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American Dream
ALEXANDER WOLFF
July 02, 2007
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
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July 02, 2007

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

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

Toward the end of his NBA career Olajuwon would spend off-seasons in Jordan, studying Arabic so he could read the Koran in the original. Now he inverts that schedule. He spends three or four months in Houston, checking up on his investments and tutoring 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, his daughter with his college sweetheart, Lita Richardson, will be a 6'3" sophomore center at Oklahoma next season.

No deal has meant more to Olajuwon than his very first real estate play, in the early 1990s. John Ballis, a member of his real estate team, took him by a historic bank building on Main Street, built in 1928 by future Texas governor Ross Sterling. "It was boarded up and awful looking, and could be had for a song," Ballis recalls. "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't understand--Hakeem doesn't seem interested.' My wife said, 'Maybe it's because it looks like a mosque.'"

The two returned a short time later, and Ballis assured Olajuwon that the old bank could become anything he wanted. After three years' renovation the Islamic Da'Wah Center opened in 1995. Today the old bank vault houses a library of sacred texts, and prayer services take place twice daily beneath a gilded dome. Da'Wah means invitation but also has connotations of information and welcome. "That's Arabic," Olajuwon says. "To explain one word, you need many words."

Or, as any Koran-reading, post-play revolutionizing, architecture-loving real estate baron will tell you, to simplify is complicated.

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