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Still no anthem, still no regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

NBA star lost millions after sitting in 1996 – and he’d do it again

Twenty years later, despite losing prime years of NBA stardom, enduring death threats and having his home burned to the ground, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf still does not stand for the national anthem.

The quicksilver guard who foreshadowed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest is now living in Atlanta, taking care of his five teenage children along with his ex-wife, training NBA players, and giving occasional speeches to groups in black or Muslim communities. At age 47, he has no regrets about choosing the difficult journey that Kaepernick is just starting.

“It’s priceless to know that I can go to sleep knowing that I stood to my principles,” Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated. “Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame.”

Abdul-Rauf has never spoken to Kaepernick, and isn’t a football fan. But he supports the quarterback’s protest and message “1,000 percent,” saying that it created a valuable debate.

“It’s good to continue to draw people’s attention to what’s going on whether you’re an athlete, a politician, or a garbage man. These discussions are necessary,” he said. “Sometimes it takes people of that stature, athletes and entertainers, because the youth are drawn to them, [more than] teachers and professors, unfortunately.”

Abdul-Rauf first came to public attention as a Louisiana State University freshman sensation then named Chris Jackson. At just 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds, he averaged 30 points per game with a hair-trigger jumper and acrobatic layups. Despite having Tourette’s syndrome, he went pro after his sophomore year, was picked third in 1990 by the Denver Nuggets, and converted to Islam. By the 1995-96 campaign, Abdul-Rauf was doing unguardable Stephen Curry things, such as giving Utah 51 points and dropping 32 on Michael Jordan when dealing the Chicago Bulls a rare loss in their 72-win season.

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abul-Rauf, left, passes the ball past San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson in the first quarter in Denver on Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995.

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abul-Rauf, left, passes the ball past San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson in the first quarter in Denver on Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995.

AP Photo/Joe Mahoney

That season also is when Abdul-Rauf’s conscience told him not to stand for the anthem. At first, nobody noticed as he stretched or stayed inside the locker room instead. When a reporter finally asked about it, the issue exploded.

Like Kaepernick, Abdul-Rauf said he viewed the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism. Abdul-Rauf also said standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith. “You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way,” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”

On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game, citing a rule that players must line up in a “dignified posture” for the anthem. It cost him almost $32,000 of his $2.6 million salary. The players union supported Abdul-Rauf, and he quickly reached a compromise with the league that allowed him to stand and pray with his head down during the anthem. But at the end of the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf, who averaged a team-high 19.2 points and 6.8 assists, to the Sacramento Kings.

His playing time dropped. He lost his starting spot. After his contract expired in 1998, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t get so much as a tryout with any NBA team. He was just 29 years old.

“It’s a process of just trying to weed you out. This is what I feel is going to happen to [Kaepernick],” Abdul-Rauf said. “They begin to try to put you in vulnerable positions. They play with your minutes, trying to mess up your rhythm. Then they sit you more. Then what it looks like is, well, the guy just doesn’t have it anymore, so we trade him.”

“It’s kind of like a setup,” he said. “You know, trying to set you up to fail and so when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, it was really because he took these positions. They don’t want these type of examples to spread, so they’ve got to make an example of individuals like this.”

After the NBA shunned him, he played a season in Turkey, making about half of the $3.3 million he earned in the last year of his NBA contract. Abdul-Rauf caught on with the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000-2001, but played only 12 minutes per game. He never got another NBA opportunity, playing another six seasons in Russia, Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Japan before retiring in 2011.

The overseas option doesn’t exist for football players, and Kaepernick is in a vulnerable position with the San Francisco 49ers. His $11.9 million base salary is guaranteed for this season. But he’s been injured often, and has lost the starting spot that seemed so secure after his galloping runs and rocket passes led the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl. (They lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens.)

Abdul-Rauf says Kaepernick was smart to have some guaranteed money in hand when he sat out the anthem. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t belittle his stand whatsoever. He signed a contract. I’m not saying it was planned. Even if he planned it, it was an intelligent move, because he has foresight to know how the system and how the minds of people work.”

Kaepernick is still taking a significant financial risk. After this season, the 49ers can cut him and not pay another cent of the six-year, $110 million contract he signed in 2014.

“Look at all of what he has to lose by taking this position: his wealth, his endorsements, possible threats, the attacks against his family. He has a lot to lose. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s more selfless than selfish,” Abdul-Rauf said.

“He’s willing to put all of that on the line because, to him, truth is more important than those things. Justice and equality is more important than those things.”

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf #3 of the Denver Nuggets reads the Quran circa 1995 in Denver, Colorado.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf #3 of the Denver Nuggets reads the Quran circa 1995 in Denver, Colorado.

Tim DeFrisco/NBAE via Getty Images

It all brings up strong memories of his own protest experience. That includes death threats by mail and telephone, and the letters “KKK” being spray-painted on a sign near the construction of his new house, five miles outside his hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. His then-wife did not want to move into the 2,800-square-foot residence, and in 2001, while it was vacant and for sale, it was destroyed by fire.

“I want to live and die with a free conscience and a free soul when it’s all said and done. That’s the journey I’m on,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I had to make that decision for myself and I found that after I did that, it took off a huge weight. Do you get ridiculed? Do you hear the nonsense? Do people try to assassinate your character? Yes, but when it’s all said and done, you’re like, man, I feel good because I know that I’m standing on something that I believe in.”

In the 1990s, few athletes took stands on social issues, which made Abdul-Rauf an outlier. Today, Kaepernick’s protest is the latest move – and one of the boldest – in a resurgence of athlete activism.

“It is beautiful to see,” Abdul-Rauf said of the growing movement, “and it’s going to be hard to stop.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.