Pittsburgh Sports Report
May 2004

Balancing Act
By Tony DeFazio

Hakeem Olajuwon, the NBA's career blocked-shots leader, is a two-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star. A devout Muslim and intensely private man, Olajuwon has long-believed that his religious faith served as the foundation to his great career and enhanced his role as a team leader.

In the 1994-95 season, Olajuwon's religious faith impacted his game publicly. The Houston Rockets' center, fresh off his first championship, was fasting from daybreak to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. In keeping with Muslim custom, Olajuwon was refusing water even during games, when his body desired it most. He was getting weaker every day - and his game was following suit. Placing his religious obligations as a Muslim before his duties to the Rockets, Olajuwon ultimately developed an iron deficiency that cost him two weeks of action.

His teammates carried no ill-will for his fast, even though it cost the Rockets several places in the league standings. Olajuwon's Muslim faith was an element of his make-up, and it was accepted as part of what made him the player - and person - he was.

"Hakeem was always a spiritual person, but as he got older it became a central focus in his life," says basketball hall-of-famer Clyde Drexler, who played with Olajuwon in college and was traded to the Rockets shortly after Olajuwon regained his health. "He went about his business of basketball and his religion was a private affair for the most part."

Is that the way it should be when it comes to religion in the locker room? Can expressing one's religious beliefs in a crowded locker room cause problems?

"I really think it's like politics, and those are not the types of things you bring out in a public forum," says Drexler, who has been close friends with Olajuwon since their college days at Houston. "Do what you want in private, but if you want to discuss religion in a public forum then you should get into that business - get into the ministry. If you want to discuss politics in a public forum, run for public office."

Kim Herring, a former Penn State defensive back now with the Cincinnati Bengals, spent three years with the St. Louis Rams in what was fairly well-known as a religious locker room. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce is nicknamed "Reverend Ike," and QB Kurt Warner, openly devoutly Christian, suggested at the end of the 2003 season that he had been benched because of his religious beliefs.

Herring stops short of saying that religion was a distraction in the Rams' locker room.

"Some guys did take it a little far at times; you had to watch what you said," Herring recalls. "What I've seen sometimes is you're thought of in a negative light because you don't have the same faith as they do. And sometimes that can be a problem. So it becomes a touch and feel kind of thing where you try to figure out what each individual is. Nobody likes to have faith thrown at them; it makes them feel bad."

While Herring has nothing negative to say about the Rams or any of his old teammates in particular, he does acknowledge that something as deeply personal as religion can affect the delicate balance of the team-dynamic.

"I just think that the situation is not conducive to that," he says. "When you're trying to get everyone on the same page, I don't think it's the right thing to do."

Saleem Rasheed, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, is also a devout Muslim. Like Olajuwon, Rasheed has fasted during Ramadan for several years now. Rasheed approaches it as a very personal endeavor.

"I think it could have been a distraction," says 49er strength development coordinator Terrell Jones, who worked closely with Rasheed to ensure his strength remained at as high a level as possible during his fast. "But Saleem handled it very, very well. Not a lot of people even knew about it because he didn't make a big issue of it. It was a private issue to him."

Rasheed was pleased with the acceptance he got from his coaches and teammates, and says his openness helped the situation.

"Communication is key, because religion comes first in everything I do and I wanted to be up front with that," he says now. "I communicated to the coaches what I was going to do, and what I could and couldn't do."

Religious conflicts in sports have met with mixed reactions. When Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon of the Detroit Tigers declined to stand for the national anthem in the 1980's because, as Jehovah's Witnesses, they objected to the appearance of worshiping the American flag, they were accommodated without incident.

In 1996, the Denver Nuggets' Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf - citing his Muslim beliefs - also refused to stand for the "The Star-Spangled Banner." The NBA front office promptly suspended him. Abdul-Rauf defused the situation by agreeing to abide by the league rule, saying he would pray during that time instead. Abdul-Rauf had been unobtrusively refusing to stand for the anthem for weeks, but it became a public matter when talk show hosts in Denver caught on to the fact and played up the issue.

"It was not something anyone talked about in the locker room," says Drexler. "Whether anyone thought it was right or wrong was never a locker room issue."

Bears tight end Mark Anelli played with Saleem Rasheed in San Francisco. A devoted Christian, Anelli respected Rasheed's strong faith.

"I'm a very religious person myself," Anelli says. "Football is our job and we have to take care of that. There is a fine line between where you can talk about it and where you shouldn't. Plain and simply, we're all men and if we don't want to hear anymore about it, it's left at that."

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