In a quiet moment, in a snowy town, in a basketball arena known for its altitude and player fatigue, there was a management to labor phone call pre-game intended to quell insubordination. The call was both calculating and purposeful, not to mention important. The point was to try to persuade the first Muslim convert since Lew Alcindor to stand up for the national anthem. Convince him to stand up like an American.
The player who used to be Chris Jackson but for three years was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf listened patiently, phone in hand. When the plea came to its natural conclusion, he was not swayed.
What Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf remembers about that 1996 phone call was hearing himself say, “I am not Jewish so that story doesn’t apply to me. This is my decision so whatever you decide, you make your decision, I’ll make my decision.”
There was no room for a maybe. There wasn’t any gray area. The line in the sand had been drawn. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was not standing for the national anthem anymore. It’s important to note that when he used to stand for the national anthem, Abdul-Rauf often came out of the tunnel late because of his Tourette’s diagnosis.
Compulsive rituals define the neuropsychiatric disorder Tourette’s Syndrome in which repetitive muscle contractions distort the body. Abdul-Rauf had to go through a litany of progressions multiple times before he could do anything required like stand for the national anthem. What once made Abdul-Rauf an object of curiosity and sympathy- why was he doing all those bizarre things with his hands?- disappeared beneath his insurgent behavior. This was more serious than watching a player helplessly negotiate some brain flaw. He wasn’t standing for the national anthem and it was on purpose. It was rebellious. It was selfish. In 1996, it was wrong.
Of the phone call that night in March, David Stern has an incomplete memory. “We said to him, ‘look you could stay in the locker room. But if you come out with the team, given our rule, we can’t have selective enforcement, you’re going to have to stand. ‘He said no and so we suspended him’.”
The National Anthem was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. It was written after the Battle of Fort McHenry and was originally titled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Key owned six slaves. Key was a lawyer who represented slaves who wanted their freedom as well as masters demanding runaway slaves be returned. He criticized the cruelty of slavery, the atrocities we are all familiar with. Key was often called behind his back “The N–gger Lawyer”. But Key also tried to suppress the abolitionist movement. He fought anti-slavery activists until his death. He once was heard calling Africans new to American shores inferior.
The anthem was adopted as the official anthem by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and was made the national anthem in 1931. There have always been anthem protests.
In 1963, an Arizona federal judge ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be suspended for refusing to stand for the anthem. Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) wouldn’t stand at UCLA games and so the anthem was played before the players took the court in the UCLA-Washington game. In 1968, Adelbert College basketball player Chris Wood, the co-captain, was removed from the team for not standing. In his defense, he said “We believe in the fellowship of man. We don’t believe in nationalism.” An Illinois high school player refused to take off his helmet during the anthem and was suspended. He quit the team. In the early seventies, a federal judge ruled that forcing anthem participation was a violation of the First Amendment. Singer Kaye Stevens refused to sing the national anthem before an NFL game. She was protesting the Pittsburgh Steelers stadium expansion because city officials were not funding drug treatment for addicts.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf wasn’t original. He wasn’t the first. But he suffered consequences even he didn’t know at the time would change the arc of his career. When he told management in that phone call, you do what you do, I will do what I do, he had no earthly idea what was coming next.
For months, he hadn’t been standing for the national anthem. A year before the phone call, in 1995, criminologist John Dilulio wrote an article, warning about superpredators. Superpredators, a term Dilulio coined, were young black males who inflicted horrendous crime and pain upon inner-city citizens, and more importantly, they were pathologically and nihilistically violent. They were to be feared. In response, President Clinton signed the crime bill that created sweeping and devastating penalties for young black men as a way to control their behavior.
If water runs downhill, the philosophy of super-predators painted a grim picture, one that left an enduring image of black men, even those entrenched in athletic careers. They too were feared. In us vs. them back and forth, black athletes were them. They were always them.
Unless you were Michael Jordan.
In 1996, the world was in love with Michael Jordan. And in 1996, the world hated Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. As David Stern promised, Abdul-Rauf was suspended. But despite the perception, he wasn’t a hothead. He had come to this decision over the long haul. He studied the Quran. He talked with other Muslims to get their insight. He wasn’t a lone wolf. He wasn’t seeking attention. He was a poor Mississippi kid with pure talent, a small guard with a big game, and confidence. He had humility and sensitivity.
“I am a Muslim first and a Muslim last. My duty is to my creators, not to nationalistic ideology.”
He was well versed in history, from slavery to Jim Crow to Emmitt Till to Malcolm X. He was literate in the politics of the Middle East and the oppression of Muslims.
Stylistically, he was collaborative, he being the point guard, the one who makes others better. He asked what he should do. He asked that of his inner circle.
His agent advised against the anthem protest. Abdul-Rauf would live out the consequences soon enough. He became a figure of scorn, booed in arenas, hated for his privilege and his politics; the two would forever be linked. That he sought compromise spoke to his preference to blend in while remaining resolute. With the advice from the Players Union taken to heart, he decided to stand during the anthem but pray through it, pretend it was not what it was.
But praying didn’t help the aesthetics. The camera never left his jejune face while the anthem was being sung, louder than ever. It was no longer a matter of standing. He stood there, erect, stiff. But he was separate. His eyes, the gateway to the soul, was closed. So he cut that off too. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had not changed one bit. To many, he was still a disrespectful traitor to American values.
