NCAA women hoops: Olajuwon making her own name at Oklahoma
By MURRAY EVANS
Associated Press Writer
NORMAN, Okla. — During her first three seasons at Oklahoma, Abi Olajuwon heard the sermon many times from coach Sherri Coale — drop some weight and you’ll become a better player.
Then came an ultimatum of sorts after last season.
“Coach Coale gave me a number,” Olajuwon recalled. “She said, ’You will not step on this court for practice on day one if you don’t reach that number.’ I didn’t want to see if she was joking or not. She was like, ’You can reach this number on your own, or when practice comes, I’ll make you reach this number.”’
Thus motivated, the 6-foot-4 senior center started working to reach that goal — which, even now, she won’t publicly reveal. Trips to fast-foot restaurants, long a staple of Olajuwon’s diet, were out. Cooking at home was in, as were long workouts and hours in the gym, away from the spotlight.
She shed about 30 pounds and at a weigh-in the week before preseason practice started, Olajuwon had reached Coale’s target. Not coincidentally, the daughter of former NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon has looked like a brand-new player this season for the Sooners (23-10), who will host South Dakota State (22-10) on Sunday in a first-round NCAA tournament game.
“Her level of fitness has helped us throughout the whole year,” point guard Danielle Robinson said. “She runs the floor better, finishes better. That personal discipline has helped our team.”
Thrust into a starting role after three seasons of playing behind All-America center Courtney Paris, Olajuwon is the Sooners’ third-leading scorer at 10.2 points per game and ranks ninth in the ultra-competitive Big 12 Conference in rebounding at 7.2 per game and eighth in field-goal percentage (48.4). She’s also recorded four double-doubles, including one against then-No. 3 Nebraska.
“She put herself in a situation to be able to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself,” Coale said. “A lot of guys don’t do that. A lot of kids come in and think they’re supposed to play immediately. If they don’t get to play immediately, that’s it. They’re just satisfied with where they are. She has never been satisfied.”
Olajuwon was a McDonald’s All-America selection coming out of The Marlborough School in Los Angeles. Plenty of other colleges promised her playing time early in her career. But she knew the reputation of twins Courtney and Ashley Paris, who already were at Oklahoma, and said she wanted to be challenged every day in practice — even if it meant waiting her turn for playing time.
“I really didn’t feel like I was ready for collegiate basketball,” Olajuwon said. “To go and play on a public level and make mistakes and not get better, I guess some people want that because of playing time. I don’t knock anybody wanting to contribute, but I really wanted to get better as a player, and I felt like to get better, it takes more than coaches. You have to have players that are going to be the best.”
As a freshman, she played in 17 games, never scoring more than four points. She appeared in 19 games as a sophomore, recording a double-double in a blowout of overmatched Central Arkansas. Her playing time bumped up a bit as a junior, as she appeared in 27 games, averaging 1.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
Also last season, Olajuwon watched as Ashley Paris — who had dropped 25 pounds in the offseason — became a go-to player in her own right, helping the Sooners reach the Final Four. That example, combined with the knowledge the Sooners would need her to play a key role as a senior, motivated Olajuwon to reach her weight-loss goal.
“When you see it work and you see the productivity and the change from the year before ... I knew it was something I needed to do,” Olajuwon said. “The moment the Final Four was over, I knew I had to commit to it.”
Coale said her role was minimal in the whole process.
“She made a commitment,” Coale said. “That’s always what it is, when you see a kid do that. They change their body, they change their lifestyle, they change their eating habits. They change their exercise regimen. They do it — we don’t do it. Ever.”
Robinson spent much of the summer away from Norman, playing on various USA Basketball teams. All summer, her teammates had told Robinson she would be surprised the next time she saw Olajuwon. On Robinson’s first day back in August, the two crossed paths.
“I was actually walking into the (women’s basketball) office, and she was walking out,” Robinson said. “I was like, ’Is that Abi?’ I couldn’t believe it. They told me I wouldn’t believe it ... and that was the case.”
The weight loss wasn’t the only change for Olajuwon. She also switched her jersey number to 34, the one made famous by her father when he led the Houston Rockets to two NBA titles.