Listening to Greatness: Hoops star Abdul-Rauf one of the first to take a knee

Like Kaepernick, he too paid a price for his protest

Each of the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Sam Lacy Pioneer Award winners has a historical tale worth knowing about. The MSR heard them all at this year’s banquet during the NABJ’s August convention in New Orleans. We will share them with our readers over the next few months in our “Listening to Greatness” series. This week: basketball great Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (l) with Morehouse journalism professor Ron Thomas (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Shaquille O’Neal. Seimone Augustus. Sylvia Fowles. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. All four are former LSU basketball greats, but only three of them have been duly honored by the school.

Abdul-Rauf, born Chris Jackson, starred at LSU from 1988-1990. He then became the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft and played for three NBA clubs in nine years, then overseas for six seasons before he retired as a player in 2011.

But it wasn’t a loss of athletic skills that eventually forced the 6’-1” guard out of the NBA, but rather his unwillingness to compromise his values and beliefs.

“He has never been afraid to speak up,” Morehouse Professor Ron Thomas said of Abdul-Rauf during his introductory remarks at the 2017 NABJ Sam Lacy Pioneer Award ceremony in August. “He likely deserves a Pioneer Award just for being a two-time All-American (at LSU), the third pick of the 1990 Draft, and Most Improved Player in Denver in 1993. But what happened in 1996” cemented his legacy, Thomas stated.

He converted to Islam in 1991 and changed his name from Chris Jackson to his present name two years later. Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem before an NBA contest in March 1996 cost him over $31,000 and a one-game suspension. He later agreed to a compromise that he would stand while the song is playing, but with his eyes closed and looking downward while he would silently pray.

But Abdul-Rauf was traded during the off-season in 1996, and two years later he was out of the league and playing overseas. He did return to the NBA in 2000, but soon the guard went back to play several more seasons overseas before retiring in 2011 after two seasons in Japan.

His silent protest, however, had a lasting effect on his career. “The fact that Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed doesn’t surprise Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf at all,” Thomas pointed out.

Born in Gulfport, Mississippi and raised along with his two brothers by their mom, Abdul-Rauf was later diagnosed with a moderate form of Tourette syndrome, but not until he was 17.

“I thank God for all I’ve been through,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I want to thank God for my mother. She loved her family and provided for us. As far as I am concerned, she has a master’s [degree],” although she only finished sixth grade.

“I didn’t see myself with a lot of potential growing up besides sports. I knew I was gifted athletically, but I knew I had to work extremely hard in order to excel. I thank God for giving me Tourette syndrome,” because it pushed him to strive for greatness.

His self-consciousness was sparked after he received a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography from his college coach, Dale Brown, at LSU. “It’s hard to say because you never know how your life is going to take you,” Abdul-Rauf told the MSR on the influence Malcolm X and other Black authors had on his adult life.

“I can say this: Prior to reading his book, outside of sports I wasn’t much [into reading]. My comprehension wasn’t great. It was for me finally something that interested me.

“Malcolm’s book was such that because of what I was going through internally…I wasn’t happy — he educated himself. That was something I didn’t have.”


More on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf will appear in a later “Greatness” installment.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to