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.
Photography by Lara Rossignol
He has kept the letters, nearly every one. That is, except for the death threats. Those he threw away.
Dear Mr. Abdul-Rauf,
Go back to Africa.
He made sure he took them when he fled Denver, and then for every move he and his family have made since.
The insults and the profanities, he keeps them stuffed in a white trash bag, inside a closet. Reminders of his life's seminal moment—those 90 seconds on the floor of Denver's old McNichols Arena.
You need to go to another country that does not have the freedom that we do.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is not sure why he has kept them. But even now, 11 years after the postmarks, many have yet to be opened. "Go on," he encourages me in a defiant voice. "Keep reading."
It's a summer morning, and we're in Abdul-Rauf's suburban Atlanta home. He is in the kitchen, behind the black granite countertops, making an omelet on the stovetop while his two oldest sons wrestle in the wooden-floored family room. Eggs sizzle and snap in the pan. At my side, the trash bag, with so many envelopes poking through the top. I pluck another one from the pile. The writer is a fifth-grader from Abrams Elementary School in Fort Carson, Colorado. Knowing that the school is a stone's throw from the Army base, Abdul-Rauf says sarcastically, "This should be good."
I tear open the red envelope, dated March 19, 1996, clear my throat, and read out loud:
Dear Mr. Abdul-Rauf,
I am glad that you finally decided to stand for the national anthem because you have a lot of young children looking up to you, wanting to be like you. You would have probably ruined their future because they would have grown up and disrespected our country like you did. You should have respected our flag for what it stands for.
Over at the stove, Abdul-Rauf lowers his head.
McNichols Arena seated 17,171 people, and on that night, March 10, 1996, it was almost full. A surprisingly good turnout considering the Denver Nuggets were meandering through another wasted season. A squad so full of promise had fallen flat. Eight games below .500; star players like LaPhonso Ellis were injured. Coach Bernie Bickerstaff was on the verge of unemployment.
Chris Jackson was supposed to have changed the Nuggets' fate. Six years earlier, the team jumped at the chance to get him, making him the third-overall pick of the 1990 draft, figuring the two-time collegiate All-American and Sports Illustrated cover boy would lead them deep into the playoffs with that sweet outside shot of his. Instead Jackson turned into something else, or rather, someone else entirely. His play had been inconsistent. He bitched. About not getting enough playing time. About not getting the ball. Moody and aloof, he didn't hang with teammates. And, in the midst of it all, he converted to Islam, becoming Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
For most of that '96 season, quietly citing his newfound faith, Abdul-Rauf avoided being on the floor during the national anthem. He'd mill about in the hallway or linger in the locker room. But on that night he trotted onto the court earlier than usual. Oh, say can you see... While the rest of the arena stood patriotically still, eyes transfixed on Old Glory in the rafters... by the dawn's early light... Abdul-Rauf, wearing the jersey with No. 1... what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming... stood with his hands on his hips... whose broad stripes and bright stars... He stretched. ... through the perilous fight... He bent over and slid his hands to his calves, to his ankles... O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming... Stretching to the tips of his $100 sneakers. And the rockets red glare... He looked everywhere but at the flag. ...the bombs bursting in air. Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there... Then he sat down. O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave... It suddenly was clear to everyone that he didn't give a shit about that song, and that he didn't care who knew it.
Even if the Nuggets had won that night it would not have been enough to distract the media from what Abdul-Rauf had done and not done. Across the country there was resounding condemnation. This from the Birmingham News: "...he has disrespected a nation that has allowed him the freedom to grow rich by playing games—literally." This from the Chicago Sun-Times: "In Greece, they'd stone him. He's a disgrace to the United States." And this from his college-town paper, the Baton Rouge Advocate: "... of all people, [he] should know that the American flag, more than any other, is a symbol of freedom and opportunity. For him, it offered an opportunity to lift himself from a childhood of poverty in Gulfport, Miss., to obtain an education, and to become a multimillionaire within the first 25 years of his life. If that's oppression, we wish some for everyone."
His oldest brother, a former Marine, was put in the uncomfortable position of defending him; so, too, was his high school coach, who went to war for that flag and lost a leg to the Nazis. Hakeem Olajuwon, a revered basketball player born into Islam, questioned Abdul-Rauf's knowledge of his faith and what it meant to be a Muslim in America. Old friends of Chris Jackson, back in Gulfport, appeared to disown Abdul-Rauf. "I don't see how it will ever be the same back here," his high school athletic director, Lindy Callahan, said a few days after the incident. "I think there are a lot of people here who can't find it in their hearts to ever, ever forgive him."
