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Hakeem Olajuwon explains why he fasted during Ramadan and was still the most dominant player in NBA

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Had Hakeem Olajuwon been playing basketball in today’s media-saturated world of social networking and 24-hour rolling news, he would be one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet.

Instead, one of the most dominant centers to play in the NBA was able to shun the limelight, dedicate himself to Islam and retire to a life of relative obscurity. Yet while these achievements are remarkable in themselves, it was Olajuwon’s ability to play at a high level during Ramadan that caught the eye.

The holy month of fasting, which is the fourth of Islam’s five pillars, is a unique challenge (albeit a highly rewarding one) that more than one billion Muslims around the world face every year. Ramadan is confronted by high-level athletes, whose current and/or future livelihood depends on keeping their bodies in prime physical condition. However, their obligation to Allah calls them to forgo food and drink during daylight hours for 30 straight days once a year.

While fasting and having taken on no fluids for more than 12 hours ahead of game time, when tip-off arrived, his statistics would go up rather than down. Hakeem felt lighter and more energetic than at other points in the season. Especially when his job involved going toe-to-toe with some of the greatest NBA players in history: Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Robert Parish, and Dikembe Mutombo. These players were some of the superstar centers and 7-footers who played against Olajuwon during his 18-year professional career.

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Olajuwon could not be a more devout Muslim. He carries a compass so he can pray toward Mecca from any basketball arena. Hakeem reads the Qur’an on airplanes and visits mosques in cities where he plays. He gives 2½% of his annual income to the poor and arranges his daily errands around prayer times.

“God comes first. Paradise is not cheap.”

Olajuwon 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 an exclusive responsibility.

“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."

As difficult as the month seems to most people, Olajuwon says it is a gift.

“You feel so privileged, because this is a month of mercy, forgiveness, getting closer to God. You do more good deeds in this month. You read more of the Qur’an. You study more. You wait for it. You look forward to it.”

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