Now that the NBA’s social justice pomp and circumstance have faded away, it’s past time the league officially apologized to former player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in a game in 2020 after Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed by police, the NBA responded. Unfortunately, as most clout-chasing corporations did then and have continued to do, the response enacted no real, meaningful change to the way they do business. Instead, the league rolled out decorative logos, phrases, and press releases on racial equality. Most of all, the NBA was suddenly OK with players not only kneeling during the National Anthem but abandoning the game altogether.
During the 1995-96 season, Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had refused to stand during the National Anthem. As a player and man, Abdul-Rauf was no bum. He was the third pick in the 1990 Draft after a stellar career at LSU, known then as Chris Jackson. In 1993 he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. He averaged 19 ppg, 3 rpg, 6 apg, and shot 39 percent from three during the season in question. Those are All-Star numbers in any decade. Many NBA observers today compared him to Steph Curry. When he decided not to stand for the anthem, Abdul-Rauf peacefully and quietly either stayed in the locker room or continued his stretching routine during the anthem. It wasn’t until a reporter asked him about it after a game that the entire world came to know his reasons. When they did, shit hit the fan.
The NBA was not the neo-liberal faux-warriors they are now. On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf indefinitely without pay. Their reason? They referred to an NBA rule where players must line up in a “dignified posture” for the anthem. The NBA Players Union disputed the suspension because the rule ‘‘was not one agreed to in collective bargaining, but was imposed by the league unilaterally in an operations manual, without any input from the players.’’ Abdul-Rauf was reinstated but lost $31,707 of his salary.
When asked why he did it, Abdul-Rauf stuck to his guns and answered honestly, bravely, that the Koran forbid him to participate in nationalistic rituals and that the American flag was “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny. This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression.” Fair enough. While not everyone would agree with those sentiments, there are plenty of Americans who would. You would think an American standing up for his religious principles and freedom of speech would galvanize Conservatives and Republicans around his cause. Not the case when the religion is Islam, and the speech is a peaceful protest.
In a Denver Post poll at the time, 72 percent of Denver-area adults were upset with Abdul-Rauf’s actions. Why would Americans, fans of Abdul-Rauf’s Nuggets, argue with another American exercising his freedom of speech and religious freedom? Many pointed to his $2.6 million salary, saying the money he earned in America made it incumbent upon him to be appreciative and grateful to the United States.
But Abdul-Rauf stuck to his principles in ways recent conservative-leaning supporters of Kyrie Irving and Enes Freedom would fawn over, “My beliefs are more important than anything. If I have to give up basketball, I will.”
But the pushback didn’t stop there.
Even the NBA’s most famous and talented Muslim player took issue with Abdul-Rauf. Hakeem Olajuwon, former Houston Rocket legend and a proud Muslim, told reporters at the time he disagreed with Abdul-Rauf’s stance, saying, “in general, the Muslim teaching is to obey and respect. To be a good Muslim is to be a good citizen.”
Michael Jordan was never known to take stances on political issues. He mostly avoided them altogether. But on Abdul-Rauf, he toed the line on the issue, saying then he should be allowed to remain in the locker room, “but being out there on the court while everyone else is standing, that is being disrespectful.”
Off the court, it was even worse, especially in Denver, where Abdul-Rauf was a hero before speaking out for his on the court play.
Over the years, Abdul-Rauf received hundreds of death threats, hate mail, Swastikas spray-painted on his house. Someone even drove their car through his home before eventually burning it down in a fire.
An American Legion leader in Colorado told The Post that what Abdul-Rauf was doing was “tantamount to treason” and advocated for Abdul-Rauf to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
In an account that seems ripped straight from a Pizza Gate/QAnon headline today, two radio DJs burst into a mosque in suburban Denver wearing turbans and playing the national anthem on a trumpet and bugle.
At the end of the 1995-1996 season, Abdul-Rauf, the leading scorer, was traded to the Sacramento Kings. Once in Sacramento, he was quickly benched and dropped his minutes until his contract expired. After, no other team would even offer him a tryout. So he traveled to Europe to continue his career. It’s not hard to tell Abdul-Rauf was seen as persona non grata by the NBA.
“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” (Washington, 2006).
(Abdul-Rauf’s suspension was the topic of numerous political cartoons, as in this example from the Rocky Mountain News’ ‘‘Win, Lose, & Drew’’ series. Courtesy of Drew Litton.)
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports figures around 82 percent of its players are African-American or otherwise people of color. The NBA is the only American professional sports league predominantly black. So it has no choice but to appease the players who essentially run its functions. In today’s league, when the black players have something to say, the league can no longer shut them up, enforce a dress code, or boot them out.
This October, Abdul-Rauf will be releasing an autobiography, In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography, through Colin Kaepernick’s publishing company. Appropriate, seeing Abdul-Rauf set the stage for Kaepernick’s anthem protest in the NFL 20 years later. Always a trendsetter, Abdul-Rauf was 26-years ahead of his time as a maverick. He was a champion of free speech and religious expression, cornerstones of American liberties. If it happened today, he would have been championed by the league and put in commercials. But back then, liberals resembled today’s conservatives. It was all fine and dandy if the beliefs you were practicing were Christian, and the justice you were fighting for wasn’t racial. For all the gestures and posturing the NBA has done to show their good faith behind racial equality, they’ve dropped the ball on a welcomed recognition: apologizing to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for taking his money, his career, and his platform.