Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s controversial life, NBA career detailed in new documentary

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has been speaking for years about his NBA career, his controversial stance against the national anthem in the 1990s, mental health and more. Those speaking engagements were therapeutic as he discussed important chapters of his life.

He’s been preparing for the documentary “Stand” for years, even if it wasn’t the intent.

But “Stand,” which premiered Feb. 3 on Showtime, was the biggest stage yet to share his story. Abdul-Rauf sat through hours of interviews and shared intimate details and recalled tough times.

“Everybody’s going through something. Everybody has a story, and I don’t want to hold back,” Abdul-Rauf told The Athletic prior to the premiere. “I want people to see my vulnerabilities. I want them to hear it in my voice and to see it in my face. If I have to cry, d—it I’m going to own it, I’m going to cry. If I get mad and want to curse, I’m going to curse.”

Tears well up in Abdul-Rauf’s eyes when he speaks about his late mother or about many of the topics in the film during interviews. His story about him is layered, starting with an upbringing in poverty in a single-parent household in Gulfport, Miss., hoping success in basketball would lead to him finding his father about him. There were the struggles with his weight, his fight with Tourette syndrome, his conversion to Islam (his birth name is Chris Jackson) and how he is viewed by current and former NBA players.

There also is insight into how a star athlete, an introvert by nature, dealt with being the focus of anger for his political views and religious beliefs. He was compelled to share because many of the themes are still relevant.

Abdul-Rauf was having one of the best seasons of his NBA career when he was suspended by the league in March 1996 for refusing to stand for the anthem or the flag, which he viewed as a symbol of tyranny and oppression. He was booed mercilessly when he agreed to stand for the anthem but chose to pray instead of putting his hand over his heart. Public opinion turned on him, and the boos he heard at visiting arenas became about more than just scoring against an opponent.

Abdul-Rauf was labeled unpatriotic. He received death threats throughout his career. In 2001, he was at home building in Hancock County, Miss., was burned down.

Before the NBA’s suspension, Abdul-Rauf’s game gave fans plenty to talk about. He was a 6-foot-1 point guard with a deep shooting range that would have made him ideal for the modern game. He’s often been called the precursor to Stephen Curry because of his shooting ability, range and ballhandling.

Named the 1993 NBA Most Improved Player, Abdul-Rauf matched his career high in scoring during the 1995-96 season, averaging 19.2 points, in addition to posting career bests in assists (6.8) and 3-point shooting (39.2 percent) and leading the NBA in free-throw percentage (93 percent). But after his anthem protest, his NBA career stalled. He was traded to Sacramento in June 1996, and his playing time declined with the Kings.

After two seasons, Abdul-Rauf turned down a contract he believed was below his worth and played in Turkey. By 2001, Abdul-Rauf was out of the NBA following a stint with the Vancouver Grizzlies. He’s been active with the Big3 since its inception in 2017.

(Jerome Miron/USA Today)

Any chance of a return to the NBA essentially ended after an interview with HBO after the Sept. 11 attacks in which he raised the possibility the attacks were an “inside job.” He discussed it in the documentary, noting that an interview that was several hours long was reduced to a few sound bites.

After Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, people wanted to know more about Abdul-Rauf, who’d been shunned nearly two decades before the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. That led to speaking engagements for Abdul-Rauf over the years, which gave him practice at sharing parts of his life and connecting with people — as humans, regardless of race or religion. He believes his story resonates with many because there are so many pieces to it.

“Once you’ve experienced something in your life, unless you’re just void of a heart, that stuff stays with you for a long time,” Abdul-Rauf said. “In that context, it’s tough, and you’re doing it in front of people you don’t really know. I didn’t know (director) Joslyn (Rose Lyons). I didn’t know (producer) Colleen Dominguez and a lot of people like that. … You have to block that out because you know what, I’ve got to tell this story, and I want to be raw with it because it’s bigger than me.”

Lyons said it was a “collaborative” effort to tell the story. The team includes executive producers Sarah Allen, Mason Gordon and Mike Tollin of Mandalay Sports Media. Tom Friend served as a producer, too. The Golden State Warriors allowed portions of the film to be filmed at Chase Center during the NBA Finals last year and also allowed their old practice facility in Oakland to be used for free.

