Hashim Khan, who rose from remote Peshawar to become one of the world’s greatest squash players and patriarch of the sport’s Pakistani dynasty, died Monday in Aurora, Colo., of congestive heart failure. His family estimated his age to be 100, but records of his birth in the Pashtun village of Nawakille, then part of the British raj, are spotty.
A fast-moving racket game developed in English boarding schools in the 1800s, squash generally bred champions from elite backgrounds. Mr. Khan “was the first one to break that barrier,” said S. Amjad Hussain, a Pakistani-born surgeon from Toledo, Ohio, and a columnist for The Toledo Blade, who met Mr. Khan in 1964, after the squash champion moved to Detroit to work as a pro. Dr. Hussain became close friends with Mr. Khan, and visited him last week in Colorado as his health declined. “Despite all his fame in the sport and his accomplishments, he remained a Pashtun at heart: unfettered hospitality and generosity.”
Pashtun culture also has a fierce side — “You want a Pashtun to be your friend, not an enemy,” Dr. Hussain added — and that aspect served Mr. Khan well in the game, in which two players occupy a four-walled court and bash the ball at speeds reaching 170 mph. Yet he maintained and enhanced the sport’s traditions of fair play. “He was always a gentleman, on and off the court,” said Dr. Hussain, a squash player himself.
Mr. Khan’s path to the game is legendary. “The dream merchants of Hollywood could not make a more romantic story than the rise of Hashim Khan,” wrote James Zug in “Squash: A History of the Game.” His father, Abdullah, was a chief steward at a British officers’ club in Peshawar. The young Hashim would watch the officers play — and at night, he sneaked into the courts to practice, barefoot. His father died when Mr. Khan was 11, and he dropped out of school to become a full-time ball boy. He honed his skills playing the officers in friendly games and later became one of the club’s squash coaches.
After Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, the new state was eager to promote itself in international venues. “The army and air force brass took an interest in him,” said Dr. Hussain, and supported Mr. Khan’s efforts to play abroad. In 1951, he burst onto the scene by winning the British Open — the Super Bowl of squash at the time — vanquishing the reigning champion, Mahmoud Karim, an elegant Egyptian.
“That made him something like a Jackie Robinson figure,” Mr. Zug said in an interview. “But the difference was that there was no hostility toward him at all in the sport, even though not many members of the clubs looked like him. In fact he was embraced. He was such a charming guy, a warm, ebullient person, and passionate about the sport.”
As Mr. Khan went on to win the British Open six more times, he encouraged family members to join him. His brother, Azam, won four titles. Mr. Khan’s cousin, Roshan, and nephew, Mohibullah Khan, each captured one. Jahangir Khan, the son of a cousin, dominated the scene at one point by winning 10 straight titles. All in all, the “Khan Dynasty” accounted for 23 British Open titles. “This was in their genes,” Dr. Hussain said.
Mr. Khan came to Pittsburgh in 1959 for the U.S. Open, making history along the way: His finals match was televised, marking the first broadcast of professional squash.
After working in Detroit for several years, Mr. Khan moved to the Denver Athletic Club, settling down and raising 12 children with his wife, who died in 2007. He continued to play for pleasure well into his 90s.
Duilio Costa, a Pittsburgh squash pro, said Mr. Khan “really changed the game of squash. He brought up the level of training and competition, and he just truly loved to play.” Mr. Khan was on the committee that certified Mr. Costa as a teaching professional in 1980. “He told me, ‘You must always tell the student: ‘Keep eye on ball.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
The Associated Press contributed. John Allison: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1915.