The most important moment of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's NBA career came on the bench. On an otherwise mundane March night, as his Denver Nuggets slumped towards the end of a season that would miss the playoffs, Abdul-Rauf, a devout Muslim, sat quietly like the rest of his teammates. , and everyone else in the arena – represented the rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
For two decades, that moment has defined the legacy of the former sniper. But as the 20th anniversary of Abdul-Rauf's refusal to perform the anthem this year approached, it was another player, one who could score more 3s than Abdul-Rauf, who put his name back in the headlines. . Not because of the protest, but because of all the qualities of his game, that incident has sometimes overshadowed.
This season Stephen Curry has left the basketball world looking for comparisons. And three weeks ago, when Curry fired up the Oklahoma City Thunder and surpassed his own record of three points in a season with 23 games left to play, Phil Jackson finally thought he had found the one.
So the president of the New York Knicks, who won 13 titles as an NBA player and head coach, took to Twitter to remind the world of a name from the past.
The response from social media bordered on outrage. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf – who was known as Chris Jackson before converting to Islam in 1991 and changed his name two years later – was a career 35 percent three-point shooter, hardly in the purview of Curry. But for others, like Dale Brown, who coached Abdul-Rauf at Louisiana State University nearly 30 years ago, it made perfect sense.
"I said it a year or two ago!" Brown told The Huffington Post recently: "Chris Jackson was Steph Curry before Steph Curry was Steph Curry."
Once upon a time, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was one of the deadliest shooters in college basketball history, twice All-American at LSU and then a lottery pick who, in nine NBA seasons, displayed that same skill against some. of the biggest names in sport.
By making the comparison to Curry, Jackson was only trying to remind the world of Abdul-Rauf's brilliance on the court. But given its proximity to the anniversary of Abdul-Rauf's protest, the tweet also raises questions: What happened to him? Has your importance as a player and as something else been forgotten?
Brown lured Jackson to LSU in 1988 from Gulfport, Mississippi, where the point guard had already become a deadly scorer with a silky smooth jump shot that left his high school opponents amazed high school. Jackson had grown up poor in Gulfport. He never knew his father and suffered from Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes tics, but which Brown said also generated the obscene approach that created his magic shot hit.
Jackson was a shy, quiet and humble boy, even when he came to LSU as one of the best high school recruits in the country. His first game in an LSU uniform, Jackson got started and helped the Tigers beat Marist, telling reporters that he was excited to be there and happy with the number of looks Brown's offense gave him (stats Officials are hard to come by, but Brown recalled that Jackson scored 13 points.)
But as they left the Maravich Assembly Center, LSU's home stadium, Brown took Jackson aside and told the freshman never to act like that in front of the press again. Jackson was terrified that he had let his new coach down.
"Son, let me tell you something," Brown told him. "You have unlimited shooting skills. Don't look at the bench. You shoot whenever you want. I'll tell you if it's a bad shot, and you don't have to worry about it. You're such a deadly shooter, go ahead and do it."
He never had to remind Jackson again. Two weeks later, Jackson scored 48 points against Louisiana Tech in just his third college game. On his first conference tour, on December 10, 1988, he hung 53 in Florida.
Jackson scored 965 points that year; his average of 30.2 points per game remains a record for a freshman college student.
During his two seasons in Baton Rouge, Jackson's dedication to the game became popular. There were gym sessions, Brown recalled, where Jackson refused to leave until he hit 300 c consecutive free throws.
Jackson left for the NBA after his second season, and the Denver Nuggets traded two picks to take him to the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft.
For a matter of time – the NCAA didn't adopt the three-point line until the season before his arrival at LSU – Jackson's approach to shooting away bombs made him something of a revolutionary college basketball player.
Jackson scored 48 points in just his third NBA game, but he never became the force that Curry later became. Jackson never hit more than 39 percent of his 3s in a single season. Curry, by contrast, has a 44 percent career mark from distance, and has never won less than 42 percent in a season.
But the same stylistic traits that define Curry's game – the quick release, the ability to punch his way into wide open spaces, the effortless way he scores even when not open, and the feeling that no lead is certain if he's in the open. on the floor, they were also present at Abdul-Rauf's. , even in an era when the 3-pointer and the point guard who scores first weren't as celebrated as they are now.
"Beyond him and Steph shooting, they are very similar," Brown said. “He can break free anytime he wants, and then if the lane clogs up, he has a great ability to shoot the little float, just like Steph. They are almost contortionists with basketball. There are so many similarities. Faster, faster than a bullet at full speed. ”
Bryant Stith, who played with Abdul-Rauf in Denver and has known him since they were teammates at a Nike recruiting camp as a senior in high school, wonders how Abdul-Rauf would have fared in the NBA today. , who has begun to consider the true value of the 3-pointer and allows point guards like Curry so much room to improvise and dictate offenses with his scoring ability.
