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.

October 2007

Photography by Lara Rossignol

Now in the classes of his choice, Jackson studied a history that made sense to him: slavery and the Civil Rights movement. Slavery. He started to wonder why his school could make money off his name, yet he didn't have enough cash to buy an off-campus hamburger or a new shirt. He wondered why his mother had to buy a ticket to the game when LSU knew she couldn't put food on the table back home. When the school's athletic department officials asked to speak to Jackson after his big photo splash in SI, he expected it was to congratulate him. Instead, they wanted to know why he'd been photographed wearing Nike shoes. LSU, they told him, is a Converse team. Ever since I was in high school, Jackson thought, people have been trying to own me. It was right about that time that Jackson's LSU coach, Dale Brown, handed him The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

In the spring of 1990, after that second stellar year, Chris Jackson went home to Gulfport to decide whether he should leave LSU and make himself eligible for the NBA draft. First, though, he had to take a leak. While he was washing his hands, the sink collapsed and broke. He left without saying goodbye and vowed to return only when he could buy his mother a new house.

Life as the third-overall pick in the draft meant this: Jackson became rich. Ten-million-dollars-for-four-years rich. Car-dealers-let-him-drive-off-the-lot-without-paying rich. Lots-of-white-dudes-in-suits-patting-him-on-the-back rich. And he was just 21 years old. But what the Denver Nuggets' first-round pick really wanted was stability. Try putting a price on stability.

He got himself a house, married his college sweetheart, Kim, and later asked his youngest brother to move out to Denver to attend high school. In many ways, he was the anti-playa's player. He didn't have time for the NBA lifestyle—that revolving door of women, gambling, gangsta' imitating, and boozing that went on after games.

While his teammates slept off hangovers and ushered groupies from their hotel rooms, Jackson, taking a page from the Malcolm X book, made a point of touring ghettos and meeting Muslim activists. He did it in Oakland, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Harlem. In his hotel room, and at home, he talked about the plight of black men in America, the reasons why so many shirked the responsibility of fatherhood, why so many landed behind prison gates. His journey into the nation's ghettos was the beginning of his Islamic pilgrimage to the Mecca in his mind.

However, while his soul seemed to be flourishing, his game was suffering. He was 30 pounds overweight his rookie season, leading team officials to wonder whether they'd made a draft-day mistake. A foot injury limited his playing time. Jackson averaged 14.1 points per game—hardly becoming of a man who so many believed could become the franchise player. The next season, his scoring average dropped to an abysmal 10.3 points per game in limited playing time. "He was pretty much a disappointment, and you could sense that he was struggling with all sorts of things," says Dan Issel, who observed Jackson as the Nuggets television analyst and then took over the team and was Jackson's head coach for two and a half years. "He seemed to have a lot on his mind."

And he did. Jackson told his wife, Kim, that he planned to convert to Islam. He professed his belief in Allah. He took a shower to symbolically cleanse himself of his past. He hired an Arabic teacher and started an intensive language program. He attended prayers at masjid and met with Islamic leaders. He talked of visiting Iran. Jackson wanted Kim to wear a veil in public. He admonished her, as is also customary for Muslim women, to "lower your gaze." "I was looking for support, someone to be with me, because I really felt that I was changing for the better, like I was becoming a better man," he says. "I was laughed at by so many people. They just wanted the boy to dribble that damn ball. Don't open your mouth, just dribble that ball. Don't question anyone, just dribble that ball." His marriage soon ended with a divorce.