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

Abdul-Rauf planned trips to the Middle East. Books piled up in his house: about Zionists who plotted to take over the world; about clandestine experiments the government was performing on black men. After games he met men in robes and funny hats and disappeared into the night—Islamic brothers. The men stayed at his house; they slept in his hotel rooms. It became increasingly difficult to locate Abdul-Rauf.

Even some of the people closest to Chris Jackson were starting to dislike Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. "I never had any problem accepting Mahmoud or his religion," his agent, Keith Glass, wrote in a book released this year. "I did have a hard time digesting what I thought were people abusing the religious link with Mahmoud for their own purposes.... [Mahmoud] started to become more difficult as far as showing up where he was supposed to, with his entourage intimately involved in his affairs—all signs of a situation going to hell."

That was part of the rub for Abdul-Rauf: People doubted the reasons for his conversion. His mother, his now ex-wife, his friends in his old Gulfport neighborhood, his coaches, his agent. "It was like people didn't think I could think for myself," he says. "Like I was some robot being programmed to think this way. I was the one reading the books. I was the one seeking the discussions. I was like, 'Why can't anyone understand this?'"

In the middle of the '95 NBA season—just as Islamist Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and nine of his associates were convicted of planning the '93 Trade Center bombing—Abdul-Rauf informed the Nuggets that he no longer wanted to stand for the national anthem. He believed, as he put it, that recognizing the flag during "The Star Spangled Banner" was "nationalistic ritualism"—it was a blindly patriotic nation ignoring its ignominious past—and that for him to do so would be a sin.

The NBA advised the Nuggets to handle Abdul-Rauf's decision discreetly. None of his teammates mentioned it to the media. After the song would end he'd walk to the bench, get pregame instructions, and play. The silent protest went unnoticed, even during the few days he had begun trotting out with the team and stretching. That is until that night in March. With the trial of Timothy McVeigh, charged with the Oklahoma City bombing, set to begin in Denver, and the Trade Center bombing still echoing in America's ear, the line separating treason and patriotism had never seemed more clearly drawn. Abdul-Rauf's lack of respect for the American flag itself was viewed as a not-so-silent bomb explosion.

Abdul-Rauf tells me he isn't sure when or why he made the decision to join his team for the anthem, why he decided to come out of that tunnel early. He did not and does not, he says, see it as any special moment of defiance. He doesn't even mention the '93 Trade Center attack; in his mind's eye there's simply no connection. Nor does Abudul-Rauf view himself as a Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali and lost his heavyweight title when he refused to enter the draft for the Vietnam War. Nor does he invoke the historic moment from the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists for black power. As far as Abdul-Rauf is concerned, he was just him being him, true to his faith.