuwon played the holy month took place between March (early on in his career) and November (by the end of his career). When Olajuwon began fasting for Ramadan during the 1993 season, he told reporters, “I cannot do it on game days. So what I have to do is make up for the days I miss after the season.”
Olajuwon’s decision to not fast during game days early in his career was not an abdication of his religious responsibility, as Muslims who are traveling, as Olajuwon often was, can choose to make up their fasts at a later time.
But Olajuwon’s perspective on fasting shifted after a conversation with fellow Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Olajuwon recalled the conversation with Abdul-Rauf to the Chronicle’s Michael Murphy: “We were discussing one day the excitement and the motivation to go all the way,” Olajuwon said. “When you are on the road, you are allowed to make it up. But to go all the way instead of delaying it to make it up [is exciting].”
So, beginning in February 1995, Olajuwon began fasting during game days. Incredibly, he was named NBA Player of the Month that month. He also fasted on game days during the holy month in 1996 and 1997. Olajuwon missed Ramadan in 1998 while recovering from knee surgery, and the lockout-shortened season in 1999 did not have any games during Ramadan. In 1999, Olajuwon did not return to the Rockets’ lineup until after Ramadan ended because of an injury.
In 2000, Olajuwon was playing significantly fewer minutes than in his prime, but he did fast during his last season with the Rockets. He also observed Ramadan the following year while playing limited minutes with the Toronto Raptors.
But not all of Olajuwon’s performances while fasting were created equal. Most of the games in which Olajuwon observed the fast tipped off after sunset, when he was allowed to break the fast. Which meant that at least during the game, he could drink water and have a light snack if necessary. With less food in his body, he claimed, he would experience less back pain. And rather than spending the day leading up to road games ordering room service, Olajuwon felt lighter and more energetic after a small snack to break the fast before tipoff of those night games. He once told the Los Angeles Times that other NBA stars should try it. “If they only knew,” he says, “they would be fasting.” Last summer, Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who “declined to share what religion he identifies with,” seemed to take his advice.
Spiritually centered, and sufficiently nourished, Olajuwon feasted on opposing teams at night after breaking his fast during the three Ramadans he observed between 1995-97. For example, after his first game-day fast on Feb. 2, 1995, Olajuwon dropped 41 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. On Jan. 30, 1997, Olajuwon tallied 48 points and 10 rebounds while playing 46 minutes in a close loss to the Denver Nuggets. When asked about how fasting on game days affected his performance, Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle near the end of Ramadan in 1995: “But really, it doesn’t affect me except on day games.”
That wasn’t modesty. Indeed, his most impressive Ramadan performances were the handful of times he had to play in nationally televised games on Sunday afternoons while fasting. Playing against Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson already posed enough of a challenge, but Olajuwon went head-to-head against his generation’s greatest players without even the opportunity to hydrate until hours after the final buzzer.
Olajuwon was not superhuman while battling the league’s best under these conditions, going 2-3 in the five Sunday afternoon games he played while fasting in his prime. But his resilience and determination did show millions of fans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, just how super a human could be.
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*LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game in 2017-2018, averaging 36.9 minutes per game
Hakeem’s top five Ramadan performances
We ranked Olajuwon’s greatest performances while fasting in his prime. Whether it was bad luck or divine intervention, four of the five matchups came against future Hall of Famers. He put up some monster stat lines, but also suffered humbling defeats. I mean, he took an L to Rony Seikaly.
No. 5: Rockets @ Magic (L, 90-103)
Feb. 2, 1997
Hakeem Olajuwon: 33 mins, 17 pts, 8 rebs, 4 asts, 3 blks; Rony Seikaly: 39 mins, 29 pts, 7 rebs, 1 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk
Olajuwon’s final game in which he fasted during his prime is definitely one he’d like to forget. Opposing center Seikaly was so dominant, he had the Chronicle’s Eddie Sefkoe writing: “If you didn’t know better, you would have sworn the Orlando Magic had Shaquille O’Neal again.” Seikaly, who is better known these days as a house music DJ than a basketball player, outscored Olajuwon by a dozen points. Although the Rockets were without an injured Barkley, they still expected better against a middle-of-the-road Orlando team that was dealing with injuries of its own.
If it’s any consolation, Seikaly would later refer to Olajuwon as his toughest matchup in the league: “He would shake you around and you were all shook up.”
