LAS VEGAS — This summer, the national anthem played before every BIG3 basketball game, and each time, rather than look at the flag, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf would close his eyes, draw his hands to his face and pray for those who are struggling and those who are oppressed.
The silent, subtle gesture barely drew any notice. But more than two decades ago, that wasn’t the case. Abdul-Rauf was Colin Kaepernick back when the controversial quarterback was still a grade-schooler. As Kaepernick remains unsigned by an NFL team with the regular season fast approaching, Abdul-Rauf said he believes his own decision not to stand during the national anthem caused irreparable damage to his professional basketball career, making it difficult for him to find a job and eventually sending him overseas.
“No question. It’s a duplicate pretty much,” Abdul-Rauf said in an interview. “The hate mail, the attacks on his character, his personality, his race. ‘As an athlete, this is not what you should be doing. You should be either a social activist or an athlete.’ The same things.”
Abdul-Rauf was a member of the Denver Nuggets in 1996 when, citing his religious beliefs, he refused to stand for the anthem. He told a television reporter the flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny. . . . You can’t be for God and be for oppression.”
He was fined and briefly suspended, though days later he struck a compromise with NBA officials, agreeing to stand for the anthem but close his eyes and pray. But the decision had a lasting impact on his career. The following year he was traded to Sacramento, and by 1998 he was out of the league. He played briefly overseas before returning to the NBA in 2000, lasting 41 games as a reserve with Vancouver.
“As far as I’m concerned, I was supposed to go through that, and as long as I could gain not just experience but grow from it, I’m not going to regret that,” he said. “It’s helped me to become in some cases wiser and stronger. So, no, I don’t have any regrets.”
Abdul-Rauf, 48, has gray in his beard and around his temples but was still very much a key contributor for his 3 Headed Monsters team in Ice Cube’s fledgling BIG3 basketball league, which features ex-pro players in three-on-three games and concluded its inaugural season Saturday. Abdul-Rauf contributed a team-high 22 points in a 51-46 loss to Trilogy in the BIG3 championship game.
The NBA is different today, Abdul-Rauf said. It’s tolerant and progressive. Its biggest stars are often leading the charge, speaking out against social ills, police brutality and violence perpetrated against African Americans.
“It seems like now, in many respects, protest has become fashionable,” he said.
He is especially encouraged by what he’s seen in the NFL. He met with Kaepernick in 2016 on a visit to Oakland, the pair brought together by mutual friends. He didn’t give advice or issue any warnings; they just discussed the issues and possible courses of action.
Kaepernick stirred many NFL fans into a frenzy by refusing to stand for the national anthem. Many other players followed suit. While Kaepernick has remained silent in recent months, the quarterback largely has been cast as either a heretic or a martyr, a polarizing symbol for discord and racial unrest. For his activist efforts, Kaepernick still finds himself without a quarterback job.
“And what he’s saying is true,” Abdul-Rauf said. “These things are taking place, and you condemn him for it? But someone else who commits a crime — and [Kaepernick] hasn’t committed a crime — but it’s easier for you to bring them back on the team and hire them. This is crazy. How can you justify that?”
While Kaepernick’s protest and ensuing employment troubles certainly remind Abdul-Rauf of his own situation 21 years earlier, they also reaffirm the choices he made. Keeping quiet is akin to tacit approval, he said, and now, more than ever, it’s important for the conversation to grow and continue. And he said he’s grateful for athletes who don’t feel coddled by wealth, who aren’t fearful of retribution and who feel connected to the social issues that he still prays about today when bowing his head while the anthem plays.
“I don’t think anyone’s calling in life is just to be an athlete. You’re more than an athlete,” he said. “There’s this tendency — ‘Oh, this is an athlete who happened to become human.’ Instead of, ‘This is a human being who happens to be an athlete.’ This is why people, I guess, sometimes get upset when athletes speak out or actors or actresses speak out because they view us first as an athlete and a human second. No, I’m human being who happened to evolve into an athlete. And being a human being, the same thing that affects you affects me.”