The revival of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

February 17, 2017, 10:41 AM

— -- When Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf arrived earlier this month in Michigan for a speaking engagement, only a week had passed since President Trump announced a travel ban against immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The action had sparked international protests, a clash between the judicial and executive branches and heightened fears within the world's second-largest religious population.

Abdul-Rauf's visit to Michigan felt exceedingly timely -- at the confluence of an amplified level of sports activism and a turbocharged political environment. His invitation to the Islamic Center of Detroit had been engineered by Malak Silmi, a 17-year-old high school senior who was part of the mosque's youth activism board. She had been inspired by Abdul-Rauf's story -- that of a dirt-poor childhood, of a single-minded quest, of NBA stardom, of a conversion to Islam, and of a controversial protest against the national anthem some two decades ago. The teenager thought Abdul-Rauf's presence would be ideal during Black History Month.

"He strongly believed in a thing, and he strongly defended it," says Silmi, who is Palestinian and says she hasn't stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at Dearborn High since her freshman year. "... It just makes me think that we actually are a powerful population, a powerful minority in America."

The Islamic Center of Detroit sits on the border of Dearborn, a suburb with an estimated Muslim population at close to 50 percent. Abdul-Rauf viewed the travel ban "as an affront to Muslims worldwide and an attack on the religion itself," and so just before he began telling his story to the audience of more than 300 men, women and children, he needed first to be heard on the ban: "Especially in light of everything we're experiencing now, it is more urgent to become relentless and [fearless] in speaking out."

Abdul-Rauf's visit was part of a revival of sorts, spurred by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem last year in protest of oppression against African-Americans and police brutality. Indeed, long before Trayvon Martin, before Black Lives Matter, before Ferguson, before Trump's travel ban, there was Abdul-Rauf, in 1996, a Denver Nuggets guard who had become a practicing Muslim and subsequently refused to acknowledge the anthem on religious and political grounds.

And so, over the past six months, Abdul-Rauf has been in demand, at places such as a San Francisco high school, where the entire football team had taken a knee a la Kaepernick; at Yale University, where Abdul-Rauf spoke to two classes and then a group of about a 100 people who watched a documentary about his life; at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers; and at the Dallas Chapter of the National Black United Front, where he gave a keynote speech titled, "Standing on Principles to Advance Human and Civil Rights."

To spend time with Abdul-Rauf these days can be at once uplifting and depressing, motivational yet unsettling. Over a series of interviews with Outside the Lines, he showed himself to be thoughtful on the one hand, frequently poetic in expressing his views on life and social justice, as when he told a group of Yale students, "For me, I would rather live with a free conscience and die with a free soul." But he also was confounding in ways that seemed to undermine his reason or message of hopefulness, whether indulging conspiracy theories (9/11 was an "inside job"), or insisting he's owed an apology and possibly money because he had been blackballed by the NBA, or suggesting that our current civilization could be headed for a collapse akin to the Roman Empire.

"If you look at 20 years ago, I didn't stand for the flag, and 20 years later Kaepernick is doing the same thing," Abdul-Rauf says. "You look at some of the same issues that we were confronted with -- whether it's Gulf War I, whether it's weapons of mass destruction, whether it's the war against terrorism, now the Muslim ban. I mean, there are so many similarities. I just can't see where there's some real meaningful change that takes place because the same dynamics are at work."

As he spoke to the gathering at the Islamic Center of Detroit, Abdul-Rauf recalled reading a book, "Revolutionary Suicide," by Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panthers. He said Newton "mentions in his book how we have to learn the necessity of resistance and the dignity of defiance, and he was talking about the difference between reactionary suicide and revolutionary suicide. And he said it doesn't mean that we have a death wish. He said it means just the opposite; that we have such a strong desire to live in this world, with human dignity, that the existence without it is impossible. So hopefully inshallah [God willing], we can reach that high standard."

Later, asked by Outside the Lines whether there was an element of advocating violence in Newton's words or in his own beliefs, Abdul-Rauf said: "No, he nor I are advocating violence, but we are endorsing one's God-given right to defend one's humanity."