As embarrassing as this loss was, a week later it was just a footnote in Olajuwon’s amazing career. On Sunday, Feb. 9, Olajuwon celebrated the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, where at halftime he was officially named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.
No. 4: Rockets @ Spurs (L, 79-93)
Feb. 18, 1996
Hakeem Olajuwon: 40 mins, 18 pts, 10 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 7 blks; David Robinson: 42 mins, 25 pts, 12 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls, 7 blks
A Rockets loss during Ramadan meant endless speculation as to how Olajuwon’s insistence on fasting affected his play and the team’s performance. After blowing a 15-point lead late in the third quarter against David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, Clyde Drexler said after the game: “We all played like we had been fasting.”
Olajuwon led the Rockets with 18 points, along with 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in 40 minutes of playing time without so much as a sip of water. Robinson matched his seven blocks and added 25 points and 12 rebounds to give his team the edge.
After the game, the Chronicle’s Dale Robertson wrote that “to deny Ramadan depletes his strength and endurance is to ignore the obvious.” The next day, on the second game of a back-to-back, after playing 40 minutes while fasting on Sunday, Olajuwon broke his fast on the final day of Ramadan and laced up to battle the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. He played 46 minutes and scored 40 points, including the first six points of overtime, to lead his team to a victory.
No. 3: Rockets @ Knicks (L, 117-122)
Feb. 19, 1995
Hakeem Olajuwon: 43 mins, 27 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls, 4 blks; Patrick Ewing: 39 mins, 31 pts, 9 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls
After losing to the Rockets in the NBA Finals in 1994, the New York Knicks were hungry for revenge. Olajuwon, on the other hand, was just hungry. During a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game in Madison Square Garden, Olajuwon lost the battle against Patrick Ewing. Despite being on the court for 43 minutes and contributing 23 points, Olajuwon was no match for Ewing, who scored 31. After the game, Olajuwon lamented: “I couldn’t challenge a lot of the shots. I had a burning in my chest all day from not being able to drink and didn’t play the kind of game that would allow us to win.”
Although Olajuwon admitted that fasting during daytime games can have a debilitating effect on his performance, he also stated: “I feel like the sacrifices I’m making now will make me stronger mentally when there is much more on the line.”
Maybe it is no coincidence, then, that the Rockets capped off this season with their second NBA championship in a row.
No. 2: Rockets @ Suns (W, 124-100)
Feb. 5, 1995
Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 28 pts, 11 rebs, 3 asts, 3 blks; Charles Barkley: 41 mins, 24 pts, 11 rebs, 7 asts, 2 stls
Olajuwon began fasting on game days during Ramadan in 1995. After breaking his second fast of Ramadan, Olajuwon played his first game of the holy month and dropped 41 points on Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in a rout. He followed that game with a nationally televised showdown on Sunday afternoon against Barkley and the red-hot Phoenix Suns. Playing one of the NBA’s best teams, Olajuwon could not drink during the game, but that didn’t stop him. He led the Rockets with 28 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes. And despite Barkley’s 24 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, the Suns were no match for the Rockets.
Olajuwon followed up this performance with a third straight win, earning him NBA Player of the Week honors. An incredible feat for a player adjusting to fasting on game days for the first time.
No. 1: Rockets vs. Bulls (W, 102-86)
Jan. 19, 1997
Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 32 pts, 16 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 5 blks; Michael Jordan: 43 mins, 26 pts, 14 rebs, 5 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk
On the second day of Ramadan in 1997, Olajuwon and the Rockets visited the Bulls in Chicago and got blown out in a night game against Michael Jordan and the defending NBA champions. Despite posting 29 points and 8 rebounds, no other Rocket scored in double digits, and the team then set its sights on a rematch between the last two NBA champions that was going to be nationally televised in the afternoon on Jan. 19. With Olajuwon fasting, you couldn’t blame many for thinking that Jordan was going to feast on the Rockets. Despite being without Barkley, the Rockets responded. Olajuwon played 39 minutes and led his team with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Although Jordan had 26 points and 14 rebounds, he could not find his shooting rhythm, and the Bulls collapsed after the Rockets went on a 19-0 run in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Rudy Tomjanovich said, “If this doesn’t quiet down the questions about it [Ramadan], I don’t know what will.”