By Tony DeFazio
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
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
"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."