Abdul-Rauf's transition to social and political activist did not happen in a vacuum, just as his conversion to Islam was not a flip-of-the-switch moment. The seeds of all this were sown in Gulfport, Mississippi, and the story is all-too clich?: a boy (then known as Chris Jackson) raised by a single mother amid a hotbed of drugs, poverty and prostitution. He grew up across the street from a church, the house where he lived now long since demolished, the space paved over and turned into a parking lot. There's a pecan tree that still stands, a reminder of what was sometimes his daily source of sustenance.

Jackson developed a single, simple purpose growing up: to play professional basketball. His work ethic and talent would overcome not only his size (he never reached 6 feet), but also Tourette's syndrome. As a junior in high school, he was diagnosed with the neurological disorder, which is defined by uncontrolled tics, repetitive movements and vocal outbursts.

There's ample data to reflect how good a player he was: Mississippi's Mr. Basketball two years in a row; two-time first team All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year in his two seasons at LSU -- where he scored 48 points in his third game as a freshman and later that season had games of 53 and 55; No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft; twice the league's top free throw shooter; 51 points against the Jazz one night, 30 points and 20 assists against the Suns on another.

But do yourself a favor and google him, watch video that highlights his scoring ability, such as this clip that covers his 51 against Utah when he was guarded most of the night by either John Stockton or Jeff Hornacek. Or this one, when he scored 32 as the Nuggets snapped the Michael Jordan-led Bulls' 18-game winning streak and handed the Bulls one of their only 10 losses the entire season. You begin to see why some people have suggested he was Steph Curry before Steph Curry.

"He had immaculate skills. His handle and quickness, ability to be herky-jerky. I mean, how many dudes can get in the 3-point and the dunk contest?" says Jalen Rose, an ESPN analyst who played the first two of his 13 NBA seasons alongside Abdul-Rauf in Denver. "He was that player then."

Shareef Nasir, Abdul-Rauf's former agent, says he once was hanging out with Suns superstar Kevin Johnson in the mid-'90s, when Johnson told him, "There are three players in the NBA that you cannot guard. They are unguardable. It doesn't matter what you do, you can't do anything. We have defensive schemes to try and prevent them from doing certain things, but they cannot be stopped."

The three, Nasir says, were Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Abdul-Rauf.

But the single-mindedness that carried Chris Jackson out of Gulfport to the NBA gave way over time to a man in transformation. At LSU, coach Dale Brown introduced Jackson to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and, like so many other young black men, it had a profound effect.

"His life fascinated me," Abdul-Rauf says of Malcolm X. "Just the mind that he was, how he articulated his views, how moral he seemed to be. ... The truth meant more to him than what you thought or what people thought of him. And that was something that really touched me, fascinated me. It was something that I didn't really have. You know, you have things you want to say, you have things you're thinking, but you feel apprehensive and hesitant about communicating."

Jackson began to study the Quran soon after he was drafted, and he converted to Islam the following year; by 1993, he had changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

"He read voraciously, he read all this s--- nobody on the team cared about," said reporter Dave Krieger, who covered each of Abdul-Rauf's six seasons with the Nuggets for the Rocky Mountain News. "And because of his Tourette's, rituals that he would go through in the locker room -- sometimes it took him five to 10 times to tie his shoes, to get them just right -- he was already apart from these guys. He was exploring these ideas and trying to find meaning in a combination of religion and politics. ... The intellectual exploration he was doing simply was not what happens in an NBA locker room. The rest of the team saw him as a bit of a head case."

Abdul-Rauf said he used to spend virtually every day after practice at an Islamic bookstore in Denver, drinking tea with the owner, reading and discussing various materials, some related to their shared religion, others about conspiracy theories, still others about politics.

"It just kept weighing on me, day in and day out," he says. "And I'm reading what our book says about giving our allegiance only to God, only to Allah and standing up for justice and all of these things. I just can't. And this is a symbol [the anthem and the flag] that represents, is supposed to represent one thing but it's showing us something totally different."