"If Mahmoud had the freedom to shoot and score in such an open offense," reflected Stith, "I don't know if he could put the same kind of numbers that Steph Curry is putting now, but he would probably be the closest person who could do those things. … The numbers he would have put in would have been incredible. "
Every once in a while, I had that opportunity. On December 8, 1995, Abdul-Rauf entered Salt Lake City and set fire to the Utah Jazz.
] The performance – Abdul-Rauf finished with 51 points – featured moments where fans were able to see the same kind of whirlwind, frenzy, that-can't-be-possible-style that Curry has perfected. . To suggest that Abdul-Rauf helped create the mold that Curry is now breaking is not absurd.
But three months after that Jazz match, Abdul-Rauf's career fell apart.
“After the national anthem fiasco, no one really wanted to touch me.”
The night of March 10, 1996, began like almost any other that season. Abdul-Rauf went through warm-ups, returned to the locker room to dress for the game, and went out with his teammates for normal pre-game rituals. When the first chord of "The Star Spangled Banner" struck, however, and the rest of his teammates stood in front of the Nuggets bench, Abdul-Rauf sat down.
In truth, he hadn't participated in The Typical Hymn Ritual for most of that season. Sometimes he would stretch, other nights he would stay in the locker room and just join his team on the track. t once finished. But that night, a local journalist saw him sitting there and wrote a little story for the next day's newspaper.
The next morning, Abdul-Rauf's silent gesture made national news, and his mailbox was flooded with death threats.
The protest, he said at the time, was aimed at drawing attention to the fact that the American flag was “a symbol of tyranny, of oppression.” Honoring him said it was out of line with his Islamic faith.
"This country has a long history of that," he said. "I don't think you can argue the facts. You cannot be for God and for oppression. It is clear in the Qur'an, Islam is the only way. I do not criticize those who are standing, so do not criticize me ". For sitting down. I will not waver in my decision".
"I am also a man who tries to perfect my life on and off the field, and someone who tries to be sincere in my treatment of my fellow men, and sincere in whatever activity I undertake, "said Abdul-Rauf in the days after the outbreak of the controversy." Therefore, I understand that 100 percent honesty and sincerity is the requirement to participate in the national anthem. As such, I chose not to disrespect anyone and to remain in the locker room or hallway while the anthem was playing. "
Two days after that game, on March 12, the NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Abdul-Rauf indefinitely.He stayed out a game, losing a $ 31,700 game check, before reaching a league compromise: He had to stand up, but could bow his head and close your eyes to pray if you wanted to.
Abdul-Rauf still showed flashes of brilliance in the final months of the season, lighting up Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for 32 points in May. But his career would never be the same again.
The Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf to Sacramento immediately after the season ended. It seemed like a move meant to shed the "controversial shooting guard" , as the Los Angeles Times described in a story about the trade, given the Nuggets only received one second-round pick and Kings guard Salunas Marciulionis (who played just 17 games in Denver before retiring after the 1997 season) for a player who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season.
Two seasons later, Abdul-Rauf was out of the NBA. His final year in Sacramento was disastrous – he shot just 16 percent from behind the arc. After a year in the Turkish league, he caught one last chance with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000. He averaged 6.5 points and shot 28 percent of three in 41 games, and once the season ended, so did his NBA career. .
In subsequent interviews, Abdul-Rauf complained that "his best years were taken from him" after the scandal.
"After the national anthem fiasco, nobody really wanted to touch me," he told HoopsHype in 2010.
For Brown, it came as a shock that Abdul-Rauf became the focal point of one of the biggest off-court controversies of his time. After all, its star base had always been a straight arrow. Once, he recalled, both he and Abdul-Rauf delivered Christmas turkeys to families in Baton Rouge. Abdul-Rauf asked him to turn off the music in the car as they passed a church, saying he felt it was disrespectful to God.
When Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam, he did not hide it from his teammates. He fasted during Ramadan each season, and his teammates were aware of his stance on the anthem long before it was released.
"We knew Mahmoud was very devoted in his beliefs," Stith, now an assistant coach at Old Dominion University, said. "We knew he was taking them seriously, and we respect him."
Other players felt the same, and the NBA Players Association backed him in fighting the league's suspension.
"He's a good kid," Michael Jordan said at the time. "He has his beliefs, and I may not agree with them, but I give him all the credit for trying to stick to them."
