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American Dream

July 02, 2007
July 02, 2007

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July 2, 2007

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American Dream

Infused with a passion for architecture and guided by his Islamic faith, the Hall of Fame center has scored big as Houston's most distinctive real estate magnate

In 1994, when7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon was leading the Houston Rockets to the first of twostraight NBA titles and becoming the league's MVP, it seemed the world wantednothing so much as his autograph. That very year the man nicknamed the Dreamhad his own autograph seeker's thrill. He landed the signature of someone quitedifferent from himself--or perhaps not so different, for the noted architectPhilip Johnson dedicated a copy of his book Glass House, "From the artistto an even greater artist."

Today Olajuwon, 44, proudly shows off that book in the living room of his homein Sugar Land, Texas, outside of Houston, a house inspired by Johnson and suchmodernist contemporaries as Richard Meier, Hugh Newell Jacobsen and LuisBarragàn, as well as the Venetian Palladian style and the traditions ofOlajuwon's Islamic faith. NBA big men are a lot like architects: Their firstloyalties are to the functional--score, rebound, block shots--but the bestsynthesize existing modes with an artistic flourish or two. Like thearchitecture of his house, Olajuwon's aesthetic in the low post blended the oldand the new. "To make the center position fun--that was my vision," hesays. "To add shakes and bakes and moves. If you're a center, you'rethought to be mechanical. But when I faced up on a guy, I was no longer acenter. I was a small forward."

This is an article from the July 2, 2007 issue Original Layout

Defenders neverknew which of the diverse skills, learned during his multisport upbringing inNigeria, the Dream would call upon: light feet from soccer, power andcraftiness from team handball, hand-eye coordination from table tennis, suddenlevitation from high jumping and volleyball. "My game was to play the sameas a little guy, a cat's game--but with big cats," says Olajuwon, whoaveraged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds over 18 seasons, and won a gold medalwith the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1993.)"One or two hard dribbles in traffic. Quickness. And timing."

In Utah he wasonce heckled by fans who accused him of traveling; afterward he told the presshe was simply deploying "advanced moves." Hey, this was Bauhausbasketball. If a few philistines couldn't appreciate it, that was their ownfault.

Indeed, thevernacular of the center position is straight out of the building trade--theblocks, the post, the paint. Olajuwon himself was part of an imposingstructure: For three seasons he and 7'4" Ralph Sampson formed the Rockets'Twin Towers. In light of all that, the NBA's alltime leader with 3,830 blockedshots could hardly have more appropriate postcareer pursuits than architectureand its commercial sibling, real estate.

Upon arrival in anNBA city, Olajuwon often would appraise the airport and downtown skyline. Eventhe style of the arenas caught his eye, from the Japanese provenance of TheRose Garden in Portland to the Hoosiers homage of Indianapolis's ConsecoFieldhouse. "If you're not conscious of architecture, you miss a lot,"he says. "Even a design you disagree with, you see the potential. Whensomebody inspires your imagination, it gives you great joy."

Olajuwon had firsttried investing in stocks, but, he says, "stocks can give you a false senseof security. Real estate--it's real." So during the 1990s he began toexplore opportunities around the city he has known since age 17, when he camefrom his hometown of Lagos to play for the University of Houston. Now, with athree-member support team, Olajuwon carefully studies satellite photos, trafficdata, appraisals of adjacent buildings and planned municipal improvements. Ifhe goes ahead with a deal, he'll put down only cash, in accordance with Islamicstrictures that prohibit the charging or paying of interest. "The comfortzone is my Islamic principles," he says. "No borrowing, only what I canhandle. There won't be appreciation overnight. The risk is in the timing. Weknow the value is there."

Because Olajuwondoesn't have to line up financing, the Houston real estate community lovesworking with him, for contracts get consummated promptly. It's the advantage ofthe quick first step, the very characteristic that distinguished the Dream as abig man. "He's one of the most disciplined investors I've ever seen,"says David Cook, a VP with real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield whorepresents Olajuwon in dealings.