Increasingly, he viewed the anthem and the flag as purely American symbols that were not inclusive -- neither religiously nor politically. As he would say later, in the midst of explaining his position, "I'm a Muslim first and a Muslim last. My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology." That ideology, he would remind people, had supported slavery and been integral to oppressing African-Americans. He viewed it, too, through the prism of the rise of Israel in the Middle East and, thus, a subjugation of Muslims.

So, late in the 1994-95 season, Abdul-Rauf decided he no longer wanted to stand at attention or acknowledge the national anthem. He didn't announce his intentions to anyone outside his inner circle, nor did he draw attention to his actions. Instead, he often stayed in the locker room or bent over to tie his shoes or did something to avoid the ceremony. He figured he might get asked about it eventually -- and he would answer truthfully -- but he insists he was not seeking publicity.

Nasir, his agent, though himself a Muslim, says he had advised Abdul-Rauf against taking such a stance, concerned both about how it would play out in a town like Denver but also the potential long-term implications for his client's career. But the more Abdul-Rauf read, the more convicted he was about his position.

Abdul-Rauf's position went unnoticed and unreported for months. It wasn't until someone in the local media finally addressed it that the situation went public. And with that, even decades before social media would transform the media landscape, the story exploded on a national scale. Abdul-Rauf believed his position was nuanced, that he wasn't saying everything about America was bad, nor was he saying that he hated his country, nor that he was against the military. But it was this comment about the American flag that took the story to another level:

"It's also a symbol of oppression and tyranny, so it depends on how you look at it. You can't stand for both. You can't be for God and oppression."

Soon, he says, there were death threats and hate mail, what he describes as "the assassination of character: 'Go back to Africa. Leave the country. You're a traitor.'"

Says Krieger, the Nuggets reporter who watched it unfold: "It basically played exactly the way it played for Kaepernick. It polarized people dramatically, immediately."

Then, the NBA called. The league had a pretty simple message: stand or be suspended. It believed its rules were clear that players must stand respectfully during the anthem.

On March 12, 1996, before a Nuggets home game against the Orlando Magic, Abdul-Rauf says he was at McNichols Arena when he received a call from two NBA officials. He says he can't remember who they were, only that they were Jewish and told him a story about their own faith and why they believed he should stand.

Says Abdul-Rauf: "I can't remember their story, but when they finished, I said, 'Well, there's only two issues: One, I'm not Jewish, so that story doesn't apply to me. [Two], this is my position, so whatever you decide, you make your decision, I'll make my decision.'"

David Stern, then the commissioner of the NBA, told Outside the Lines this month that he hadn't spoken directly to Abdul-Rauf and he couldn't recall who had. But, "We said to him, 'Look, you don't have to come out, you could stay in the locker room. But if you come out with the team, given our rule, we can't have selective enforcement, you're going to have to stand.' He said no, and so we suspended him."

The suspension was immediate, Abdul-Rauf left the arena and was fined $31,707 -- the prorated amount of his $2.6 million yearly salary. By all accounts, Abdul-Rauf's teammates and the Nuggets organization were supportive. The showdown with the league office lasted one game. Abdul-Rauf says that after seeking guidance from other Muslims, he found a compromise solution: To stand and pray during the anthem.

"I didn't want to stand because I knew the way it would be portrayed," he says emphatically but also with what sounded like a hint of regret. "But I like to think that, 'OK if something appeals to my reasoning, if we see a better approach, we do that.'"

And so Abdul-Rauf returned three days later for Denver's first game after his suspension. The Nuggets faced the Bulls in Chicago, where a hostile crowd offered particularly rousing support for the anthem. He would play only three more games the rest of the season -- a target of unwelcoming fans throughout -- before being put on injured reserve because of a foot injury. The Nuggets still had a shot at the playoffs, and reports at the time suggest that some of Abdul-Rauf's teammates and coaches weren't convinced the injury was serious enough to keep him out of the lineup and that he wasn't committed to the team anymore. Denver Post columnist Woody Paige shredded Abdul-Rauf, saying he quit on his team, not "because of a sore foot. He quit because of a faint heart and a weak character."

