From Point Guard To Protest: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Talks Hoops, Social Awareness And Colin Kaepernick

If you've ever tried to keep up with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, you know that it's one of the most difficult things in the world to do. On the basketball court, he was lightning quick and always looking to score. Off the court, he's just as elusive. But where he spends most of his time is a different type of score. The bookstore is his outlet of choice.

"I love getting information," said Mahmoud during our exchanges. "I love to read."

For the past year, the sports world and society as a whole has been engaged in a debate regarding a subtle, yet impactful protest that Colin Kaepernick initiated when he decided he would no longer stand for the American national anthem. However, this is not the first time we’ve seen such a debate in sports. Twenty-one years earlier, Abdul-Rauf played for the Denver Nuggets and chose a similar path by not standing for the anthem because he believed it represented oppression and racism. As a result, his NBA career was brought to a premature halt.

In the years that followed, Abdul-Rauf maintained a low profile while speaking out about human rights issues, training athletes and spending time with his family. It wasn’t until Kaepernick figuratively followed in Abdul-Rauf’s footsteps that the interview requests started coming in.

Few athletes have risked it all in the name of what they believe in like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did two decades ago. His return to the public's eye is now as timely as ever. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/BIG3/Getty Images)

Mahmoud was hesitant to get back into the public eye again. Abdul-Rauf told TSFJ that “I had just developed pretty much a distrust for the media because a lot of times when I would give interviews, in particular, taped interviews, a lot of what I said would be botched up and taken out of context and not presented in the context in which I communicated that.”

However, when Kaepernick took his stance, Abdul-Rauf felt compelled to make a statement in support of him.

"Every time an athlete like Marshall or Kaepernick loses an endorsement for standing up for social justice we should boycott the companies that canceled the endorsement." -- Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 2016

It was at this point, he decided to take a chance and start giving interviews again.

Critics of Kaepernick's silent protest, which include divisive comments from President Donald Trump, have insisted that athletes should essentially stick to sports. Yet, sports, politics and social activism have always intersected; athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith actively contributed to political discourse.

“We weren’t always athletes, but even if we were, I say this a lot, I’m a human being first...that happened to become an athlete, and as a human being, what affects you, affects me,” said Abdul-Rauf. “We pay taxes in this country. We’re also obliged to vote. So being an athlete doesn’t mean that we cannot take part in those things and at the same time that we’re exempt from life.”

Last year, through some mutual friends, Abdul-Rauf had a chance to meet Kaepernick and discuss the events surrounding his protest. Abdul-Rauf likes to shy away from giving black athletes advice because he said the impression is that “he” doesn’t have a mind of his own or “somebody had to tell him to do this.” Instead, he and Kaepernick had an informal conversation where they sat down and started sharing similarities.

Generational Power. (Source: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf)

“He did say that this is the most free that he has ever felt in his life,” Mahmoud shared. “That’s what it does. That feeling is the greatest feeling you can have. I related to that.”

Abdul-Rauf believes Kaepernick’s network of supporters allowed him to take his protest to the next level.

“That helps because these types of things are hard to do on your own and the stuff he’s doing with Meals on Wheels, sending food to Somalia, Know Your Rights program…. he’s showing that it’s not just lip service,” Abdul-Rauf commented. He thinks Kaepernick has touched many lives through his activism and has inspired others from the WNBA and the NBA to come out in support of him.

Abdul-Rauf has great respect for Kaepernick’s stance.

“He trained most of his life to be in this position to make millions. Now he decides, this is bigger than me,” Abdul-Rauf said. “This is the man you want to condemn. But other people can do something just criminal and it’s easy for you to hire them back. This should be a slap in the face. This should insult people’s intelligence.”

In contrast, Abdul-Rauf thinks the NBA has become more tolerant because social activism is fashionable now with top athletes such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony coming out in unison to make political statements regarding the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement. However, the NFL will continue to operate business as usual unless it suffers economic repercussions.

“If the United States wants to make an example of a country, they want economic sanctions,” he observed. “And what happens usually? They come to the table a little more humble because in this country money is power. So if there’s a dip in ticket sales and people are not supporting this cash cow; they’ll make changes.”

This summer, Abdul-Rauf continued his protest of the anthem while playing in Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league, as he prayed on the sideline. At 48 years old, he was introduced to a new generation of fans, leading the 3 Headed Monsters to the championship game. He scored 22 points in a 51-46 loss to the undefeated Trilogy. It was hard to tell that Abdul-Rauf had been away from the game professionally this long, even though not long ago, Phil Jackson compared him to Steph Curry on Twitter.

"To have that taken away in a sense, then by the grace of God, to be able to stay in shape, especially at this age and have this opportunity to get back on that stage and have that platform… oh man….it was beautiful,” said Abdul-Rauf.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s strong work ethic and desire to be the best at his game started as a young boy growing up in Mississippi where he was faced with the challenges of playing with Tourette Syndrome. The young Chris Jackson – his name change came after his conversion to Islam early in his NBA career - would spend hours perfecting his shot despite being told that he was too small or that he was never going to make it.

“I thank God for giving me Tourette’s Syndrome because Tourette’s has taken me where, by myself, I would not have gone without it,” Abdul Rauf told attendees as he accepted his 2017 Pioneer Award from the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Taskforce this August. He also credited his late mother for her continued support and his desire to someday be able to provide for her; ultimately making him the man he is today. “My mother didn’t have the greatest education but as far as loving her family, being here for us and providing for us, as far as I’m concerned she had a Master’s degree," Abdul-Rauf touchingly spoke.

In this next phase of his life, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf plans to continue working with various non-profits, playing in the BIG3 and continuing to speak out about the causes he’s passionate about. “I know God has put me in a position to have a platform,” Abdul-Rauf reflected.

“I think that as human beings who are athletes, when you have been given a platform that a lot of other people don’t have, we’re duty bound to use that platform for something bigger than ourselves. When we don’t do that, I think we do ourselves, and we’re doing humanity, a disservice.”

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