The backlash had little effect on Abdul-Rauf; if anything, it emboldened him. In an interview that was circulated in the national press, by way of explaining his actions, he called the flag "a symbol of oppression and tyranny." The United States once supported slavery, he said. It supported Israel's rise in the Middle East, he said. It supported keeping the black man down, he said, adding, "You can't be for God and oppression."
When I first met with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one afternoon this summer, he was waiting for me inside a strip-mall bakery near his former high school, ordering a sandwich, leaning against the counter. He wore camouflage shorts and a black T-shirt that read: "THINK, it's not illegal yet." At 38 years old, a rubber band of arms and legs and torso, he's 5 feet 10 inches, maybe, with spindly legs. His closely cropped hair is salted with gray. "Tell me," he asked, "do the people in Denver still hate me?"
As his professional basketball career has been drying up, Abdul-Rauf has gone into business for himself, flipping homes and investing in other real estate endeavors. He was in Gulfport for the week handling the remodel of a home he planned to rent, and also to make good on a promise he'd made to help a high school coach drill players for a couple of afternoons.
Gulfport is a sweaty Mississippi city—post-Hurricane Katrina population near 65,000—with a history as undeniable as the warm Gulf waves that wash over its white-sand beaches. Confederate president Jefferson Davis chose the region for his post-Civil War home more than 130 years ago. A black man was lynched here on a bridge in 1922. Barely one-fifth of the residents have a college degree. The median income is nearly 20 percent less than the rest of the country.
So it's no surprise, then, that when Chris Jackson was growing up on the playground courts in this city he always practiced as if an imaginary defender were in his face. Someone constantly trying to pop the ball from his hands, always putting body on body when he drove to the hoop. Every shot was contested: Hand in the face. Chop to the forearm. Sometimes a hard foul sent him sprawling and brought him to the foul line. Chris always enjoyed that line. It was one of the few places on earth where he wasn't being challenged.
He shot hundreds of free throws every day, perfecting the arc of the ball and the way it would hit the net—that is, the ball could never touch the rim. His methodic training was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the work eventually would make him one of the greatest free-throw shooters in the NBA; a curse because the meticulous way he went about practices flowed from Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that creates uncontrollable bodily tics. In some patients, like Chris, it makes the brain set unreasonable goals: When he shot those free throws, each one had to feel right. Feel right in the creases of his fingers, in the palm of his right hand, in the webbing between his thumb and index finger. He shot until everything, everything, was perfect.
Years later, at Gulfport High School, the basketball coach offered his players an incentive: They could shave minutes off practice by hitting consecutive free throws. Every successful consecutive shot meant less running and fewer drills. One day Chris was the shooter. He made 283 shots in a row. Practice was cancelled that day.
The kid was an athletic prodigy, a great hope in a city where hope was scarce. Those who saw him develop from a youth basketball standout and into a high school star marveled at his abilities. He'd score 30, 40, 50 points a night, set all sorts of records, lead his team to championships, and he became the best high school basketball player in Mississippi—arguably the best in the state's history.
Now, what seems lifetimes later, the two of us drive past a basketball court, a blacktop across from some homes and—beyond that—railroad tracks that separate the haves from the have-nots in the city. Tree canopies hang like teardrops over shotgun houses, and crumpled concrete sidewalks are littered with drug dealers and all sorts of unsavory types. On this afternoon, one boy is on the court, shooting and missing, chasing down the ball.
"Sometimes, it'd get so cold outside, but I refused to leave," Abdul-Rauf says, watching the kid, but seeing himself. "I dribbled that ball around, shot from the outside, the inside. Step in, then back, and POW! nail that shot. But it was so cold. I'd start shivering. My hands would freeze and it hurt to move them." He balls his hands into a gnarled mess of knuckles and fingers. "After I was done, I'd dribble that ball home, through the legs, around the back. Keep that defender off me. Dribble down the street, people trying to sell you marijuana—'Hey, boy, try this'—ignore them, keep dribbling that ball, don't let it get away. Head up."
We stop in a nearby vacant lot, the site of a now-nonexistent store, where neighborhood boys used to buy bread and cigarettes on credit for their mothers. Across the street is a Baptist church. Across from that is the ranch-style home where the three Jackson boys and their mother lived. The house is small and simple. It caught fire a few months ago, and burn marks run up the siding. Overgrown bushes creep toward its high porch. It didn't look much different when the Jacksons resided there in the 1970s and '80s, living the clichéd realities of being poor and black in the American South.
