Does the NBA owe Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf an apology?
“I can care less about the apology,” Abdul-Rauf recently told Andscape. “That’s like government apologizing for the 300 and something years of unpaid labor and not paying taxes for slavery. And these people don’t want their apology. Apologies are only as good as what you back it up with.
“A lot of lives were affected. Monies were lost. Families that you could have supported were hurt as a result of being sensitive.”
Twenty-five years ago, Abdul-Rauf was one of the NBA’s most feared shooters.
To put into context how good a shooter Abdul-Rauf was, former NBA coach Phil Jackson compared NBA all-time leading 3-point shooter Stephen Curry to the former in 2016. Only Curry (.909) has a higher free-throw percentage in NBA history (minimum 1,150 attempts) than Abdul-Rauf (.905). Abdul-Rauf averaged career-highs of 19.2 points and 6.8 assists, scored a career-high 51 points and shot an NBA-best 93% from the free throw line during the 1995-96 season with the Denver Nuggets. This is while having Tourette syndrome.
But after the Muslim sparked controversy while with the Nuggets when he refused to stand for the national anthem and called the U.S. flag a symbol of oppression that season, he was ultimately out of the NBA in two years. He believed he was “blackballed.”
While Abdul-Rauf’s stand against the national anthem is well known, what may not be known is how it led to poverty, depression, unemployment, and divorce.
Abdul-Rauf talks about it all in Stand, a Showtime Sports documentary debuting Feb. 3 on Showtime.
“The conditions seem very much ripe for this type of thing,” Abdul-Rauf said of the timing of the documentary. “In some ways, good and bad, because it’s also popular. And sometimes when things become popular, it doesn’t hit with the same force. Because whether it’s Nike or other companies, they could say, ‘Hey, we can monetize this. We can turn it into T-shirts, and we can turn it into this.’
“So that’s the thread of it. But I just thought the timing was right. And then, I may not be around. We never know when we’re going expire and leave this earth. And I wanted to at least be able to leave something for somebody to hold onto and look back. And if it could benefit them, and that’s my hope that I could leave something to benefit people, something for them to think about.”
Stand is the feature-length directorial debut of Joslyn Rose Lyons. The film features interviews with Curry and Warriors coach Steve Kerr, former NBA star and Abdul-Rauf’s former Louisiana State University teammate Shaquille O’Neal, former Nuggets teammate and current basketball analyst Jalen Rose, former LSU coach Dale Brown, two-time Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali, rapper-actor-filmmaker Ice Cube and many more people of note to Abdul-Rauf.
Lyons said it’s important to show “the fires [Abdul-Rauf] had to walk through.”
“What initially inspired me about Mahmoud’s story was the notion that he refused to be defined by the sport he played and the courage he had to withstand the resistance in his way,” Lyons told Andscape. “Instead, he decided to fight and to use the sport as a platform to amplify his positive messages, and I used basketball as a vehicle to look at the activism, Tourette’s syndrome, quest for more knowledge about his family, and spiritual transformation that occurred in Mahmoud’s life.”
Abdul-Rauf said another reason he was comfortable telling his story now is because he believes it’s a “new era” where NBA stars such as LeBron James and Chris Paul are “speaking out on social justice.” Abdul-Rauf believes that he and former NBA guard Craig Hodges didn’t have the same luxury when they played in 1990s. Hodges filed a $40 million lawsuit in 1996 against the NBA and its teams, claiming he was blackballed for supporting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and being critical of African American athletes who didn’t use their platform and wealth to help the poor and disenfranchised.
A pro athlete of this era often compared to Abdul-Rauf was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem to protest against police brutality in 2016. Like Abdul-Rauf, Kaepernick was no longer a pro athlete shortly after his stance. But unlike Kaepernick, Abdul-Rauf didn’t have social media platform to deliver his message instantly in his own way nor did he have support from a movement like Black Lives Matter.
“I understood it more when Dr. Harry Edwards had made his statement, and this is his statement, not mine. He said, ‘Mahmoud, when Muhammad Ali and others did what they did, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all of those [did what they did],’ that was in the framework of the Black Power movement,” said Abdul-Rauf, who converted to Islam in 1991 and changed his name from Chris Jackson in 1993. “They had a movement to that was associated with that. When Kaepernick did what he did, he said it was framed under the Black Lives Matter movement. There was a movement they could frame it under.
“He said, ‘When you and Craig did what you did, there was no movement. It was like you were in an ocean all alone with no paddle.’ I said, ‘Wow.’ He said, ‘Which made it tougher.’ I said, ‘Wow, I ain’t think about it like that …’ So that makes a difference when you think of that. But it’s also nice to see, man, that regardless of it, you still have a lot of athletes willing to say things and regardless of how they’re doing it, monetizing, whatever, it’s still somewhat of a level of risk that athletes take. And it’s nice to see that they’re doing that type of thing.”
