The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s protest cost him an NBA career, but ‘I’d do it again’

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf prays during the national anthem in 1996. Abdul-Rauf had previously been suspended for sitting during the anthem. (Michael S. Green/AP)
7 min

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf might have gone down as a footnote in NBA history had Colin Kaepernick and other modern athlete-activists not resurrected his relevance. Two decades before Kaepernick, Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem — he called the flag “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny” before the NBA suspended him in 1996 — resulted in eventual banishment from the league.

But he lost so much more. The dream home he built in his home state of Mississippi was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. He wouldn’t eat out at restaurants for fear of his food being poisoned. He got divorced from his wife. His bank account, once bolstered by $19.2 million in career earnings, was whittled down to zero. His reputation was in tatters, with no clear path toward recovery, financially or otherwise.

And yet.

“I’d do it again,” Abdul-Rauf said in a recent interview. “Well, I never stopped — even when I didn’t have and went broke. ... A preacher once said back in the day, he’s never heard of a U-Haul on the back of a hearse. And my philosophy has been ... you may be able to control my access to jobs and my access to money ... but my mind and soul and my body, that’s mine. I own that.”

Abdul-Rauf was more than a man who learned the cost of being unflinching under the torrent of hate and criticism and pleas to keep quiet. In “Stand,” a new documentary now on Showtime, director Joslyn Rose Lyons examines his full journey: growing up in poverty in Gulfport, Miss.; battling Tourette’s syndrome; and struggling with the fact that he not only didn’t have a relationship with his father but that, to this day, he’s not certain who his father was.

“You’re trying to navigate and make sense of it as a child,” Abdul-Rauf, 53, said of the hole he felt with no father. “Part of you is like, ‘Man, I want to work so hard, I want to be so great, that maybe I’ll be so great that he’ll want to come back into my life.’ ”

Abdul-Rauf, named Chris Jackson at birth, was a basketball prodigy, a precursor to Stephen Curry whose wicked handle and marksmanship landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman at LSU. The Tigers’ coach, Dale Brown, gave him the freedom to pull up from anywhere, regretting nothing. But Abdul-Rauf now says “the most powerful thing” Brown ever did for him was give him “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the book that led him on the path toward Islam, “and encourage me to start thinking, to analyze the world a little differently.”

Brown, Abdul-Rauf said, “saw a passiveness in me that he didn’t like. Because sometimes when I was talking after games and they would ask me questions, I was tiptoeing. He was like: ‘Hey, man. Tell them what’s on your mind. Let 'em know.’ ”

By the time the Denver Nuggets drafted him third overall in 1990, Abdul-Rauf had no problem speaking up for himself. But as he struggled to form an identity in a league that was years away from embracing score-first combo guards, Abdul-Rauf’s quest for wisdom led him to read the works of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin and others.

In 1995, he began quietly going to the locker room or stretching on the bench during the national anthem. Once his quiet protest became public months into the next season, Abdul-Rauf became an example. The Nuggets traded him to Sacramento the following season, and Abdul-Rauf was unemployed within two years.

Abdul-Rauf made a brief NBA return with Vancouver — “I snuck back in,” he said with a laugh — but then did an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports” in which he questioned whether Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. “That’s when they beheaded me, for real,” Abdul-Rauf said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Ever since Kaepernick began taking a knee, professional sports leagues responded by serving up a more sanitized version of protest, with players locking arms and kneeling in performative embraces of unity and solidarity, taking the sting out of the initial outcry. The leagues have even bolstered their brands with the protests, with messages for social justice on the backs of jerseys and helmet stickers.

“It’s a slap in the face, and it’s an insult to a person’s intelligence. ... They’re laughing all the way to the bank. And I would like to see us get smarter than that,” Abdul-Rauf said in relation to what has happened in recent years. “It’s easy for them to then put it in a capsule, restructure it, monetize it, then it loses its thrust. You can sell it on a T-shirt. Nike supports it because it’s big business and it turns into that. That’s the challenge of athletes now because sometimes you don’t even notice it’s happening until later, like, ‘Dern, man, every time they see me now, I’m selling something.’ ”

Without the support of a civil rights movement or Black Lives Matter, Abdul-Rauf stood alone in his era. He understands why most would avoid controversy, given the financial stakes. But he respects any athlete willing to take the hits by speaking up for marginalized communities.

“I know the value of athletes. Athletes are very visible, so we can reach people teachers and academics sometimes can’t. This is a responsibility that I believe we have. One of my ex-colleagues said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ We all play a role,” Abdul-Rauf said while comparing his dismissal to the treatment of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him. “It’s more about sending a message to others that, if this is what you do, this is what’s going to happen to you. Stay in your lane, boy.”

Abdul-Rauf was able to bounce back personally through public speaking and training professional and aspiring professional basketball players. In 2017, he became one of the stars of Big3, the three-on-three basketball league. He has no relationship with the NBA, he said, and doesn’t expect that to change.

“I definitely wouldn’t hold my breath,” he said. “I’m about building bridges, but also I’m not opposed to burning that bridge down if you’re not being sincere. If you’re thinking that you can bring me into a boardroom and then you can offer me a paycheck and recognition but just stay silent, be quiet — I’d rather be broke and be poor. No one can defy their conscience and escape unscathed. For me, my peace, my faith, means more. You know if you sold out; you know if you were a coward. And I have to live by myself. I can’t run from myself.”

“Stand” features interviews with Curry, Brown, former teammates Shaquille O’Neal and Jalen Rose, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, two-time Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali and rapper-filmmaker Ice Cube. But mostly it features Abdul-Rauf sharing more of himself.

“I feel I’m in a better position to articulate, more in detail, what I was thinking and how I was feeling,” he said, “but also, time is of the essence. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Stories are critical to living, and there’s a concept in Islam called ‘sadaqah jariyah’ — that type of giving that doesn’t end. If you build a road, people are benefiting from it. If you teach somebody something, whoever they teach, even when you’re dead and gone, you’re constantly getting blessings even when you’re in the grave.”