The Conversion of Chris Jackson
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.
How can it be that Abdul-Rauf, in the name of Islam, at least as he interprets it, can utter such polarizing rhetoric, find it so unholy to acknowledge the U.S. flag, and in the name of this same faith, live such a humble, selfless life? This man with a two-story suburban Atlanta home, with a well-kept lawn and marigolds, has been married for 11 years. He and his wife are raising their five children. He makes eggs. He tries to improve neighborhoods that otherwise go neglected. He has 27 boxes filled with books on everything from black poetry to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the best ways to get kids to eat healthy foods. He doesn't drink alcohol, gamble, or swear. He doesn't quit; he hasn't given up on professional basketball: He's played in Turkey, Russia, Italy (where he was named an All Star), and most recently, last year, in Greece.
In many ways, Abdul-Rauf could be a role model. He saw the endless parade of athletes who took the path of least resistance, who marched around town with their posses and women and bling. And instead he chose the path of his faith. "Mahmoud is not a crazy person," his wife says. "He is a good, honest, genuine man, and anyone would be lucky to have him as a father or husband. I just wish people would see Mahmoud the way I see him. He is principled, but apparently that isn't acceptable."
Yes, Abdul-Rauf did not not stand on that night, but it was because he believed, and he has stood up in so many ways, for so many noble causes since. Maybe the tragic irony of Abdul-Rauf's life is that his faith, at least as he gives voice to it, has much in common with this America and its flag—from each, both good and bad are born; one minute there is inexplicable nonsense and hatred, and the next there's great compassion and humanity. Maybe the reaction to Abdul-Rauf that night in 1996—the division and animosity it unleashed—revealed as much about American spectators as it did about him.
The eggs are still crackling on the frying pan. Abdul-Rauf's wife enters the room with the couple's 18-month-old son, Amir, in her arms. She hugs her husband, their son pressed between them. She turns to me. I'm sitting at the kitchen island with the white trash bag at my side. "The letters?" she asks. He nods his head. I pull another envelope from the bag. "Hey now," Abdul-Rauf says. "You're just picking out the bad ones."
For a second, it's as if he's willing good news to come from the envelope in my hand. The letter is from a 12-year-old boy living with Tourette's syndrome. Abdul-Rauf is something of an inspiration. The letter goes: "Someone was making fun of people with Tourette's the other day, and I punched him. I said 'That's for Mahmoud.'"
Abdul-Rauf lets out a yelp of joy: "You get 'em, boy! That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!" Then he looks at me quizzically. It's clear that he's waiting for the hammer to drop, waiting for an admonishment from that boy. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is waiting to relive that moment in Denver.
"What does he want?"
An autograph, I tell him.
"That's all? That's it?"
A smile steals across his face.
Robert Sanchez is a staff writer at 5280. E-mail him at email@example.com.