Abdul-Rauf acknowledged that he did get support from such NBA players as O’Neal, Rose, and Nuggets teammate Dikembe Mutombo. Abdul-Rauf also believed “the majority” of players in the primarily African American NBA didn’t support his stance. The lack of support from the Islamic community pained Abdul-Rauf.
“This was a time I thought where people could galvanize, but it didn’t happen,” Abdul-Rauf said. “And then the Islamic community, with all of the history with the struggles of dealing with oppression and injustices and that the standards as a prophet in our religion as communicated to us, it was a disappointment. Not surprised though, but it was a disappointment. I won’t say I was surprised.”
On June 13, 1996, the Nuggets traded Rose and swingman Reggie Williams to the Indiana Pacers for point guard Mark Jackson and swingman Ricky Pierce. Hours later that day, following his national anthem protest, Abdul-Rauf was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Sarunas Marciulionis and a 1996 second-round draft pick.
Abdul-Rauf went from a starter to primarily a reserve for the Kings, averaging 11.9 points and 2.3 assists per game from 1996 to 1998. He played in Turkey during the NBA season that was shortened by a lockout from 1998-1999, temporarily retired the 1999-2000 season, and averaged a career-low 6.5 points for the Vancouver Grizzlies during the 2000-2001 season. That was his last season in the NBA at the age of 31.
Abdul-Rauf said he now “definitely” believes he was blackballed from the NBA.
“I literally shied away because I don’t want to be reactionary,” Abdul-Rauf said. “And I’m thinking about things and I’m processing and I’m looking at patterns. And I know that we have a system of laws that don’t always apply, but we do have a system of laws. And even they have to be careful of how they approach the issue. They can’t come out and say, ‘We are firing him because of X, Y, and Z.’ Because now there’s a lawsuit and there’s millions and millions of dollars at stake. So sometimes what they do is, ‘Well, let’s diminish his minutes.’ ”
Abdul-Rauf explains in the documentary that life got really tough for him and his family after his pro basketball career ended.
Abdul-Rauf wasn’t able to pay for the lights and the water and slept in the bathroom with candles to keep warm. He wasn’t able to continue to help family members who depended on his financial assistance. He ultimately got divorced and lost his home to foreclosure. The third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft after two seasons at LSU made $19.8 million in his NBA career. But without a college degree, he didn’t have any plan for after basketball after his money dried up with no money coming in. He believed his brief stance against the flag kept him from getting any job in what he knew best, basketball.
“When that part of my life ended now, I had to try to refocus and ask myself, ‘Wow, what am I going to do?’ ” Abdul-Rauf said. “And while you trying to figure that out, money is constantly leaving the table. You’re not making money anymore and you know you still can play. Most of us, when we make money, we don’t have generational wealth. So, it’s not like we have a mama with a house of $250,000, she’s got retirement, she doesn’t need your money and this cousin don’t need your money and that cousin don’t need your money. We usually take care of a lot of people.
“And so, one of the darkest periods was understanding that, man, I’ve been conditioned and been fed stuff about who I am or who I’m not all of these years by a system through language, through imagery, that in a sense told me the worst about myself for the most part. And I believed a lot of it and felt that this was the only thing I had going for me. And now that that’s taken from me now, I got to figure out what the hell I got to do to be able to take care of my family. But I can’t go get a job because somebody’s so damn sensitive on what I said that was true, it wasn’t false. It was true. They’re so sensitive and they want to take my livelihood away.”
Abdul-Rauf said he prayed “Please, God, get me out of this. Please bless me to be strong, bless me to survive this. Don’t let my enemies have the upper hand with me.” Despite being “dead broke,” he kept working out in the basketball gym to aid his mind and body. Retired NBA players are eligible to start receiving the pension at the age of 45. When he turned 45 in 2014, Abdul-Rauf said, he began receiving his pension, which paid him $7,200 per month and offered individual health insurance for a player with nine years of experience. With one more NBA season of experience, he would have received the full pension and free health insurance for himself and his family.
While living in Atlanta, he started making money in recent years tutoring children in basketball. That ultimately led to him training NBA players. He had to learn what to charge clients. He also began getting paid for speaking engagements after his words from a panel went viral. He had to learn how to charge for speaking. He started playing basketball again in 2017 with the arrival of Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league made primarily of former NBA players called Big3.
Would Abdul-Rauf still have the same stance if he could do it over again?
“With the luxury of hindsight, of course, that’s easy to say, ‘Man, I would love to have had a network.’ To where kind of like what Kaepernick did with having the Know Your Rights Campaign,” Abdul-Rauf said. “To be able to do this and do that, it takes, like anything you want, to be successful. The prophets, they had the disciples. Businesses have teams. So having a great team makes a difference.
“But in terms of taking the position, no, I still take the position. Because I haven’t changed, I haven’t stopped taking a position after all of these years. But I would’ve definitely probably did some of those things a whole lot different.”
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