He was supposed to be the future of the Denver Nuggets. Instead, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided that the only way to stand up for Allah was to sit down.
Photography by Lara Rossignol
He has kept the letters, nearly every one. That is, except for the death threats. Those he threw away.
Dear Mr. Abdul-Rauf,
Go back to Africa.
He made sure he took them when he fled Denver, and then for every move he and his family have made since.
The insults and the profanities, he keeps them stuffed in a white trash bag, inside a closet. Reminders of his life's seminal moment—those 90 seconds on the floor of Denver's old McNichols Arena.
You need to go to another country that does not have the freedom that we do.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is not sure why he has kept them. But even now, 11 years after the postmarks, many have yet to be opened. "Go on," he encourages me in a defiant voice. "Keep reading."
It's a summer morning, and we're in Abdul-Rauf's suburban Atlanta home. He is in the kitchen, behind the black granite countertops, making an omelet on the stovetop while his two oldest sons wrestle in the wooden-floored family room. Eggs sizzle and snap in the pan. At my side, the trash bag, with so many envelopes poking through the top. I pluck another one from the pile. The writer is a fifth-grader from Abrams Elementary School in Fort Carson, Colorado. Knowing that the school is a stone's throw from the Army base, Abdul-Rauf says sarcastically, "This should be good."
I tear open the red envelope, dated March 19, 1996, clear my throat, and read out loud:
Dear Mr. Abdul-Rauf,
I am glad that you finally decided to stand for the national anthem because you have a lot of young children looking up to you, wanting to be like you. You would have probably ruined their future because they would have grown up and disrespected our country like you did. You should have respected our flag for what it stands for.
Over at the stove, Abdul-Rauf lowers his head.
McNichols Arena seated 17,171 people, and on that night, March 10, 1996, it was almost full. A surprisingly good turnout considering the Denver Nuggets were meandering through another wasted season. A squad so full of promise had fallen flat. Eight games below .500; star players like LaPhonso Ellis were injured. Coach Bernie Bickerstaff was on the verge of unemployment.
Chris Jackson was supposed to have changed the Nuggets' fate. Six years earlier, the team jumped at the chance to get him, making him the third-overall pick of the 1990 draft, figuring the two-time collegiate All-American and Sports Illustrated cover boy would lead them deep into the playoffs with that sweet outside shot of his. Instead Jackson turned into something else, or rather, someone else entirely. His play had been inconsistent. He bitched. About not getting enough playing time. About not getting the ball. Moody and aloof, he didn't hang with teammates. And, in the midst of it all, he converted to Islam, becoming Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
For most of that '96 season, quietly citing his newfound faith, Abdul-Rauf avoided being on the floor during the national anthem. He'd mill about in the hallway or linger in the locker room. But on that night he trotted onto the court earlier than usual. Oh, say can you see... While the rest of the arena stood patriotically still, eyes transfixed on Old Glory in the rafters... by the dawn's early light... Abdul-Rauf, wearing the jersey with No. 1... what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming... stood with his hands on his hips... whose broad stripes and bright stars... He stretched. ... through the perilous fight... He bent over and slid his hands to his calves, to his ankles... O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming... Stretching to the tips of his $100 sneakers. And the rockets red glare... He looked everywhere but at the flag. ...the bombs bursting in air. Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there... Then he sat down. O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave... It suddenly was clear to everyone that he didn't give a shit about that song, and that he didn't care who knew it.
Even if the Nuggets had won that night it would not have been enough to distract the media from what Abdul-Rauf had done and not done. Across the country there was resounding condemnation. This from the Birmingham News: "...he has disrespected a nation that has allowed him the freedom to grow rich by playing games—literally." This from the Chicago Sun-Times: "In Greece, they'd stone him. He's a disgrace to the United States." And this from his college-town paper, the Baton Rouge Advocate: "... of all people, [he] should know that the American flag, more than any other, is a symbol of freedom and opportunity. For him, it offered an opportunity to lift himself from a childhood of poverty in Gulfport, Miss., to obtain an education, and to become a multimillionaire within the first 25 years of his life. If that's oppression, we wish some for everyone."
His oldest brother, a former Marine, was put in the uncomfortable position of defending him; so, too, was his high school coach, who went to war for that flag and lost a leg to the Nazis. Hakeem Olajuwon, a revered basketball player born into Islam, questioned Abdul-Rauf's knowledge of his faith and what it meant to be a Muslim in America. Old friends of Chris Jackson, back in Gulfport, appeared to disown Abdul-Rauf. "I don't see how it will ever be the same back here," his high school athletic director, Lindy Callahan, said a few days after the incident. "I think there are a lot of people here who can't find it in their hearts to ever, ever forgive him."