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

It's hard to believe that such a principled, zealous convert would make such a decision, act so publicly, in such politically volatile times, without careful consideration, without consciously trying to make a point. Perhaps the passage of time has enabled Abdul-Rauf to bury the anger and frustration over people assuming he was somehow duped or tricked into Islam, and that he wanted to eliminate any doubt that he was his own man, his own Muslim. Perhaps, remembering his mother never speaking up for herself, deferring to the white society, what Abdul-Rauf did was opt to sit down in order to stand up.

Regardless of whether it was "divinely inspired," Abdul-Rauf says he never imagined the media would notice; he never imagined he would be suspended indefinitely. The suspension lasted only one day, with Abdul-Rauf striking a compromise with the league: He would stand for the national anthem; however, he would be permitted to do so with hands cupped together and held prominently in front of his face; he would pray during the song. A pose that drew boos on the road and ultimately got him traded away, until he was shoved off the NBA court into obscurity. Abdul-Rauf was a pariah, regarded as if he were some kind of an Islamic terrorist.

Only a few months ago, Abdul-Rauf learned that videos of his playing days had been posted on YouTube. There he is dropping a career-high 51 points on the Utah Jazz. There he is eviscerating Michael Jordan. There's Abdul-Rauf: crossover dribble, flick, score. And there's a comment left by a viewer: "fuck that benladin fagget." "That's how they want to remember me," he says. "That's apparently my legacy."

The mosque is in the heart of Gulfport, a two-story brick edifice that rises lonesome among ramshackle homes and potholed streets. The parking lot is empty, save for a condom rumpled on the asphalt. Inside, the afternoon sun peeks through a handful of windows. The building is musty and stale, the fingerprint left by Katrina after it swept through the coast. The main room's walls are stripped to bare studs. The prayer room is gone; so is the children's study area and the adjacent gym. Abdul-Rauf puts a hand against a wall. "This is where I used to lead prayers," he says. At one time this was the culmination of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's dream.

While not standing for the anthem virtually killed his career, for Abdul-Rauf it was just another test on his religious journey, the beginning of the rest of his life. He bought the property for the mosque in 2000 with his second wife, April, who was an old friend from his high school days and also a Muslim convert. Abdul-Rauf bought the rundown building after a stint with the Sacramento Kings, where Abdul-Rauf was traded in the months after the episode in Denver. The place was a crackhouse then, and the former basketball star promised city leaders that he would make it the cornerstone of a neighborhood revival. Soon after it opened, the Muslim community along the Coast recognized Abdul-Rauf as an imam, a leader charged with the spiritual growth of his followers. Within a few years, in a region dominated by Baptists, Abdul-Rauf managed to grow his flock to 40 strong.