But fans, the NBA, and maybe even those in charge of their franchise were uncomfortable with the gesture.
Sports in the 1990s were relatively free from political protest, and geopolitical events made Abdul-Rauf's stance against the flag conducive to outrage. Only three years earlier, Islamic terrorists had bombed the World Trade Center in New York City, and memories of that, and of a war in the Persian Gulf, were still fresh in the minds of the nation.
The controversy even began to affect his teammates. When Abdul-Rauf returned to the court against Chicago after his suspension, the fans sang the national anthem with passion and a volume that Stith had never heard before a game. Secret Service officers often accompanied Nuggets players to opposite venues to guide them past the waiting protesters.
"It increased the amount of pressure on Mahmoud, it increased the amount of pressure on the Nuggets organization," Stith said. "I don't think the Nuggets organization wanted to deal with that negativity at the time."
After his NBA career ended, Abdul-Rauf briefly returned to his hometown Gulfport, where he planned to build a Muslim center. But he was burned to the ground in 2001 in what he considered a hate crime (the authorities did not prosecute him as such). He traveled the world playing in foreign leagues during the following years, making stops in Europe and Japan. In 2007, he was living outside of Atlanta, raising five children with his wife, and continuing to receive hate mail about that night in March 1996, according to a story about him in Denver's 5280 magazine.
Brown saw Abdul-Rauf not long ago and said his former player has remained committed to charitable work in underserved communities, just as he was when he and Brown used to deliver turkeys during the holidays. Stith hasn't spoken to him since the Nuggets traded him to Sacramento.
But Abdul-Rauf rarely speaks to the media now, and even as the anniversary of the protest approached, at a time when the country is grappling with and debating many of the issues he raised; little is known about what he is doing now.
Even before Phil Jackson's tweets, I wanted to ask him about Curry and if he saw himself as the biggest star in the world. NBA. Could it have been that player, or something like it, in this era, in a league that was learning the true value of shooting in which it excelled?
And if he was before of his era as a guard, could he have been an early generation as an athlete willing to take such a position? Also?
But more than that, I was curious about how he might have been accepted today, at a time when prominent NBA players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul have used court rallies and social media to protest police killings of young blacks and the idea of athletes, and those of color in particular – taking a stand against issues they see as injustices is less bizarre. than it was when Abdul-Rauf sat down.
I was wondering if Abdul-Rauf thought that the world of sports – and the media environment around him – had changed in a big way. way that could give more compassion and nuance to the salve he was trying to make, and if the NBA could treat his gesture differently today.
Or would you say we hadn't changed at all? The United States, after all, is a country that in 2016 is still waging multi-front wars in two Muslim countries. It is a nation in the midst of a presidential campaign in which a bombastic billionaire has called Muslim enemies of the United States, openly suggested that we ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country, and vowed to target the families and children of suspected Islamic terrorists. abroad. Do the messages your protest sent matter even more today than 20 years ago?
But Abdul-Rauf did not respond when I contacted via Facebook or an email account listed on a little-used Twitter page. His agent accepted a request from Abdul-Rauf by phone and then again by email, but stopped responding. Brown asked her to call him, but she didn't.
David Stern, who resigned as commissioner in 2014, was not available to comment on this story, according to the NBA. Aside from Stith, several of his former Nuggets teammates declined or did not respond to requests for comment.
Abdul-Rauf's Facebook page tells the story of a man who is still deeply invested in trouble. raised his moment of protest. He regularly shares memes about Islam and a variety of political topics. A recent post features a photo of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani activist in history, with one of her most famous quotes written in chalk on a blackboard behind her: "With guns, you can kill terrorists." He says. “With education you can end terrorism.”
Another belies his feelings about Donald Trump and his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He quotes a recent tweet by Stephen King that read: "Conservatives who for 8 years sowed the dragon teeth of partisan politics are horrified to find that they have grown a real dragon."
Brown, who still talks to him regularly, said that Abdul-Rauf is still the same as he was all those years ago.
"He's the type of person who is so humble, so kind, so spiritual, there's an aura around him," Brown said. "He's just a beautiful human being."
"And," he added, "I could play right now."
Brown doesn't surprise me that Abdul-Rauf didn't want to talk, about the comparisons to Steph or the protest, even as he tried to connect us. The incident in Denver, Brown said, has always been misunderstood, our attention focused on the act itself rather than the meaning behind it.
"What I was trying to do, I was just trying to say, 'We need America to come together and eliminate poverty and prejudice, and love one another,'" Brown said. That's what I was trying to do. It wasn't anti-United States or anything like that. ”
“ I'm 80 years old, ”said the former LSU coach. "I would like to be more like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf."