SBJ/October 15 - 21, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Muslim players take the lead in getting their message out after Sept. 11

Representing Muslim NBA players during and beyond terrorist attacks

PR Team: Ira Silverman, president of Silverman Media & Marketing Group
Clients: Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors; Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Denver Nuggets

Ira Silverman, of Silverman Media & Marketing Group, represents two foreign-born Muslim NBA players: Hakeem Olajuwon of the Toronto Raptors and Tariq Abdul-Wahad of the Denver Nuggets. When terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, the two players felt compelled to voice their sorrow for the victims and their families and to come to the defense of Islam.

From a PR standpoint, it could also be argued that the statements needed to be released immediately, especially from Olajuwon, whose Muslim beliefs have been well-documented. Both players released statements within a few days of the attack. Neither player consulted Silverman on the content of his message.

Olajuwon's statement came in the form of a Houston Chronicle article four days after the attacks.

Olajuwon, a U.S. citizen since 1995, said: "[Muslims] share the same compassion and frustration and feelings. You cannot be a decent human being and not have those same feelings. This is a crime against [Muslims]. We are raising funds for the victims. It is our responsibility."

In the article, Olajuwon also addressed at length how the tragedy would contribute to the misunderstanding of his religion.

"My reaction, beyond the sadness for the lives that were lost, is that this is a very big setback for [Muslims]," Olajuwon said. "The Muslims in America are now the images of the crime, and this fulfills the stereotype. It puts us in a very bad position ... having to explain to a country where we are still in the great minority that the actions of a few cannot be allowed to represent all Muslims."

Abdul-Wahad, on his Web site, decried the attack as a "condemned act" and a "horrible crime." Like Olajuwon, he also came to the defense of Islam, stating, "I would like to say once again that what happened in New York and Washington, D.C., is strictly condemned by Islam and Muslims. It is completely forbidden in Islam to kill innocent people. Those acts have therefore no spiritual basis. What happened are simply cold-blooded murders."

After the Houston Chronicle article ran, Silverman knew that other media would be seeking interviews, but he did not solicit attention for Olajuwon. He didn't think it was appropriate to take advantage of media opportunities that were associated with such a horrific event.

This was a sound PR decision. Silverman worked with select media and mainly granted phone interviews. The PR plan was to disseminate and facilitate interviews, not seek them out. To date, Silverman and Olajuwon have granted interviews to Newsweek, The Associated Press, NBA Inside Stuff and ESPN.

Silverman, who works on a project-to-project basis for Olajuwon, will now work with the Toronto Raptors' PR department in the event that other appropriate media opportunities present themselves.

For six years, Silverman has worked with Olajuwon, providing general PR counsel for his off-the-court endeavors. Silverman is heavily involved in Olajuwon's "Dream Foundation," which gives scholarship money to Houston-area college-bound high school seniors.

For Abdul-Wahad, Silverman has worked on a monthly retainer program for two years. He offers general PR counsel and manages Abdul-Wahad's youth foundation, which provides inner-city children a tour of an art museum in their community. The foundation also affords scholarship funds to kids from France and French-speaking countries to play basketball and study in the U.S.

Working with players who have such strong Muslim beliefs is a challenge for Silverman. For example, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims must fast when the sun is up, interviews and foundation/charity work must be kept to a minimum so that the players can conserve as much energy as possible.

For both of his Muslim clients, Silverman must follow a rule regarding PR: The three most important elements are always family, religion and basketball. Publicity takes a back seat to all of those.

The September attacks set back the progress Olajuwon, Abdul-Wahad and many other Islamic followers were making in helping the U.S. better understand their religion. It will take a strong and appropriate media push from the likes of Olajuwon to better communicate the true meaning of Islam.

Wayne Henninger (wayne@wavepr.com) is co-founder of Sports Wave in Washington, D.C.

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