For many involved in basketball, Michael Jordan is God. But for former Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon, Jordan has an altogether different meaning: it means home. And his God is Allah.
The 46-year-old Muslim's "open and quiet life" in the Hashemite Kingdom is almost the antithesis of his years as arguably the best centre basketball has ever seen.
When the 6ft-10in Nigerian joined the Rockets in the 1984 NBA Draft from the University of Houston, he was the first pick – ahead of Jordan and Charles Barkley. Within a decade he had not only led his side to two successive championships, he also became the first player in NBA history to be simultaneously voted Most Valuable Player (MVP), Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in a single season.
Born in Lagos, Olajuwon became a naturalised American in 1993 after moving to Texas in 1980 and went on to help the United States win gold at the Atlanta Olympics. The same year, he was selected by a panel of experts as one of the "50 Greatest Players in NBA History" and when he stepped off the court for the final time six years later, the Rockets retired his No34 jersey in testament to his talents.
Olajuwon moved to the Middle East shortly after, having visited the region throughout his 18-year career. Now settled in Jordan – a country he says offers a "balanced, neutral society" – his children Rahmah and Aisha attend one of its many international schools, he visits the mosque as often as possible, and he and wife Dalia practise Arabic in a conducive environment. He seems content. He sounds comfortable.
Despite being close to midnight, he has just returned from his local mosque when he speaks to Emirates Business by phone from his family home in Amman. It is Ramadan and he is fasting, just as he did when he was playing.
"It is not difficult because it is something you look forward to," he says. "Fasting is really a training programme for your willpower. The concept of Ramadan is to control yourself – to restrain.
"Whether people around you are fasting or not doesn't make any difference. If people are eating and drinking in front of you, the willpower of the Muslim should be stronger. That's what the training is for.
"It's like somebody who swims in a pool or somebody who is swimming in the ocean. The ocean is stronger so makes a better swimmer.
"I find in the Arab World that when they are fasting, they say they are weaker and they don't work as hard. But it should be the opposite."
So does he explain this understanding to his local Muslim friends, I ask?
"Yes... but they think I am crazy," he says with a deep, hearty laugh.
"But it's true. When I was playing, we were travelling and all my team-mates were drinking water. To me, it didn't matter. It made me stronger and my statistics went up; I was better during Ramadan, more focussed… lighter."
During his career, Olajuwon was for ever the focus of the sports media throughout the holy month. His fasting was analysed across America and The New York Times described him as "depleted but dominating" in a 1997 match against Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
But this was the 1990s; Muslims in North American sports were not commonplace. Nowadays there are players such as Toronto Raptors' Hedo Türkoglu and, if rumours are to be believed, Shaquille O'Neal who have found faith in Islam.
"At the beginning of my career, when my team-mates heard I was fasting during the season they thought it would affect my game and were concerned," explains the 12-time All-Star. "But when they saw that it actually made me better there was a lot of admiration and intrigue: 'How can you play at this level without drinking water, when you must need water and must be thirsty' they would ask."
Despite some reports claiming Olajuwon persistently tried to convert his Christian team-mates, he insists, now at least, he simply just goes about his day.
"I don't go out to try and speak about Islam," says Olajuwon, who recently returned from a family pilgrimage to Mecca.
"If someone asks me a question about Ramadan I speak about Ramadan, if they ask me a question about basketball, I speak about basketball. If you don't ask I don't volunteer, and that's how it should be. That's what's so cool about it."
Basketball has faced a bad rap in recent years, from rape allegations levelled against Kobe Bryant in 2003 to Orlando Magic's Rashard Lewis's failed drugs test last month. But Olajuwon says the increased exposure is not to blame for players' actions, and neither are high salaries.
Olajuwon amassed a reported $99 million (Dh363m) during his career, but he maintains there is no such thing as too much money in professional sports – so long as those receiving it remain grounded and appreciate there are virtues more valuable than money.
"There can never be too much money in basketball – it's a business," says Olajuwon, who during his playing days donated two-and-a-half per cent of his annual income to the underprivileged.
"What's more important is that they can manage their fame for a good cause – there are lots of people like that. But you also have a lot of people where they don't know how to handle success and end up destroying their career. Someone who is rich, but who doesn't have [positive] principles – these people have no value."
Olajuwon returns to the States every so often – "whenever I have an engagement," as he puts it – and made the trip last year to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Less than a week later, a monument was unveiled outside the Houston Rockets' Toyota Center arena.
However, aware that a picture or likeness is against Islamic beliefs, the Rockets instead erected a 12-foot high bronze sculpture focussing on his famed No34 jersey. Now, even though Olajuwon may call Jordan home, he will for ever be in Houston.
x2 NBA Champion, Houston rockets (1994, 1995)
x1 NBA MVP (1994)
x12 All-Star (1985-90, 1992-97)
x2 Finals mvp (1994, 1995)
x2 NBA Defensive player of the year (1993, 1994)
x6 All-NBA First Team (1987, 1989, 1993-94, 1997)
x5 NBA All defensive first team (1987, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1994)
x1 NBA all-rookie team (1985)
NBA's 50th anniversary all-time team
x1 gold medal, us national team, atlanta olympics (1996)
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