Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knew all of it was going to follow.
He just didn’t know when and quite how quickly.
Originally Chris Jackson, Abdul-Rauf is publicly re-exploring his nuanced legacy in “Stand,” a new Showtime documentary debuting on Feb. 3. Now 53, he also examines deeper elements to his story that hadn’t been as well-known.
“For the longest I’ve felt like I had something to say, but the older that I’ve become, the more that I’ve read, the more that I have experienced as well as seen, I think the conditions were right,” Abdul-Rauf told The Post ahead of the film’s premiere. “I feel good about the film, and I’m just anxious to know how other people will view it. The objective is always to get people to think, and for someone to benefit from it.”
Most importantly, and as similar debates continue in modern discourse, Abdul-Rauf wants people to think about his message, perhaps a bit closer than they did originally.
One of the NBA’s slickest ball handlers and best shooters — Phil Jackson once compared him to Stephen Curry — with the Nuggets, he converted to Islam in 1991 and in 1993 he changed his name. In 1996, he sparked wide-scale controversy when he refused to stand for the national anthem, claiming that, as a Muslim, he could not stand for injustice that was present in the country.
Unlike other protests by athletes (Colin Kaepernick, whom he shares a personal and professional relationship with), Abdul-Rauf did not draw attention to himself or necessarily intend to be seen. When the national anthem played, Abdul-Rauf either sat on the bench or continued to stretch and warm up off to the side. He did it for four months without being noticed publicly and it wasn’t until a sports radio host saw it happening and asked him about it that it gained attention. Normally soft-spoken, Abdul-Rauf explained his objection to the anthem and amid myriad of questions labeled the flag as a symbol of oppression.
Immediately, his actions and words erupted into a national story. He was promptly suspended by the NBA. Two years later, he was out of the league, unable to find a team willing to sign him.
“It started off as a personal protest, because of the things that I began to come across in terms of my reading and talking to people,” Abdul-Rauf said. “What I thought was going to happen, did eventually happen. Because when you do something like that, the more I read, the more my behavior began to change towards certain things. And so I eventually went from a guy who was silent, didn’t want to engage and get into conflict and debates, to a person that was willing to throw information out there and see how it feels.
“I think black people in particular but a lot of people, we’ve learned to live walking through life apologizing – apologizing for being black, apologizing for being rich, apologizing for being smart. I said ‘you know what? I’m not going to live my life as an apology.’ I felt that was going to happen at some point [his not standing being noticed]. And when it did, I’m going to address it. And it just came sooner than I thought, and I did what I thought I was going to do, and I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Born into poverty in Gulfport, Mississippi, and raised by a single mother, Abdul-Rauf overcame Tourette Syndrome to become one of the greatest college basketball scorers and shooters ever, and subsequently one of the sports world’s most-polarizing figures while in the NBA.
He averaged 29 points a game across two seasons at LSU and as a sophomore played with a freshman Shaquille O’Neal. Still Chris Jackson at the time, he led the SEC and was second in the country in scoring as a freshman and then led the SEC in scoring again as a sophomore. The 30.2 points per game he recorded his freshman season is the 10th-highest of any single season in NCAA history. He was named SEC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American both seasons before leaving for the NBA.
After convincing teams his Tourette Syndrome wouldn’t hinder his ability on the court, he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Nuggets in 1990. He made the All-Rookie second team his first season and broke out during his third season in 1992-93, scoring 19.2 points a game and earning the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Abdul-Rauf led the league twice in free throw shooting, in 1993-94 and 1995-96, but it was his shooting from deep and off-the-dribble that commanded attention. Steph Curry, who along with O’Neal, Steve Kerr, Jalen Rose, Ice Cube, Mahershala Ali and many more are featured in the documentary, was heavily-influenced by Abdul-Rauf’s style and willingness to shoot from anywhere. O’Neal claims playing with Abdul-Rauf was “like I was watching God play basketball.”
None of that mattered after his comments on the anthem, however. Abdul-Rauf found himself isolated.
