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Saturday, June 19, 2010
Olajuwons' bond more than basketball

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Abi Olajuwon
Abi Olajuwon has "a great relationship" with her father, NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon.

Their relationship wasn't that of Dad being home from work at 6 p.m., reading stories at bedtime, chasing "monsters" from closets. It wasn't rebounding missed shots on the driveway rim, or sitting in the passenger seat looking outwardly calm but inwardly roiling as the new driver makes use of her learner's permit. It wasn't those daily experiences, mundane and remarkable.

But neither that sad cliché of the famous father too busy and self-absorbed to do much more than sign checks. It wasn't the daughter desperate to connect, trying anything to be a part of his world.

No, the relationship between Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the most highly regarded basketball players ever, and his daughter Abi, now a 6-foot-4 rookie center with the WNBA's Chicago Sky, is a real-life reflection of what many fathers and children face, and how they make the best of it.

Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon, a center who led Houston to two NBA titles, was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008.

As we celebrate Father's Day, we tend to focus on the idyllic as if it were always attainable, even though we see all around us that it's not. Loving relationships often don't work. Marriages end. Careers become consuming. Children grow in spite of it all.

Abi's parents didn't stay together. Millions of couples don't. And when you add in the travel demands of a professional athlete, which Hakeem was until Abi was in high school, the possibility for an unbridgeable gap developing exists even with the best-intentioned fathers.

"A lot of people don't have great relationships with their fathers," Abi said. "And I look back and appreciate the fact that I did have and still do have a great relationship with my dad.

"My dad wasn't the dad who could take me to all the basketball tournaments or things like that. But he was always there for me, and always supportive of my dreams."

The story of the Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon is very well known, from Phi Slama Jama at the University of Houston, to bringing two NBA titles to the Houston Rockets, to U.S. citizenship and an Olympic gold medal for the United States, to the Naismith Hall of Fame.

The story of Abi is not even necessarily well known to women's basketball fans, because she spent the majority of her college career at Oklahoma as a backup in the shadow of twins Courtney and Ashley Paris. But there is a definite tortoise-and-hare feel to Abi's ascent, and her father thinks she's still rising.

"She still has tremendous potential," Hakeem said. "And the more she competes, the better she will get.

"That was her own decision [to go to Oklahoma]. Nobody would think when you have people like the Paris sisters there, that she would go there. They'd think you'd go away somewhere else so you'd play more. But she wanted to play against the best and learn from them, and she was prepared to take the final step in her final year. And it paid off for her. It was a very wise decision, but you have to be very patient."

As a senior, after the Paris sisters graduated, Olajuwon started all 38 games, averaging 10.6 points and 7.3 rebounds and helping Oklahoma make its second consecutive Final Four appearance. Then as a third-round WNBA draft pick -- which, especially with 11-player rosters, is hardly a welcome mat into the league -- she made the team for the Chicago Sky.

Abi Olajuwon
Despite being a third-round pick, Abi Olajuwon made the Sky's 11-player roster. She has played in five of Chicago's 11 games.

Once again, Abi is a backup for a star: Sylvia Fowles. And once again, Abi's attitude is about looking at long-range improvement and being a teammate.

"I take the same mentality here that I did [at OU]," she said. "I go to practice to work as hard as I can playing against one of the best players in the WNBA. I get that opportunity every day.

"When you have a game, you hope for the best. You prepare and get ready. I go into every game thinking if Sylvia has three fouls, they may call my number. I never go in there thinking, 'Oh, I'm a rookie, I might not play.' If they need me, I'm completely ready."

Abi and her mother, Lita Richardson, an entertainment attorney and producer, moved to California from Houston when Abi was very young. Much of the poise, intellect and savvy that Abi showed as she navigated her way through college -- first as the support system and then in the starting five -- is a direct reflection of her mother's influence.

Meanwhile, Hakeem, traveling in the NBA and then overseas during the offseason, had to explain to Abi that being "on the road" a lot was an inflexible requirement of a professional athlete.

"Growing up, I didn't always understand that," she said. "Obviously, you just want to spend time with your dad. He retired while I was in high school, so I really got to see from the pinnacle of his career to his retirement.

"Now with basketball as my occupation, I feel like all the things he tried to explain to me when I was younger -- that I just didn't understand or didn't want to -- I really have a lot more respect for it now since I'm going through it myself."

Abi has a pragmatic view of the WNBA and her place in it, knowing that jobs are at a premium and that she's still just trying to find her way.

"We're in two very different positions -- him being the No. 1 pick and me being a third-round pick with no guarantee of a position at all," Abi said of her father, who went first in the 1984 NBA draft. "He told me, 'You have to prove to them you deserve to be here.' I feel like so far it's paid off, but it's still hard to find your footing in the WNBA."

If there was one thing above all else that Hakeem hoped Abi picked up from watching him play, it was the necessity of toil. And also the joy of it.

"I think she saw how hard I worked in my own career, so she knew exactly what it takes to succeed," Hakeem said. "And I wanted her to feel comfortable that she wasn't walking in my shoes, so there is no extra pressure on her.

"Sports builds community, teaches you the way you work on a team. It teaches you courage, because it can be intimidating. To have the courage to compete. It gives you character to face challenges. I wanted to let her to find her own comfort with it."

Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem Olajuwon, who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Jordan, didn't get to see daughter Abi play in college until April's Final Four.

And while he did not want Abi to feel she had to play basketball, he was thrilled that she did. He sees the value in being involved in athletics as universal, equally applicable to the strategy of successfully raising sons or daughters.

"If you engage in athletics, it will take your mind away from negative aspects of life," he said. "It's constructive, it's something to help you develop skills, it improves your health, gets you that sense of community to achieve a goal. What a great blessing where you have people from all different backgrounds coming together as a team and helping each other and sharing with each other.

"That kind of thing, you can't teach it. You have to experience it and feel it to know that, 'Wow, it is beautiful to be on a team.' Especially a winning team. You keep that through your whole personal life with your goals, the qualities that you gain from sport can be translated to how to achieve whatever goal you set."

Hakeem; his wife, Dalia; and their children are based in Jordan, and he comes to the United States for a few months at a time. He has a foundation based in his native Nigeria, plus a real-estate business in Houston.

"I traveled constantly for 20 years, and now it's different," he said. "I'm not fixed on time and a schedule, because I did that my whole career. Now when I go to a place, I stay there for a while."

So he is rarely in the United States during college basketball season, and he didn't see Abi play in person until the Final Four in April. Her mother and her stepfather were there for many more of the "moments" along the way, and she's grateful to have had them.

Yet Abi doesn't sound at all as if she's feels slighted about her relationship with her father. To the contrary, she seems to have focused on what it has been -- and not what it hasn't been.

For Hakeem, he'll reflect on Father's Day about what he and his daughter have shared -- but also on the things she has become that belong to her alone. Something all fathers perhaps should do, while also realizing the infinite ways they affect their children, whether they're far away or nearby.

"She has the passion, the hunger, she loves it," Hakeem said of Abi's making basketball a career. "She wanted to do something she loves. It's not because she's my daughter -- she wanted to make her own name. This is all her own achievement."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.