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.