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.
The backlash had little effect on Abdul-Rauf; if anything, it emboldened him. In an interview that was circulated in the national press, by way of explaining his actions, he called the flag "a symbol of oppression and tyranny." The United States once supported slavery, he said. It supported Israel's rise in the Middle East, he said. It supported keeping the black man down, he said, adding, "You can't be for God and oppression."
When I first met with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one afternoon this summer, he was waiting for me inside a strip-mall bakery near his former high school, ordering a sandwich, leaning against the counter. He wore camouflage shorts and a black T-shirt that read: "THINK, it's not illegal yet." At 38 years old, a rubber band of arms and legs and torso, he's 5 feet 10 inches, maybe, with spindly legs. His closely cropped hair is salted with gray. "Tell me," he asked, "do the people in Denver still hate me?"
As his professional basketball career has been drying up, Abdul-Rauf has gone into business for himself, flipping homes and investing in other real estate endeavors. He was in Gulfport for the week handling the remodel of a home he planned to rent, and also to make good on a promise he'd made to help a high school coach drill players for a couple of afternoons.
Gulfport is a sweaty Mississippi city—post-Hurricane Katrina population near 65,000—with a history as undeniable as the warm Gulf waves that wash over its white-sand beaches. Confederate president Jefferson Davis chose the region for his post-Civil War home more than 130 years ago. A black man was lynched here on a bridge in 1922. Barely one-fifth of the residents have a college degree. The median income is nearly 20 percent less than the rest of the country.
So it's no surprise, then, that when Chris Jackson was growing up on the playground courts in this city he always practiced as if an imaginary defender were in his face. Someone constantly trying to pop the ball from his hands, always putting body on body when he drove to the hoop. Every shot was contested: Hand in the face. Chop to the forearm. Sometimes a hard foul sent him sprawling and brought him to the foul line. Chris always enjoyed that line. It was one of the few places on earth where he wasn't being challenged.
He shot hundreds of free throws every day, perfecting the arc of the ball and the way it would hit the net—that is, the ball could never touch the rim. His methodic training was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the work eventually would make him one of the greatest free-throw shooters in the NBA; a curse because the meticulous way he went about practices flowed from Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that creates uncontrollable bodily tics. In some patients, like Chris, it makes the brain set unreasonable goals: When he shot those free throws, each one had to feel right. Feel right in the creases of his fingers, in the palm of his right hand, in the webbing between his thumb and index finger. He shot until everything, everything, was perfect.