NORMAN — Abi Olajuwon went to the Olympics and the NBA Finals, spent time around Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone, and traveled to Africa and Europe. And she did it all before finishing elementary school. You won’t find many 21-year-olds who’ve had a more interesting life than the Oklahoma center. Heck, there aren’t many people of any age who’ve done and seen what she has. All of it prepared her for the latest chapter in her fascinating story — a chance to achieve NCAA Tournament greatness, an opportunity that starts tonight against South Dakota State. She chose OU even though she knew she’d play behind her close friends Courtney and Ashley Paris for three years. She came to Norman even though she realized she’d probably have just one season as a starter. "I was putting all of my eggs in one basket,” Olajuwon said. "It could’ve gone bad.” It didn’t. She has started every game for the Sooners, averaging 10.2 points and 7.2 rebounds and providing veteran leadership and consistent production. "She put herself in a situation to be able to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself,” Sooner coach Sherri Coale said. "A lot of guys don’t do that. If they don’t get to play immediately, that’s it. They’re just satisfied with where they are. She has never been satisfied.” All of it is a tad ironic for a gal who never thought she’d be playing basketball. There was a time when the daughter of one of the greatest basketball players ever didn’t want anything to do with the sport. Never mind that her father was Hakeem Olajuwon. Abi and Hakeem have never had anything but a great relationship. Even though he hasn’t been around during her career like other famous fathers with daughters-turned-Sooners — Bubba Paris and Rich Hand among them — she doesn’t seem the least bit bitter. She thinks of him as a friend. She speaks of him like a fan. Daughter keeps regular contact with father even though the 47-year-old who retired from the NBA eight years ago lives most of the time in Jordan with his wife and two daughters. Many of Abi’s fondest childhood memories involve Hakeem. She was there when his Houston Rockets won NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. She walked on the confetti-littered court. She rode in the downtown victory parade. There were smaller, less celebrated memories that she cherishes every bit as much, like the outfits that her dad had custom made for the two of them. "My dress matched his shirt, and my jewelry matched his,” Abi said. "We were just — oh, my gosh — ridiculous.” She smiled at the memory. Still, she never wanted to play basketball as a kid. What she knew of the game came from watching her dad, and from what she saw, it didn’t look like all that much fun. "I saw him going to weights and coming home for a second and going to practice and coming back and being gone for two weeks,” Abi said. She wanted no part of it. Yet, she was a kid who tried everything. Chess. Piano. Ballet. Karate. Tap dance. "We sat through every kind of recital that you can possibly imagine,” her mom, Lita Richardson, said laughing. Abi eventually tried basketball, too. The more she played, the more she excelled and the more she liked it. And she was undaunted by having one of the best-known names in basketball. "She handles it very well,” said Courtney Paris, also a daughter of a professional athlete. "She doesn’t act like she’s better than anyone else. She doesn’t put too many expectations on herself. "She’s been raised well.” For that, Olajuwon had a network of support. Her mom has been a strong female role model. Now a features producer for "Dr. Phil”, Lita Richardson has also produced and directed movies, owned a talent management company, and represented actors and actresses. Still, she found time to drive Abi to practice or games. Her step-dad has been an encourager. Leonard Richardson goes running with Abi when she’s home on break and doesn’t want to go. He shoots with her and rebounds for her. He sends her text messages all the time, even during games. And her great-grandmother has been a constant. The woman who everyone knows simply as Granny lived in the same house or just next door throughout Abi’s childhood. She was there when everyone else was working or traveling or chasing a dream. Now, Olajuwon is chasing hers, and her family couldn’t be prouder. "Obviously, things don’t always go her way, but I think that’s when you grow and that’s when you develop your character when you dig in and hang in there,” her mom said. "That makes us all very proud to have her in our lives, to say she’s our Abi. "I’ve always laughed and said she had an entourage that adores her and would follow her to the ends of the earth.” Tonight, that means watching OU’s opener in the NCAA Tournament. Her mom will be at the Lloyd Noble Center. Her step-dad and Granny will be glued to the television in California. And her dad, well, his plans aren’t entirely known. Hakeem has seen most of Abi’s games — she isn’t sure how he’s managed to lay hold of the video since he spends most of his time living overseas — but he has yet to see one of her college games in person. "We’ve tried before in the past, and people have been really, really crazy,” Abi said. "At the end of the game, he couldn’t tell you the score, if I was in, what happened.” Now there’s talk that Hakeem might be at the Lloyd Noble Center tonight. "If he comes, it’ll definitely be impromptu,” Abi said. "It’ll be kept quiet. People will obviously notice because he’s 7-foot, but it’ll be one of those things where ... I’ll never tell anybody.” Hakeem never attending one of her college games could be a sore subject. She lived through his memorable moments; why isn’t he part of any of hers? Abi sees the positive, not the negative in the situation. "It just shows how blessed he is that that many people love him,” she said. "People truly, truly adored him as an athlete.” That was something she experienced firsthand. She saw the way fans cheered for him. She heard the way teammates talked about him. She will remember those things forever. Yet, for all that Abi Olajuwon has already seen and done, nothing compares to this time in her life. The Norman years. The Sooner days. "I’m not going to say every day was easy and there weren’t times where I wanted to leave,” she said. "I stayed, and I worked hard. "I look back at this season and see I did all right.” Turns out, no chapter in her life has been more interesting than the one she is still working to finish.
"I’m not going to say every day was easy and there weren’t times where I wanted to leave. I stayed, and I worked hard. I look back at this season and see I did all right.”