Mark Cuban has a particular view of the NBA power structure, interpreting it as one of tolerance. He recently said that the NBA wouldn’t shun a player who had a political point of view the majority disagreed with, as if Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had never existed and for Cuban he hadn’t. Cuban didn’t buy the Mavericks until 2000, well after the exile of Abdul-Rauf began the sad story of a league and their owners who couldn’t tolerate what he represented. It was a personal dislike for Abdul-Rauf’s cause and a professional fear. The mostly white customers who came to the arena viewed Abdul-Rauf through the prism of them. They were vehemently opposed to his presence. How dare he? Not standing for the national anthem was interpreted as not loving this country which was interpreted through the racial prism that is always there. Go back to Africa. Go back to Africa. Go back to Africa.
There was an irony about the entire thing. Abdul-Rauf saw the anthem as a symbol of racism and oppression. NBA fans saw Abdul-Rauf as a symbol of entitlement and selfishness. The two sides could never find a bridge.
When Abdul-Rauf suffered a foot injury and was sidelined, his teammates struggled with the factual details. They absorbed it as one more dramatization. During the entire anthem mess, his teammates felt rejected and abandoned and hung out to dry because, for Abdul-Rauf, basketball was no longer front and center. The protest had done that, made it all backward theater so that Abdul-Rauf was paralyzed by his particular brand of theology that shut team goals out. A local columnist said he had no heart.
He couldn’t remain in Denver with all the liberation water running downhill. He was considered, behind closed doors, disloyal- and so he was traded. To be clear on what this was, the Nuggets leading scorer and assist generator was given away to another team (Sacramento). It is not what Mark Cuban believes; the NBA is not tolerant. They are skittish when racial and religious lines are drawn too close and when their customers have decided they have a traitor in their midst.
The NBA lacks empathy and will do everything they can to exile the hated stranger which is what happened to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. But even then, knowing what we think we know now, it isn’t that cut and dried. It is a perception that is not necessarily the whole truth.
Tourette’s is a disease of burdens. The facial tics. The repetitive movements. Compulsive behavior. It is a miracle that Chris Jackson, who was diagnosed in high school and then went to LSU to team up with Shaquille O’Neal, was able to carve out an extraordinary resume given his brain. Despite his disorder, Abdul-Rauf’s mind was as strong as a steel trap, he was focused, determined, and compulsive. But Tourette’s is never cured. It is managed. There were medications and rituals and Abdul-Rauf needing things other players just did not.
Marry the Tourette’s life of repetitive details to anthem stubbornness, being Muslim, the trauma of oppression and racialization, and what you have is a non-sequitur. A no-win.
When Abdul-Rauf began to push back politically, friends, teammates, observers noticed a change in him. He was still a good basketball player but his loyalties were divided into powerful and banal. Basketball was suddenly low hanging fruit. He had a cause separate from the competitor’s story of win, lose, win, try. He was a political lightning rod. Something bigger than him had enveloped his life. It is not something the NBA is built to withstand in large doses; it became a story of better or worse: defending the politics or defending the game.
All hell broke loose when Abdul-Rauf seemed to defend Osama Bin Laden after the 9-11 attacks. There was no going back after implying the murders of 2,800 were a U.S. conspiracy.
Abdul-Rauf insists his words were twisted, taken out of context. Still, 9-11 to Abdul Rauf is about U.S. karma, and so all roads point back to this: his politics, his inability or unwillingness to compartmentalize, to put sport first and world view second, and really, there isn’t any shame in that, in being passionate, living what you believe, telling the truth as you see it, arguing with those who disagree, putting everything on the line, willing to lose it all. He said, “you can’t be for God and for oppression.”
In basketball, you cannot have two masters. You have to choose.
His politics meant that much to him and he meant that little to the NBA. At the end of the day, he was another guard, quick to rim who dribbled like a genius and finished through contact. He was tough for his size. His defense was mediocre and then his career was hijacked. On purpose. On accident. He lost his starting position. His minutes mysteriously faded. And then so did the career. His house burned down. He was threatened in every way you threaten a black man. KKK. Letters. Phone calls. Threats to harm his children.
All these years later, it is what it is. In the era of the ’90’s with Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, it should have also been Mahmoud Abdul- Rauf. But it wasn’t. He talks about suing the NBA, as if he didn’t do this to himself.
He stood up for what he believed and he paid the price. He was both bold and courageous. Big and small. Angry and analytical. To sue the NBA is to imply that he was a victim, that he was the innocent party and something calculated was done to him without merit when it was the opposite. He was the aggressor. He decided to stand up for something larger than the game. He made it untenable to have himself on rosters.
The NBA is a community with rules and behaviors and standards. Just because it isn’t fair that conformity is the expectation doesn’t mean that what the NBA did was a violation of his civil rights. It’s hard to prove institutional collusion when he earned a living playing basketball. And then he didn’t. It is a team sport. The team part of it is everything.
Because life goes on without interruption, no one really cares anymore except Colin Kapernick did the very same thing and now he has trouble finding a job too. But Abdul-Rauf seems resigned and a little bit proud. “I can go to sleep knowing that I stood up to my principles. Whether I go broke, whether they took my life, whatever it is, I stood on principle. That is worth more than fame.”