Though he led the team in scoring and assists that season, Abdul-Rauf was traded to Sacramento in the offseason. He spent two unremarkable seasons in Sacramento, plagued by injuries and diminished playing time. And then he was gone, out of the league, left to play overseas.

Abdul-Rauf says he is convinced his anthem stance forced him out of the NBA.

"I don't have any doubt," he says. "Initially, I was hesitant in saying it. But as I look back and I'm thinking about the pattern, how things went, I'm thinking, oh definitely. There's no question. ... The year that that happened, I was at the height, in my prime. ... But then all of a sudden this happened. Come on. I mean, really."

Says Bernie Bickerstaff, who coached Abdul-Rauf during his final two seasons in Denver and was the Nuggets' general manager during Abdul-Rauf's first four years: "If he feels that way and needs to feel that way, I say go with that." Then Bickerstaff acknowledges, "A part of that is reasonable. There are a lot of parameters when it comes to those types of things. And when you put it all together, you make a decision."

Indeed, it seemed far more complicated. There were Abdul-Rauf's ongoing struggles with Tourette's and managing his medications, a devotion to Islam that had him fasting during Ramadan, weaknesses on defense and questions about his commitment.

Nasir, Abdul-Rauf's former agent, says he believes the anthem stance played a part, but he also sensed a change in Abdul-Rauf.

"I think Mahmoud's love for the game decreased," he says. "I think he was in a position where he didn't have the same kind of motivation that he had once before. You saw flashes of it when he was in Sacramento, but he just lost the desire, I thought."

As well, Abdul-Rauf did himself no favors with some of his comments in the years after he was released by the Kings. His most controversial moment came during a December 2001 interview. He told HBO's "Real Sports" that, "The war on terrorism is a euphemism for a war on Islam," while suggesting that not only was Osama bin Laden not behind the 9/11 attacks but that Israel might have been involved -- pointing to what he said was the arrest of several Israelis in New York who were filming the World Trade Center as planes flew into the towers.

To this day, he cites the HBO interview as cause for being wary of a media that has twisted his positions.

Yet, on three occasions while speaking with Outside the Lines, unprompted, Abdul-Rauf broached the notion that the 9/11 attacks might have been part of a U.S. government conspiracy. He repeatedly brought up The Project for the New American Century, an ultra-conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank established in 1997 to address U.S. foreign policy. Many of its members would later serve in the Bush Administration, and Abdul-Rauf cited its policy papers that called for regime change in Iraq and a bolstering of the American military; he pointed to a particular passage that said "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." Abdul-Rauf extrapolates this to suggest it's possible the 9/11 attacks were the government-driven "catastrophic event" designed to drive the country into war with Iraq.

Abdul-Rauf also made several references to Operation Northwoods, an apparent proposal by top U.S. military leaders in the 1960s to drum up public support for a war against Cuba. The plan, rejected by President Kennedy, suggested a variety of ways to create public outrage against the Castro government by orchestrating false events -- including airplane hijackings -- that could be blamed on Cuba.

Years earlier, the Denver magazine 5280 quoted Abdul-Rauf describing Operation Northwoods, connecting the dots and then saying of the 9/11 attacks: "I think the government used remote-control devices to take over those planes and crash them."

Asked by Outside the Lines whether he truly believes the 9/11 attacks were choreographed by the U.S. government, Abdul-Rauf says, "I don't buy the whole story, I don't buy everything that I've been told." He mentions material he has read about alleged insider trading within the airline industry and other details that just "don't add up." Pressed further on what exactly he's alleging, Abdul-Rauf says, "I'm saying this: I think, I'm saying I think that, yes, it was an inside job. Do I think that there was outside factors, other people involved? Do I think it was solely America? No. So, yeah, I think it was an inside job."