Unlike some athlete-activist predecessors before him such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others, as well as modern athlete-activists who find strength in numbers, Abdul-Rauf didn’t find much, if any, support from other players around the league. In the film, Rose, who played with Abdul-Rauf on the Nuggets, claimed “we should have had his back and we didn’t.”
“When you take certain positions that you think are just, you’re hopeful that people will get it,” Abdul-Rauf said. “That they’ll support it, because it’s the right thing to do. But you’re not surprised when it doesn’t happen, because there are so many social conditions that take place throughout living. ‘Oh, keep your mouth shut. Protect your job. Don’t say nothing.’ And so you end up being a person that, no matter how much money you have, there’s this idea, this fear of losing something. As opposed to gaining something, that can benefit everybody. And you start becoming a person that you start surviving, and not living. And so it’s disappointing, but I’m not surprised, because of the social conditions.
“And another thing that’s disappointing is that a lot of these conversations, people are having on the bus. They’re having in practice. They’re having on the plane. They’re having in the barber shops. But when it’s time to go public, there’s this fear. It’s very disappointing, very disappointing.”
After he was suspended, Abdul-Rauf worked out a compromise with the league where he would stand, but pray during the anthem. After the season, though, the Nuggets offloaded Abdul-Rauf to the Kings, and his playing time promptly diminished significantly. He was heckled and threatened by fans constantly, and then-Nuggets coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff called him a “distraction” before trading him despite Abdul-Rauf leading the team in points and assists. After his contract expired two seasons later, he could not find another NBA suitor. Abdul-Rauf then played overseas in Europe before a brief return with the Grizzlies for part of the 2000-01 season.
Yes, he was able to return to the court after his protest, but Abdul-Rauf feels he was blackballed from the NBA and cheated out of much of his career – a sentiment that remains.
“Am I at peace? For the most part as an individual, yes. But I’m also not at peace because there’s not peace without justice,” Abdul-Rauf said. “So that’s constantly fluctuating. Do I have resentment? Yes, as long as things continue to be the way that they are, and people are doing pretty much the same things, I’m going to resent those things. I still have bitterness, but it doesn’t do away with the fact that by and large I’m still at peace, there’s a lot that I’m grateful for. But the NBA presents itself as being progressive. In comparison to the NFL, very much so. But they’re savvy, they’re savvy in how they approach it.”
In many ways, Abdul-Rauf has seen his legacy follow similar trajectories as other activists. Like Ali, Tommie Smith and other civil rights activists, he was ridiculed and met with vitriol in his time. But also like his predecessors, Abdul-Rauf has seen his legacy and how he’s viewed by others change more positively over time. After he retired and attempted to move back to his native Mississippi, Abdul-Rauf’s newly-built house was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. Now, he says he’s constantly stopped by individuals in public thanking him for what he did.
“What it says about activists, oftentimes you hear the phrase ‘they were before their time.’ But what it says about us and the system is that the system is so savvy, they’re able to continue to fool us and to make someone a person that we should embrace, make them the enemy,” Abdul-Rauf said.
But Abdul-Rauf doesn’t necessarily want an apology for how everything transpired. What he does hope for, though, is that his effort helps prevent the same mistakes from being made. He’s noticed strides, through the power of social media, in athletes coming together to make their voices heard and hold collective power. He’s also been disappointed, like in the aftermath of Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, that the same conversations are happening over and over in how the messenger is treated.
Currently, Abdul-Rauf lives in Atlanta. He trains a plethora of NBA players, is a public speaker and even competes in the Big3 basketball tournament.
And if he could do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate.
“I’m not perfect, but if people can say ‘you know what, this dude, he was raw. And he was relentless with trying to live the most truthful, God-conscious, justice-inspiring life that he could live, until the day that he died,’” Abdul-Rauf said. “And it came from a place of love, because it’s like the old saying goes, ‘Justice is what love looks like.’ If they can remember that, then I’m OK. If they don’t, then God knows best.”
- Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf revisits nuanced legacy in ‘Stand’
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