Sports and Social Justice: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf


Born as Chris Jackson, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a former professional basketball player who has played against Michael Jordan.

His life hasn’t been easy. At the age of 17, Abdul-Rauf was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition that affects the nervous system and causes people to tic, or make unexpected sounds and/or movements. He found that repetitive actions helped to manage his condition. This revelation benefitted his basketball career. Practicing for basketball non-stop controlled his tics.

Abdul-Rauf attended Louisiana State University where he averaged 30 points per game, and to this day, Abdul-Rauf is the only college basketball freshman to average 30 points per game. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in his sophomore year.

Upon being drafted to the Nuggets, Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam and changed his name. Around the same time, he would not stand during the National Anthem by remaining in the locker room or stretch on the sidelines until it was over. Abdul-Rauf justified his actions with religious and political beliefs. It was months before the press caught whiff of his silent and subtle protest. Abdul-Rauf considered the American flag to be “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.”

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abul-Rauf, left, passes the ball past San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson in the first quarter in Denver on Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995.(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

“This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.” – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

“I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.” – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

On March 12th of 1996, Abdul-Rauf was suspended for one game and fined $32,000 for incorrect posture during the National Anthem. A compromise was made allowing Abdul-Rauf to perform a prayer with his eyes closed, and his head bowed during the anthem.

David Zalubowski

The Chicago Bulls met the Denver Nuggets on the court on February 4, 1996. Abdul-Rauf scored 32 points on Michael Jordan, which contributed to the Nuggets victory over the Bulls. This feat was nothing short of incredible, as it disrupted the Bull’s 18 game winning streak. A rare loss for the Bulls during their 1996 season when they accumulated 72 wins and 10 losses.

After the season ended, Abdul-Rauf, who averaged 19.2 points per game and 6.8 assists, was traded to the Sacramento Kings.

Abdul-Rauf was blackballed.

Abdul-Rauf lost his starting position, and his playing time took a sharp decline. There weren’t any NBA teams willing to grant him a tryout when his contract expired in 1998.

1990: Guard Chris Jackson of the Denver Nuggets poses for a picture. Mandatory Credit: Tim de Frisco /Allsport

“It’s kind of like a setup. You know, trying to set you up to fail and so when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, it was really because he took these positions. They don’t want these type of examples to spread, so they’ve got to make an example of individuals like this.” – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Abdul-Rauf’s teammate, Jalen Rose, saw through the NBA’s actions. Rose knew the extent of Abdul-Rauf’s skill and value to the game of basketball.

“As a basketball player, there’s no question he deserved an opportunity to play in the NBA, and had he not taken the stance that he took, of course he would’ve had a longer career in the NBA, and anybody that says otherwise is flat-out lying and they know it.” –Jalen Rose

Abdul-Rauf went on to play basketball internationally in countries such as Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. He bounced around from team to team for a while.

The events of September 11, 2001 instilled fear in the hearts of American citizens. Muslim Americans experienced a different kind of fear as their religion took on the connotations of hate and terrorism. In 2001, there were 11,451 hate crimes committed and 12,020 victims of those offenses according to FBI Hate Crime Statistics. Victims of religious bias compromised 17.7 percent of the total hate crimes, and the Muslim population made up 26.2 percent of that statistic.

(Photo by Tim DeFrisco/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 2001, Abdul-Rauf became a target for hate crime, receiving death threats and hate mail. Abdul-Rauf decided to build a new house in the city where he grew up, Gulfport, Mississippi. The letters ‘KKK’ (Ku Klux Klan) were spray painted on the construction site, and the contractor was threatened. He was afraid to move into his newly built home, which was to be shared with his wife. Soon after the completion of the house, it was burned to the ground, and the culprit was never caught.

Although Abdul-Rauf was blackballed, robbed of his budding career in professional basketball, and faced racially and religiously motivated threats, he remained resilient.

“I want to live and die with a free conscience and a free soul when it’s all said and done. That’s the journey I’m on. I had to make that decision for myself and I found that after I did that, it took off a huge weight. Do you get ridiculed? Do you hear the nonsense? Do people try to assassinate your character? Yes, but when it’s all said and done, you’re like, man, I feel good because I know that I’m standing on something that I believe in.” – Abdul-Rauf

Years later, Abdul-Rauf was able to empathize with Colin Kaepernick whose career hung in the balance after kneeling during the National Anthem. The stakes were certainly lower compared to 1996.

“Look at all of what he has to lose by taking this position: his wealth, his endorsements, possible threats, the attacks against his family. He has a lot to lose. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s more selfless than selfish.” – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

“He’s willing to put all of that on the line because, to him, truth is more important than those things. Justice and equality is more important than those things.” – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Abdul Rauf has faith in the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement continues with the same fiery momentum that it started with.

“It is beautiful to see, and it’s going to be hard to stop.”

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