Abdul-Rauf remains steadfast in his belief that he was blackballed by the NBA. So steadfast, in fact, that he thinks he is owed an apology for his suspension and possibly remuneration -- at least for his missed game check, if not more for lost future wages covering his career. He has a lawyer, James Walker Jr., who has contacted the NBA once to suggest as much, also indicating that the league should bring on Abdul-Rauf to work with players in promoting social justice. Walker says he has not followed up since his initial call.

Asked if Abdul-Rauf intends to sue the NBA, Walker says, "I do think his constitutional rights were violated. ... But we haven't formally said, 'Hey, we're going to sue the NBA.'"

Stern, now the league's commissioner emeritus, said Abdul-Rauf was a "great shooter, but he wouldn't be the only player to have fallen in that category and be out of the league two years later. It happens all the time."

Regarding a possible lawsuit, Stern said: "I don't comment on prospective litigation, though obviously since he violated the rule, it would be hard-pressed to justify his receiving compensation or an apology."

Commissioner Adam Silver declined to be interviewed for this story, but NBA spokesman Mike Bass issued a statement: "We don't have anything new to say about a one-game suspension from more than 20 years ago. That said, we would welcome Mahmoud's involvement in the work we do with our NBA legends on community outreach and social responsibility."

Today, Abdul-Rauf, a divorced father of five, lives in Atlanta, where he prays five times a day. He trains players ranging from junior high school up to the NBA -- still demonstrating the speed and flair that carried him to a pro career. Nor has he lost his phenomenal shooting touch.

Nasir and others close to Abdul-Rauf think he's in such good shape and remains such an effortless scorer that he could still play in the NBA. That's not happening, but it was announced recently he will play in a new three-on-three pro league consisting of other former NBA players, including Kenny Smith, Latrell Sprewell, J.R. Rider and Kenyon Martin.

Abdul-Rauf's training sessions are as much about survival as they are basketball, a glimpse perhaps at the punishment little Chris Jackson put himself through when there was basketball and nothing else in his sights. Now, though, Abdul-Rauf is in demand as much for his views on the world as his unique talent with a ball.

His travels even afforded him a chance to meet Kaepernick.

"I think he's a very sincere person," Abdul-Rauf says. "I think you could see the wheels turning in his head. ... He mentioned that this is the most free that he's ever felt in his life, and that's what it does. They say the truth shall set you free, especially if you follow it. And that resonated with me. I understood what he was saying 100 percent, and I feel the same way."

When he appeared at Yale last fall, about two weeks before the presidential election, Abdul-Rauf sat before a crowd of local residents and college students, many of whom were Muslims. They were looking to him for answers: What can we do? How should we protest? How worried should we be? How do we empower people who don't have a voice or a platform?

In these moments, he seems most able to access a message of hope and inspiration, using his own story as a guidepost: "The more that I began to read and become aware of things, I started developing a conscience. Then I began to share with people, then you find out who thinks like you, who shares the same type of ideals, and then you begin to have these dialogues that in some way shape or form you. You begin to network and build on that. And then through that, you develop confidence and then that confidence turns eventually into some type of courage, whether it's writing, whether it's standing. But like everything, there's a conditioning that takes place, there's training. Like before I could become a top-class athlete, I had to go through some serious training to get there. You know, I had to test the limits of my body, of my mind, of my heart. And so it's the same thing with life, the same thing with movements."

At the same time, though, he sees himself as a realist; and the realist sounds not so hopeful: "The anthem, the flag is supposed to represent the character of a people ... in terms of freedom and justice and fairness and all this stuff. But we don't necessarily see that, especially people of color. We've never been really shielded by the rule of law.

"I do believe that we have to be careful because, and I'm not saying this to scare people, but it's the reality: Every civilization, no matter how strong it's been, whether you're talking about Rome, whether you're talking about Persia, the great civilizations before. They all began to show cracks. And eventually at some point they failed."

Which leaves him where?

"I still believe in this idea that I think the human being has more good in them than bad in them. I don't trust the system, but I do believe in people."

Arty Berko, a producer in ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit, contributed to this report.