“Mahmoud’s story is a testament to his resilience and determination to overcome adversity while walking in his faith,” Allen said. “Our production team is so happy to see this film finally make its premiere.”

Abdul-Rauf is content with the film, but he’s also his harshest critic. He feels there is more he could have said to highlight his experiences of him. He likes how the emotions of those involved were captured and how old and new voices merged to tell the story. Curry, LSU teammate Shaquille O’Neal, NBA teammate Jalen Rose and Big3 founder Ice Cube helped bridge the gap between the star Abdul-Rauf was in the late 1980s to who he is today.

Abdul-Rauf was so good at LSU that his play often outshined O’Neal, who then was a highly touted freshman. Abdul-Rauf, as a sophomore, averaged 27.8 points for the Tigers, while O’Neal averaged 13.9 points in their lone season together.

But even with fame, Abdul-Rauf preferred to be in his room, reading and shunning the attention that came with stardom. Abdul-Rauf was always introspective, studying religion and searching for his spiritual balance in life.

“Mahmoud’s story is really one of going through the struggle and finding strength within it and being able to transform his most difficult tribulations and trials into his light ultimately,” Lyons said. “I would hope this story would impact people in that way.”

The vulnerability wasn’t just from Abdul-Rauf. Many expressed concerns they had for him over the years. One former teammate, however, struck a nerve in a surprising way.

Former Nuggets player Scott Hastings was tearful as he spoke about Abdul-Rauf’s career being “powerful.” It was a moment that showed his story not just as a matter of race, but also as an issue of his humanity.

“To see an older White guy crying on film because of how he felt they did me wrong … when I saw that, I’m like, wow, because you hardly see that,” Abdul-Rauf said. “One, a man crying, but two, a White man that … in this society whether you have money or not, oftentimes you have more status than we do. Especially if you’ve been in the league and you have money, you’re on another level.”

Rose, Dikembe Mutombo and Dale Ellis were among the Denver teammates who Abdul-Rauf recounted supporting him during the firestorm that followed the NBA suspension. Naturally a quiet person, he found strength in a close circle of friends who spoke up on his behalf and continue to do so.

“That’s the beautiful thing. I’ve never been lonely, and I’ve never been alone,” Abdul-Rauf said. “Allah’s always with me, and I’m always surrounding myself around people. I don’t have an entourage; I have a small group. I have my people that I can call, that I can talk to. I’ve always had that, and that’s helped me get through a lot.”

After Kaepernick’s protest shed light on him, Abdul-Rauf was able to reintroduce his game to a new audience via the Big3. The three-on-three league that he plays in the summer feeds his competitiveness when he’s not working with young players. At 53, Abdul-Rauf is the oldest player in the Big3, and the exposure helped a new generation learn about his game from him.

“(The Big3) allowed me, to some degree, without sounding cliché, to be reborn again and not only in the field of basketball,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I was blessed to be able to keep my body up to a certain degree where people are able to say, ‘Whoa, if he’s this fast now at 53, 52, 51, darn, how fast was he then?’ And (Ice Cube will) tell you, ‘Every time Mahmoud sees me, he thanks me.’”

Abdul-Rauf admits he’s made plenty of mistakes and that he’s “still working on myself.” He still sees many of the problems in the world that bothered him in 1996 — whether it involves a lack of health care, wars or racism.

He doesn’t believe fame and money erase the pain many experience in life. Nor is he able to detach from those who grew up like him. It’s been like that for decades, and he’s hopeful that’s evident in the film.

“The hell we’ve got to go through to get to where we’re trying to get to, we have to do extra, on top of extra,” Abdul-Rauf said of professional athletes. “It hasn’t changed. That’s an insult to our humanity, to our intelligence. So, I wanted all of that, in as much as I could, for somebody to feel that.”

He speaks often about the human experience, believing some struggles cross racial, socioeconomic and religious lines. Abdul-Rauf is governed by his faith and wants those who watch the film to understand how believing in yourself, never giving up and being with good people are ultimately the most important.

It’s all part of the story he wants to tell.

(Top photo: Brian Bahr/Allsport/Getty Images)


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