Remembering Michael Jordan’s defeat by a fasting Hakeem Olajuwon during Ramadan

For a fleeting moment, Hakeem the Dream was our Muslim-Houstonian emissary to the rest of the world taking on the presumably indomitable Jordan. 

By David Icke Turner

It was a cold, sleepy Sunday in January of 1997. My Beiruti mother was working feverishly on preparing the typical Sunday feast as the rest of us lazily lounged around our Southwest Houston home. Yet somehow, the stars aligned that day where we managed to do something together our family had never done since immigrating to Houston in 1979: watch a Rocket’s game together. My older brother was the only real sports fan in the house. My parents much preferred watching the news and yelling at the television than partaking in what may have seemed to them to be an absurd American obsession with watching sports. My mother and father were first generation immigrants from Lebanon and Iraq respectively. In many ways, we were crypto-Muslims. Growing up through the Lebanese hostage crisis and the 1st Iraq War proved difficult to navigate in Texas at the time. My parents told us to tell other kids we were Iraqi during the hostage crisis and Lebanese during the Desert Storm. The neighbors families would often invite my brother and I to evangelical church gatherings to attempt and convert us. We even got to see The Power Team. Whenever the neighborhood kids would get together and wrestle, I always had to be the Iron Sheik. Needless to say, finding pride in being an American Muslim was just about impossible. That changed for me, just enough, on the 2nd day of Ramadan in 1997. Unwittingly, my father, uncle, sister, and brother and I gathered in the living room to watch the game.

In the days preceding the game, local media was full of dismissals of Olajuwon’s abilities as they knew he would be fasting during this high-profile game against Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Abstaining from food and water from morning until sundown, the Nigerian center was deemed to be far too handicapped to defeat ‘His Airness’. The implications to this game underscored the tension. The Bulls and the Rockets comprised the last two NBA championship teams and this was a nationally televised rematch. Jordan was semi-retired during Houston’s back to back championships. This left fans with the murky question as to whether the Rockets were truly a championship team or if they merely got the consolation prize during Jordan’s short lived retirement. To top it off, an injured Charles Barkley was relegated to the sidelines. 

The Bulls controlled the opening tip and scored first. Warming into his groove, Olajuwon missed his first reply attempt but quickly adjusted to score the Rocket’s open points for the game. Any idea that The Dream was not here to play was quickly put to rest. After initially struggling to find their footing, The Rockets took a 10 point lead late in the first quarter. With every trademark Dream Shake, Olajauwon pulled off successfully, the more pronounced our tribalism became. Again, screaming at the television is an Arab sport unto itself and there was no apprehension at yelling down the seemingly arrogant Jordan from my family. My father, blind and in failing health at the time, would periodically turn to my brother and I to ask exactly what just happened. The yells reached fever pitch every-time Hakeem made one of his 16 rebounds; drawing my mom out of the kitchen to see what the commotion was all about. Jordan played a great game scoring 26 points and 14 rebounds but it was insufficient to match the tenacity Hakeem Olajuwon brought that day. 

” I’ve always felt it was not up to anyone else to make me give my best. ” – Hakeem Olajuwon

Olajuwon told The Undefeated, “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.” 

For a fleeting moment, Hakeem the Dream was our Muslim-Houstonian emissary to the rest of the world taking on the presumably indomitable Jordan. 

After a 19-0 run in the fourth quarter, the Rockets went on to defeat Jordan and the Bulls 102-86. Olajuwon played 39 grueling minutes without food or water and led his team with 32 points and 16 rebounds. But there is no moral to this story other than you do not know what you will get out of people when their backs are against the wall. My family was never strict about fasting or religion. My father was an atheist until shortly before he died. It has not been until recent years that spiritual practice has taken a larger role in my life. But today marks the first day of Ramadan and the quarantine makes this one a little different. I hope not only to successfully fast but to also keep in mind the millions of people who are right now going through unprecedented adversity. It is a good time to remember just exactly how resilient we all are. 

After the game, Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, “If this doesn’t quiet down the questions about Ramadan, I don’t know what will.”

Ramadan Kareem.

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 32 pts, 16 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 5 blks

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