Olajuwon wants to make her own name

"Having the last name, it's a gift and a curse. With a lot of people, there's no gray area. It's either ‘she's a great player' or ‘she's overrated.' But at the end of the day, I honestly have not yielded to their expectations of me because the opinions of people who are close to you are all that matters." — Abi Olajuwon

She carries a famous last name, but there is much more to 6-foot-3 Abi Olajuwon than the fact that she is the daughter of former Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon.

The most recognizable name on a stellar list of recruits signed by Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale in the November recruiting period, Olajuwon is a welcome addition to the youthful front line led by the Paris twins.

For her part, the 17-year-old, who wears her father's familiar No. 34, has become used to people having high expectations of her game because of her name.

"Having the last name, it's a gift and a curse," said Olajuwon. "With a lot of people, there's no gray area. It's either ‘she's a great player' or ‘she's overrated.' It's very black and white where people's perspectives are. But at the end of the day, I honestly have not yielded to their expectations of me because the opinions of people who are close to you are all that matters.

"My family, my close friends and my coaches, they're willing to take the time to help me adjust and work on what I need. Anyone that's judgmental or negative and not trying to help, there's no point in listening to them. I honestly feel the way to deal with it is if someone is willing to teach me something, I'm willing to learn. Yes, it does come with some expectations, but I can only be myself. I can't be my dad. It has taken me years to get acclimated to this and understand, but when I decided to play basketball I knew it would come with the territory. It hasn't affected me; it's been a blessing."

Olajuwon moved to California with her mother at the age of 2 and began taking basketball seriously in the seventh grade. During her high school career, she has led The Marlborough School — a private all-girls academy near her home in Sherman Oaks — to three consecutive Southern Section titles, while garnering All-California Interscholastic Federation honors the last two seasons. Olajuwon, who averaged 15.9 points and 14.4 rebounds per game as a junior, will be inducted to The Marlborough School Hall of Fame later this year.

Her attraction to Oklahoma came through her association with Ashley and Courtney Paris in summer basketball, who she considers role models. Olajuwon played with the Paris twins, as well as other current college freshmen stars Erika Arriaran of Texas and Jene' Morris of California, so those three schools started out at the top of her list. As the recruiting process continued, her focus changed to include different schools, but Oklahoma always remained on this list.

"For me, what it came down to at the end were all slower-paced areas. Baylor, Oklahoma, LSU, Rutgers — every school except for UCLA," Olajuwon said. "I've always lived a fast-paced lifestyle. There were always so many things to do. I felt like I wanted to go somewhere where the pace was slower so I could concentrate on the two things that are important to me — graduating with high academic honors while playing basketball at the highest level. I felt like Oklahoma provided me with that environment. And, yeah, it will be a culture shock, but with the people that I have around me — coach Coale, the coaching staff and the players — I'll be fine."

One of the deciding factors in Olajuwon's decision to come to Oklahoma was the sense of camaraderie she felt on her visit to the campus and in her contact with coach Sherri Coale. Unlike others who recruited her, Olajuwon felt Coale was just as interested in her as a person as she was a basketball player.

"The one thing that I just loved about coach Coale is that she's one of those coaches that was never forceful. There was never pressure that you have to make a decision or rushing me, or having to have an immediate answer or to force me into something where I was not comfortable," said Olajuwon. "She was always like, ‘If it's meant for you to be here, you'll be here.'

"And the thing that kind of really got me on the recruiting process is that she spent so much time to see if you're the right player. A lot of coaches are trying to court you and love you. She's more like, ‘I want to see if you fit in MY program.' Sometimes, I would get a little nervous. I was like ‘Oh, man!' It's like she wants the dynamics of her team to stay the same. She cares about her team so much it's like if there's the best player in the country and she doesn't fit with the team, she's not going to go after them. And for me, that was something that was just refreshing."

For her part, Coale is also excited about Olajuwon and the prospect of her teaming with the Paris twins in the future.

"Abi is going to be one of those kids who literally gets better right before your very eyes," said Coale. "She obviously has great size, excellent hands, and is a very physical, punishing type of player. What many people don't know about her is that she loves the intricacies of the game. She is a sponge for education. Couple her willingness to learn with her tremendous skill set and she should have a very special collegiate career."

Coale worked hard on recruiting Olajuwon and that fact also made an impression on the recruit.

"It's funny, because she was the first coach to come watch me practice. I was like two minutes late and I was so embarrassed and our coach, all he did was run us," Olajuwon said. "And she was just so happy. She said, ‘See, that shows equality. I see that she can run and condition.' She flew all the way out there and I didn't play.

"When I met her in person, I saw how intertwined her family and basketball were. They weren't separated; they coincided. Everything was together. How Chandler, (Coale's 9-year-old daughter) was at everything, it just goes together. There was no separation between her family and basketball, how that family environment was. And then, her seriousness when it came to the basketball perspective and practice, I knew that was something that I wanted. I know that when my four years are up, I don't need to worry that I'm not still part of that family. I really look up to her."

When asked how to assess her own basketball skills and what she would need to work on to prepare for the collegiate level, it's one of the few times the extremely articulate high school senior doesn't have an immediate answer.

"That's a hard question. I honestly don't know how to answer that," she said. "I'm an OK basketball player, but I have a lot to learn. There's a lot of stuff that might not be expected of me at the high school level that I'm going to have to do in college. You know, the Big 12 is so post-oriented that there is a lot of stuff that I will have to learn. I know at the end of the day, Sherri Coale will have me more than prepared and, with hard work, I have confidence I will learn those things. I see how she coaches her players on and off the court and I will be prepared for everything at the collegiate level.

"As far as being a player now, I feel I have the strength, but I need to work on everything, all aspects. I think I'm a good post player. I'm more comfortable playing with my back to the basket. But this year, my coaches have me doing a lot more facing the basket, driving and that's what I'm just working on to become a better player. I'm stepping out more. It's stuff that I've always worked on in practice. It's just now that I'm getting to work on that in game situations so I'll be more prepared when I get to college."

Regardless of how her basketball career turns out, it is hard to imagine that Olajuwon will not be a success in life. Her mother, Lita Richardson, is an entertainment executive and attorney, having been a vice-president for Magic Johnson Enterprises and now a movie and television producer and agent for several prominent stars, such as Vivica A. Fox.

Of course, the basketball exploits of her famous father are known worldwide. Even though he has not lived with her for many years and makes his residence in Houston, Hakeem is still close to his daughter and is there to offer advice.

"We talk about basketball. Of course, it's harder because we don't live in the same state," said Olajuwon. "My parents are always very supportive of my talents. If I ever need anything, there's never a hesitation. He's a very active part of my life at school and otherwise."

Even though she still has to complete her senior year, Olajuwon already considers herself a part of the OU women's basketball program. As part of a class that is rated among the top 10 nationally, she is ready to trade in her So Cal lifestyle for the laid-back pace of the Midwest.

"I'm so excited. I'll be in Norman the day after I graduate — as soon as possible," said Olajuwon. "I miss everyone on the team and I can't wait to get to summer school, start working on conditioning and be as ready as a person can possibly be for college basketball. I'll be at Oklahoma when I turn 18 (on July 6).

"I just want to contribute and learn and be a part of a school where we're building to the national championship. And when it happens — because it will happen — I will be thrilled that I was a part of it."

*This article was published in the February issue of Sooners Illustratd*

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