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

He was beginning to feel like a contemporary slave. He wanted to play basketball, then go home and read. But under the NBA spotlight he was bound by the stifling realization that his life was no longer his. He was told where to donate his money and which social events he should attend. During the rare moments he had to himself, he took solace in reading virtually everything on or authored by Malcolm X. Malcolm became his friend, his mentor, someone he could depend on and who understood. He built a library of Malcolm texts and speeches.

Malcolm's words filled Jackson's head: You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.... Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it.... Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it's against the oppressor. You don't need anything else.

On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the basement garage of New York's World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than a 1,000 others; a terrorist group of Muslim fundamentalists claimed it was responsible. The group, which was well known to U.S. intelligence experts, in effect had just announced itself to the rest of America. It called itself Al Qaeda. It was only a few weeks later, that spring, that Chris Jackson officially concluded his conversion to Islam and readied himself for a journey to Mecca.

It was suggested that he adopt a Muslim name. Jackson had no idea what he wanted to be called, so he consulted two imams at the Colorado Muslim Society. "One of them says, you will be 'Mahmoud,' and the other says, 'Abdul-Rauf,'" he recalls. "I really think one guy's name was Mahmoud and the other was Abdul-Rauf. I said 'OK, sounds good.'"

The name means "elegant and praiseworthy, most merciful, most kind." And it aptly described his new basketball play. He lost 32 pounds and worked on his game nine hours each day—setting aside time to pray between breaks. That season, he averaged 19.2 points per game, a career high; he participated in the All-Star slam-dunk competition, and he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. He signed a five-year, $13 million contract extension, then led his team in scoring again.

He credited his faith and its codified structure for his improved game. While he was once a rudderless ship in a sea of insecurity and doubt, Islam told him the proper way to bathe, how to handle his finances, how to pray. How to live. Never having the hand of a father to guide him, he now had Allah to point the way. The Quran was Abdul-Rauf's how-to guide. Budding star or not, endorsements were still slow to come, as his name and religion conjured up images of Middle Eastern radicals.

Meanwhile, Abdul-Rauf's faith drove a wedge between him and the team. He refused to shower naked with his teammates because of an Islamic tenet demanding modesty. He wanted a separate room to pray. He observed the month-long fast of Ramadan—dropping from 163 pounds to 147—right in the middle of the NBA season. "I loved him," Issel says. "I was so proud of how he turned things around on the court, but I didn't fully understand his religion and why he was doing the things he was doing. Frankly, I thought some of that was hurting the team, and I wished he wouldn't have done it. Sometimes I'd see him out there and I wished that I had that Baptist boy from Mississippi."