Jacqueline Jackson, a single mother and a cafeteria worker at the VA hospital in nearby Biloxi, struggled to make ends meet. Young Chris watched his momma talk to wealthy whites around town, always with her head down, responding with "Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir." It was deflating enough for the boy to watch her submit to others, but it was what inevitably happened next that filled him with rage: "She'd talk to her friends and say, 'Who does that man think he is? That man ain't shit. Where does he get off talking to me like that?' I hated that," he says. "If you've got something to tell someone, you say it to their face."
Jacqueline enjoyed alcohol, perhaps a bit too much. She did what she could to watch over her three children by three different men, with none acting like a father. She refused help from neighbors, though her sons often went without meals. Chris, his older brother, David, and his youngest brother, Omar, would drink sugar water and eat syrup sandwiches. Sometimes, Chris put instant coffee bags in hot water, maybe four or five at a time, let them soak for a while, then served coffee for a meal.
The boy floundered at school, flunking fourth grade in 1978, and he was put into special education classes in junior high. It wasn't that Chris didn't want to learn. He just couldn't. His Tourette's syndrome was then undiagnosed, and its tics were exacerbated amid the silence inside the classroom. He'd endure uncontrollably painful bouts of eye-blinking, neck-sapping, and jaw-clenching. Nothing on his body felt like it belonged. And his voice rose without warning, producing odd patterns and sounds—Huh? Ha. HA! It took him about an hour just to put on his pants and tie his shoes. When he tried to sit still in class, he says, "It took all of my power just to not twitch or yell out. I'd sit there and pray, 'God, don't let me move, please don't let me move.'"
On the court, though, it was different. With the noise and the constant movement, the tics were hardly noticeable. Even when the tics made him bang his knuckles on the hardwood, it looked like he was a gamer, the sort of cocky sonofabitch the college coaches love. The University of Louisville first contacted Chris when he was only in ninth grade. Coaches lined up outside the Jacksons' rented house. There were rumors that a Georgetown University booster had promised Jacqueline money if her son signed there, rumors that were never refuted, especially after his momma refused to sign the paperwork saying that Chris would attend Louisiana State University. Yet LSU is the school he chose.
On the Baton Rouge campus he felt liberated. He could take classes he wanted; his dorm room was safe; he made friends with black students who seemed to know so much about so much. He was comfortable, and it showed. Forty eight points in his third collegiate game; 53 points two games later; 50 points a few weeks after that. In January 1989, 54,321 people watched Chris battle the seemingly invincible Georgetown Hoyas. In front of the then-largest crowd to ever see a college basketball game, Chris Jackson scored 26 points and led LSU to an 82-80 victory. By the season's end, he had perhaps the greatest freshman season in collegiate basketball history. He finished with a 30.2 points-per-game average, the most cumulative points ever for a freshman, the SI cover, the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year award, and a plaque saying he'd been named a first-team All-American. His sophomore year was no less remarkable.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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:
"It only becomes the American Dream when more people are able to do it, when the disparity between the rich and the poor is lessened. Just because I can do it doesn't make it a dream. The American Dream is when it's fair. When you have just a small minority controlling the wealth in this world, and the majority is struggling to make ends meet, that's not fair. I know what it's like not to have health care, to be starving when I'm in the house."
His voice is rising: "Don't get me wrong, I know in other countries you've got issues, but just because I made it, don't think that it was because of America's kindheartedness that I did it. I struggled every damn day of my life...but right across those train tracks you got all this money. How is that the American Dream?" He pounds the car dashboard with his fist.
Apropos of nothing—really, just when you might think that Abdul-Rauf has been unfairly judged—he asks if I have ever heard of Operation Northwoods. I haven't. He explains that it was a military plan in the early 1960s in which acts of terrorism were suggested to be committed in the United States in order to fool Americans into supporting war against communist Cuba. One suggestion was to hijack airplanes.
"The government wanted to fly planes into buildings," Abdul-Rauf says. "Buildings. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?" It sinks in: He's talking about 9/11. "I think the government used remote-control devices to take over those planes and crash them." Referring to United Flight 93, which was crashed into a Pennsylvania field, he asks, "So, you're telling me that some guys with box-cutters can take over an entire plane filled with people? Come on, man. I mean, there isn't any evidence that Muslims even did this."
