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

Stepping outside the now dilapidated shell of his mosque, Abdul-Rauf points to an open plot of blacktop at the building's side. It was only three years ago that he planned to expand the mosque into a regional Muslim center. But even though other developments in the area were going full-speed ahead, Abdul-Rauf's project was strangled in red tape and died after more than a year of wrangling. For him, it was another in a laundry list of offenses against him and his faith. The first was the divorce from his first wife, followed by the isolation he felt during the nine seasons as an NBA player.

The biggest affront for Abdul-Rauf, however, was when the 6,600-square-foot home he was building outside Gulfport was spray painted with Ku Klux Klan symbols and vandalized repeatedly. The 53-acre complex was to become the Abdul-Raufs' Muslim heaven on earth, with its own cattle to slaughter, fresh water to drink, and a garden to tend. But instead of moving in, the couple decided to sell the property for $1 million, citing fears of raising children in such an outwardly hostile environment. The house slogged on the market for months. Then someone burned it down in the summer of 2001. Citing the earlier vandalism, the Abdul-Raufs said it was an act of religious and racial intimidation. Federal prosecutors disagreed, and the couple began to feel as if they themselves were being viewed as the suspects. The crime was never solved.

"That was just the last straw, you know," he says. Abdul-Rauf packed up his wife and their children in 2005 and headed to Atlanta. "It was obvious we weren't being accepted. It's been like that since the day I converted." As if on cue, a woman steps from her driveway and yells in our direction: "Chris! Hey, Chris! Over here, Chris!" Abdul-Rauf talks to the woman, a neighbor he has known since childhood.

As we get in the car, I ask if it bothers him that people still think of him as Chris Jackson. He rolls his eyes. "I get people coming up to me all the time calling me Chris, and I just have to say, 'Hey, remember, it's Mahmoud.' They're like, 'But I can't say it, I can't pronounce it.' I mean, it's Ma-Mood. If you can say 'I like food,' you can say Ma-Mood. They know it, they can say it. They just don't want to."

On the way from the mosque Abdul-Rauf tells me to make a left turn into a cul-de-sac and we park. "That's the house I bought for my momma," he says. After signing his first contract with the Nuggets, Abdul-Rauf paid cash for the home. It was sold four years ago, when she died of ovarian cancer.

I ask Abdul-Rauf why he couldn't stand for a flag that allowed him to buy his mother a home, one that allowed her to live comfortably in the last 14 years of life. That allowed him to live so comfortably. That has to count for something, right? That, I say, seems to be the definition of the American Dream. He bristles. "No, it's not," he says. For a few moments, an uncomfortable silence fills the car, as Abdul-Rauf harnesses his rush of emotion into a response: