ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A remarkable champion died this week - a man who won seven British Opens, three U.S. Opens, three Canadian Opens and five British professional championship titles. And if the name Hashim Khan doesn't ring a bell like Bjorn Borg or Arnold Palmer, it's because his sport was squash. And for many years it really was his sport. Hashim Khan, who is believed it to be a 104, was a great player, a great coach and the founder of a squash dynasty. Three years ago he was the subject of a documentary film called "Keep Eye On Ball: The Hashim Khan Story."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEEP EYE ON BALL")
HASHIM KHAN: Keep eye on ball, you will control the game. You will be (unintelligible) the ball in time. You will be in right place, right time if you watch that ball.
SIEGEL: James Zug played squash with Khan. Zug writes for Squash Magazine and he's the author of the book , "Squash: A History Of The Game." He joins us now from the Wilmington, Delaware. How important is Hashim Khan to the history of the game of squash?
JAMES ZUG: He's probably the most important figure we've ever had in the game. He was our first global celebrity, and even today everybody's heard of him and the dynasty that he found.
SIEGEL: He was born over 100 years ago. Today we'd say it's Pakistan, but he was born in what was actually colonial India.
ZUG: Right. He was born in Peshawar in what was then the northwest frontier. He was born in a little village outside of town and grew up in a very, very different set of circumstances than he found himself at the end of his life.
SIEGEL: How did he learn to play squash?
ZUG: His father was a sort of a headwaiter at a club. It was a military club for British officers who were stationed in Peshawar. He would sort of sneak over to the club and jump on the squash court when nobody else was playing, usually in the middle of the day or at night. The courts were open air courts, and he would be able to play when the moon was out.
SIEGEL: So this little Indian kid - this little Muslim Indian kid takes up the game of the British soldiers and becomes the greatest player in the world.
ZUG: Yeah, it's an incredible story. He plays for years and years - never plays in tournaments, but just gets really good, mostly by playing against himself. He would play Hashim versus Hashim. That was how he trained himself. And in 1951, just after independence, Pakistan flew him over to the British Open. Nobody had ever heard of him, of course. And he went on to win the tournament easily, beating the celebrated player in the finals and instantly became an icon around the world. When he landed back in Pakistan, he was their first sporting hero, and over a million people came to the airport to meet him.
SIEGEL: And for years - I mean a big game in squash would typically be Khan versus some other Khan. Who were all the other squash playing Khans?
ZUG: Well, that's right. He immediately got his brother playing the game after he won the open, and then they got a relative - a sort of distant cousin through marriage. He started playing, and then Hashim's nephews started playing and his children and, you know, for the next 50 years they became - they were the dominant family in the game around the world.
SIEGEL: Squash is played with a racket that I guess looks like a stronger, somewhat longer badminton racket. What did Hashim Khan make of the game that has displaced it in much of the U.S., which is racquetball?
ZUG: That's a great question. When he came over racquetball basically didn't exist. It was sort of popularized in the late '60s, and I think for a lot of people like himself, who were playing the game before, they were dumbfounded at the incredible popularity that racquetball got in the '70s because the games are very similar. What's happened now - today is that squash is kind of on the ascendance and kind of capturing a lot of those people that were attracted to racquetball back in the '70s.
SIEGEL: James Zug, thanks a lot for talking with us about him.
ZUG: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: James Zug is the author of the book "Squash: A History Of The Game" and we were talking about Hashim Khan who died this week. It was thought that he was 104-years-old.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KEEP EYE ON BALL")
KHAN: I like the game. (Laughing) I just like the game. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.