In 1994, when
7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon was leading the Houston Rockets to the first of two
straight NBA titles and becoming the league's MVP, it seemed the world wanted
nothing so much as his autograph. That very year the man nicknamed the Dream
had his own autograph seeker's thrill. He landed the signature of someone quite
different from himself--or perhaps not so different, for the noted architect
Philip Johnson dedicated a copy of his book Glass House, "From the artist
to an even greater artist."
Today Olajuwon, 44, proudly shows off that book in the living room of his home
in Sugar Land, Texas, outside of Houston, a house inspired by Johnson and such
modernist contemporaries as Richard Meier, Hugh Newell Jacobsen and Luis
Barrag�n, as well as the Venetian Palladian style and the traditions of
Olajuwon's Islamic faith. NBA big men are a lot like architects: Their first
loyalties are to the functional--score, rebound, block shots--but the best
synthesize existing modes with an artistic flourish or two. Like the
architecture of his house, Olajuwon's aesthetic in the low post blended the old
and the new. "To make the center position fun--that was my vision," he
says. "To add shakes and bakes and moves. If you're a center, you're
thought to be mechanical. But when I faced up on a guy, I was no longer a
center. I was a small forward."
knew which of the diverse skills, learned during his multisport upbringing in
Nigeria, the Dream would call upon: light feet from soccer, power and
craftiness from team handball, hand-eye coordination from table tennis, sudden
levitation from high jumping and volleyball. "My game was to play the same
as a little guy, a cat's game--but with big cats," says Olajuwon, who
averaged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds over 18 seasons, and won a gold medal
with 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 was
once heckled by fans who accused him of traveling; afterward he told the press
he was simply deploying "advanced moves." Hey, this was Bauhaus
basketball. If a few philistines couldn't appreciate it, that was their own
vernacular of the center position is straight out of the building trade--the
blocks, the post, the paint. Olajuwon himself was part of an imposing
structure: 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 blocked
shots could hardly have more appropriate postcareer pursuits than architecture
and its commercial sibling, real estate.
Upon arrival in an
NBA city, Olajuwon often would appraise the airport and downtown skyline. Even
the style of the arenas caught his eye, from the Japanese provenance of The
Rose Garden in Portland to the Hoosiers homage of Indianapolis's Conseco
Fieldhouse. "If you're not conscious of architecture, you miss a lot,"
he says. "Even a design you disagree with, you see the potential. When
somebody inspires your imagination, it gives you great joy."
Olajuwon had first
tried investing in stocks, but, he says, "stocks can give you a false sense
of security. Real estate--it's real." So during the 1990s he began to
explore opportunities around the city he has known since age 17, when he came
from his hometown of Lagos to play for the University of Houston. Now, with a
three-member support team, Olajuwon carefully studies satellite photos, traffic
data, appraisals of adjacent buildings and planned municipal improvements. If
he goes ahead with a deal, he'll put down only cash, in accordance with Islamic
strictures that prohibit the charging or paying of interest. "The comfort
zone is my Islamic principles," he says. "No borrowing, only what I can
handle. There won't be appreciation overnight. The risk is in the timing. We
know the value is there."
doesn't have to line up financing, the Houston real estate community loves
working with him, for contracts get consummated promptly. It's the advantage of
the quick first step, the very characteristic that distinguished the Dream as a
big man. "He's one of the most disciplined investors I've ever seen,"
says David Cook, a VP with real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield who
represents Olajuwon in dealings.
Olajuwon only buys
and sells; he doesn't develop. That may seem odd given his love of
architecture, but to be a developer he'd need a line of credit, which again
would 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 to
commission renderings of possible uses, to help a buyer see the potential.
Again and again real estate insiders in Houston have shaken their heads at some
property for which they believed Olajuwon had overpaid. Yet there he was a few
years later, turning it over at a handsome profit. He says he's made more money
in 10 years of playing the Houston real estate market than he made in 18
seasons with the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. "Plus," Olajuwon
says, "we can sleep at night, knowing that we don't owe anything." He
smiles. "Except property taxes."
Nearly every other
block of downtown Houston features some property in which Olajuwon has had a
role. Near the Convention Center and Minute Maid Park he has flipped two
adjacent plots to high-rise developers, one for offices, another for
apartments. He bought the land five years ago, when commercial builders didn't
foresee another inner-loop high-rise for 10 years. Now expansion of a
light-rail system has touched off a boom downtown, and the city is installing a
park next to the new towers. "Plans for the park weren't known when I
bought," Olajuwon says. "And that's why I can't say I'm so
He picked up a
1,200-space downtown parking garage in a sealed-bid auction and collected a
windfall 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 enhance
the value. Says Cook, "People went from 'How could he pay that much?' to
'We should have been more aggressive.'"