By Cody Worsham
Special to Tiger Rag
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf always knew where he was going, even before he was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Born Chris Wayne Jackson in 1969 to a single mother in Gulfport, Miss., Abdul-Rauf — as he has been known since 1993 — saw his road ending in one destination: the NBA.
"I was blessed at a young age to know what it was that I wanted to do — to become the greatest basketball player I could become,” Abdul-Rauf said at a recent speaking engagement. "It wasn't something I wanted. It was something I needed.”
"Basketball, for me, was a way out.”
To where, he wasn’t quite sure, but from where Abdul-Rauf wanted out was always certain. Born and raised in abject poverty, Abdul-Rauf was surrounded by prostitution and drugs throughout his childhood, but he always was driven to escape. He would rise at 4 a.m. every day, wait for his mother to leave for her 5 a.m. job, and head straight to the court.
"On the way there I'm thinking, I have to put the weight of my family on my back. This is the only chance I have. It's sad that I thought this way.
"I'm thinking, I've got to get my mother and my brothers out of the ghetto.”
The road to the court — like nearly every other road Abdul-Rauf has traveled — was impeded.
"All the way there, I'm imagining I'm playing against an invisible person, and wherever I dribble, I imagine he's always” — here, Abdul-Rauf presses his fingers as closely together as he can without touching them — "this close to tipping the ball. In my thinking, the imagination is the strongest thing you have. If I can beat my imagination and escape my imagination, a human being can't stay with you like your imagination can.”
It wasn’t long before Abdul-Rauf’s obstacles became real, and not imaginary.
Not on the court, however. Abdul-Rauf shot, sliced, and sizzled his way through high school and college. Things came easy in high school, as Abdul-Rauf played summer league games against players three years older than him throughout elementary and junior high, but he arrived at LSU in 1988 unsure of how successful he’d be in college.
"My first year at LSU,” he recalled, "I remember a journalist asked me, 'What do you want your career to say for itself when it's over?' And I was so serious. I said, ‘If I could average 13 points and 7 assists per game at LSU, I think that would be decent.’”
Abdul-Rauf would go on to average 30.2 points per game that season, an NCAA freshman record that still stands today. He’d average 29.0 for his LSU career before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets third overall in the 1990 NBA Draft, but just as important as his successes on the court, Abdul-Rauf feels, were the lessons he learned away from it. College opened his eyes to the lack of an "educational structure” he’d grown up with, and he began reading everything he could get his hands on – he cites a copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X” given to him by LSU coach Dale Brown as particularly life-changing.
Abdul-Rauf finally began seeking answers to questions he’d always latently had, but could never fully express.
"I had questions about Christianity, and when I would ask questions, I'd get two of the most universal answers: 'You can't question God' and 'You've just got to believe.' That was unsatisfactory to me. I believe God wants us to question him, if we question with the intent to know.”
"I was putting crosses on my shorts and shoes, professing to be a Christian but not really practicing it because my mind was all over the place. I knew there was something else.”
He soon found that something else. A friend at the Denver airport, Mark James, showed Abdul-Rauf where he could find a Quran. The two each received copies and went to Abdul-Rauf’s house to read them together.
"I sped home, and I remember, I got to the table – he had his, I had mine – and I was so excited. I opened it up, I read two or three pages, and I looked up at Mark and said, ‘I don't know about you, but I'm going to be a Muslim. It's a done deal for me.’”
Abdul-Rauf finally found the peace that had eluded him for so long, the answers to the questions that he’d been searching for.
But with his conversion came tribulations. Never one to dip his toes in the water, Abdul-Rauf dove headfirst into his faith, but not everyone around the NBA appreciated how the ripples rocked the boat.
"One day, I'm looking at the flag, this symbol, and I'm reading about America, throughout the world, and its involvement in a lot of places. Raping resources, killing folks. And I'm looking at this symbol — and this was me, you have to make your own decision — and I just couldn't see it. I can't do it. So for three, four, five months, when the national anthem would come on, I would start stretching. I didn't want to be so obvious.”
Abdul-Rauf wasn’t as subtle as he’d hoped. A member of the Nuggets organization soon approached him, saying a member of the media had noticed his anthemic aversion and wanted to talk to him about it. Zealous in his new faith, Abdul-Rauf gladly accepted.
He’d soon regret that decision.
"The flag represents tyranny and oppression,” he was quoted as saying in the interview, and the day after it was published, the cameras flocked for elaboration.
Abdul-Rauf says he clarified, but the media didn’t listen.
"They highlight 'tyranny and oppression.' They don't deal with the whole comment, which was a balanced comment. I said, 'Look, it represents tryanny and oppression, but am I saying that everything in America is bad? No! There's good that exists. But wherever the bad is — even if it's in Saudia Arabia — as a Muslim, we don't stand for it.' That's a balanced statement.”
It didn’t matter. The media ran with the story. Abdul-Rauf was villainized, his vast talents overshadowed by the vastness of his statements. He developed two ulcers from the stress of keeping his mouth shut in the fallout. His Mississippi home was burned down. His playing time decreased dramatically before he was traded to Sacramento – where he rode the bench for the first time in his life.
"I wanted to say something. I wanted to charge. But I held back.”
It was the last time he’d do that. Abdul-Rauf soon left the league, feeling as if he were being blackballed from the NBA because of his beliefs.
"When I made that stand, it was clear: it's okay to be a Muslim and play basketball, but it's not okay to be a conscientious Muslim, to voice your concern about sociopolitical or economic situations. They don't want this type of behavior. They want to make an example of you.”
His NBA career quickly wound down, with a stint in Vancouver sandwiched by overseas contracts. His basketball playing days are over, but his mission is not.
The road to the NBA ended, and so he took another path.
Many paths, actually. These days, Abdul-Rauf travels the country, running players through workouts and basketball camps and sharing his story and his faith.
His message is simple.
"Don't ever compromise what you believe in.”
Rather than shy from his steadfast faith — a devoutness he believes cost him his NBA career — Abdul-Rauf embraces it. He knows he made mistakes, but he also knows the purpose of those mistakes.
"If I took a piece of iron, and I wanted to make a tool of it, I have to put it through severe heat. I have to bang on it and bend it in order to shape it into a beautiful tool. That's what struggle does for us. Allah gives us these struggles to mold and shape and frame us to make us beautiful.”
The cost of faith, for Abdul-Rauf, has been vast. When he was Chris Jackson, he was a star; he became a villain as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — at least in perception.
But the price, he says, was worth it. He’d travel the same road, again.
"I lost millions of dollars. Someone burned down my house. But that's not going to deter me. Inshallah, I'm going to live and die as a Muslim, whether you like it or not.”