I tell Abdul-Rauf that Flight 93 is believed to have been headed for the White House, and that the cockpit recorder contained the recitation of Islamic prayers. "Oh, yeah, of course it did," Abdul-Rauf says. "That seems pretty convenient."
Just like that, he goes from talking about buying his momma a house, to waxing almost eloquently on the divide between the rich and the poor in America, to asserting that the United States itself orchestrated the attacks on 9/11. It is clear that he is as firm in his beliefs as he was that day back in 1996, when he did not stand, when he talked about American oppression and tyranny.
Today, he subscribes to the International Socialist Review, which he reads vigorously, underlining passages (the "Bush-Cheney-Blair plan for the Middle East is an agenda to maintain division and ethnic tension") and circling words that he will look up later ("subjugation"). And one of his associates is Imam Muhammad al-Asi, considered by some to be a radical anti-Semitic Shiite cleric who supports the Iranian regime and the militant Islamic movement worldwide. Abdul-Rauf has attended several of al-Asi's speeches, and the two stay in touch. All of which informs Abdul-Rauf's view of the war:
"I see this war on Iraq, this war on Afghanistan, and it's really a war on Islam," he says. "If you attack another country, bombing hospitals and all that, don't think that everybody is going to have the [peaceable] Muslim approach. You get to the point where it's your fault, America. Allah says if someone aggresses upon you, attack them in the same manner that they attacked you. That's the only way you're going to get respect. I ain't going to let you beat me upside my head. Human beings hate to fight. But it protects our rights, it protects our dignity as human beings. If you don't, people will continuously abuse you. You have to fight them back. You cannot have peace without justice."
How can it be that Abdul-Rauf, in the name of Islam, at least as he interprets it, can utter such polarizing rhetoric, find it so unholy to acknowledge the U.S. flag, and in the name of this same faith, live such a humble, selfless life? This man with a two-story suburban Atlanta home, with a well-kept lawn and marigolds, has been married for 11 years. He and his wife are raising their five children. He makes eggs. He tries to improve neighborhoods that otherwise go neglected. He has 27 boxes filled with books on everything from black poetry to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the best ways to get kids to eat healthy foods. He doesn't drink alcohol, gamble, or swear. He doesn't quit; he hasn't given up on professional basketball: He's played in Turkey, Russia, Italy (where he was named an All Star), and most recently, last year, in Greece.
In many ways, Abdul-Rauf could be a role model. He saw the endless parade of athletes who took the path of least resistance, who marched around town with their posses and women and bling. And instead he chose the path of his faith. "Mahmoud is not a crazy person," his wife says. "He is a good, honest, genuine man, and anyone would be lucky to have him as a father or husband. I just wish people would see Mahmoud the way I see him. He is principled, but apparently that isn't acceptable."
Yes, Abdul-Rauf did not not stand on that night, but it was because he believed, and he has stood up in so many ways, for so many noble causes since. Maybe the tragic irony of Abdul-Rauf's life is that his faith, at least as he gives voice to it, has much in common with this America and its flag—from each, both good and bad are born; one minute there is inexplicable nonsense and hatred, and the next there's great compassion and humanity. Maybe the reaction to Abdul-Rauf that night in 1996—the division and animosity it unleashed—revealed as much about American spectators as it did about him.
The eggs are still crackling on the frying pan. Abdul-Rauf's wife enters the room with the couple's 18-month-old son, Amir, in her arms. She hugs her husband, their son pressed between them. She turns to me. I'm sitting at the kitchen island with the white trash bag at my side. "The letters?" she asks. He nods his head. I pull another envelope from the bag. "Hey now," Abdul-Rauf says. "You're just picking out the bad ones."
For a second, it's as if he's willing good news to come from the envelope in my hand. The letter is from a 12-year-old boy living with Tourette's syndrome. Abdul-Rauf is something of an inspiration. The letter goes: "Someone was making fun of people with Tourette's the other day, and I punched him. I said 'That's for Mahmoud.'"
Abdul-Rauf lets out a yelp of joy: "You get 'em, boy! That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!" Then he looks at me quizzically. It's clear that he's waiting for the hammer to drop, waiting for an admonishment from that boy. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is waiting to relive that moment in Denver.
"What does he want?"
An autograph, I tell him.
"That's all? That's it?"
A smile steals across his face.
Robert Sanchez is a staff writer at 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].