Olajuwon only buysand sells; he doesn't develop. That may seem odd given his love ofarchitecture, but to be a developer he'd need a line of credit, which againwould go against the Koran. Still, his design sense gives him an advantage.When it's time to resell a property, he'll invest thousands of dollars tocommission renderings of possible uses, to help a buyer see the potential.Again and again real estate insiders in Houston have shaken their heads at someproperty for which they believed Olajuwon had overpaid. Yet there he was a fewyears later, turning it over at a handsome profit. He says he's made more moneyin 10 years of playing the Houston real estate market than he made in 18seasons with the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. "Plus," Olajuwonsays, "we can sleep at night, knowing that we don't owe anything." Hesmiles. "Except property taxes."

Nearly every otherblock of downtown Houston features some property in which Olajuwon has had arole. Near the Convention Center and Minute Maid Park he has flipped twoadjacent plots to high-rise developers, one for offices, another forapartments. He bought the land five years ago, when commercial builders didn'tforesee another inner-loop high-rise for 10 years. Now expansion of alight-rail system has touched off a boom downtown, and the city is installing apark next to the new towers. "Plans for the park weren't known when Ibought," Olajuwon says. "And that's why I can't say I'm sosmart."

He picked up a1,200-space downtown parking garage in a sealed-bid auction and collected awindfall when construction later wiped out three blocks of on-street parking,goosing the number of garage spaces under contract from 150 to nearly 1,000.The result of that construction--an indoor shopping mall--will further enhancethe value. Says Cook, "People went from 'How could he pay that much?' to'We should have been more aggressive.'"

Last November,Olajuwon bought an unoccupied Italianate mansion on 41 acres,strategically wedged between the Johnson Space Center and Clear Lake. He plansto sell off parcels to developers. "Islam is not about giving upanything," Olajuwon says. "It's about balance, doing things inmoderation. You still do business, but you don't do greed. The concept issimplicity. But it's deceptive"--here he laughs--"because to simplifyis complicated!"

Toward the end ofhis NBA career Olajuwon would spend off-seasons in Jordan, studying Arabic sohe could read the Koran in the original. Now he inverts that schedule. Hespends three or four months in Houston, checking up on his investments andtutoring NBA big men. The rest of the year he's in a farmhouse outside Amman,with his wife, Dalia, and their five children, ages 10 to two. Abisola, hisdaughter with his college sweetheart, Lita Richardson, will be a 6'3"sophomore center at Oklahoma next season.

No deal has meantmore to Olajuwon than his very first real estate play, in the early 1990s. JohnBallis, a member of his real estate team, took him by a historic bank buildingon Main Street, built in 1928 by future Texas governor Ross Sterling. "Itwas boarded up and awful looking, and could be had for a song," Ballisrecalls. "I'm saying, 'Oh, it could be a hotel with a nice restaurant.'Hakeem quit listening. I went home that night and said to my wife, 'I don'tunderstand--Hakeem doesn't seem interested.' My wife said, 'Maybe it's becauseit looks like a mosque.'"

The two returned ashort time later, and Ballis assured Olajuwon that the old bank could becomeanything he wanted. After three years' renovation the Islamic Da'Wah Centeropened in 1995. Today the old bank vault houses a library of sacred texts, andprayer services take place twice daily beneath a gilded dome. Da'Wah meansinvitation but also has connotations of information and welcome. "That'sArabic," Olajuwon says. "To explain one word, you need manywords."

Or, as anyKoran-reading, post-play revolutionizing, architecture-loving real estate baronwill tell you, to simplify is complicated.

"Islam is about balance, doing things inmoderation," says Olajuwon. "You still do business, but you don't dogreed."
PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (OLAJUWON ACTION)PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Joe McNally7 Feet and Growing
When he and his family aren't in Jordan, Olajuwon finds time to study at hisstylish house outside Houston
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (COVER)PHOTOJOE MCNALLY Keepingthe Faith
Hakeem sometimes attends prayer services in the former downtown bank he boughtand turned into a mosque.