Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf on Life as the Original Kaepernick: ‘It’s The Height of Oppression’

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was once the most explosive offensive player in college basketball and one of the most promising young players in the NBA. His burgeoning career, however, slowed to a halt after he took a stand for what he believed in.

After dominating in two seasons at LSU — he was the SEC Player of the Year in both 1989 and 1990 — Abdul-Rauf (then known as Chris Jackson) was selected No. 3 overall in the draft. His success carried over to the next level. He spent the first six years of his career in Denver and thrice averaged more than 18 points per game.

In 1996, however, Abdul-Rauf — who was in his prime — opted against standing for the national anthem, stating his belief that the flag was a symbol of oppression. The league suspended Abdul-Rauf. To get back on the court, he started standing again during the anthem, but he did so while closing his eyes and looking downward.

Abdul-Rauf was traded to Sacramento later that year, and his playing time dropped exponentially. When his contract expired two years later, no team wanted to touch him.

He was, many believe, blackballed out of the league. It’s natural to look at the explosive scorer’s career and wonder what could have been.

Abdul-Rauf went on to play professionally overseas for 13 years, and he now competes in Ice Cube’s three-on-three league, the Big 3. GetMoreSports’ Chris Sheridan caught up with Abdul-Rauf at the Big 3’s event in Brooklyn this weekend to discuss his life as the original Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, systemic oppression in the United States, and more. Below is a transcription of their conversation:

Sheridan: Do you mind repeating the story because I wasn’t rolling? Do you remember who the coach was or the team?

Abdul-Rauf: The team that asked me the question at that time, it was the Orlando Magic. I remember in the hotel, them asking me, ‘well, does it affect you when you play basketball?’ And I just answered ‘no,’ but in my mind, you know, you have to be careful how you answer the question because you can come off as being arrogant. I just thought it was a dumb question. I mean, I just left LSU averaging 30.2 the first year, and 28 with Shaq and (Stanley Roberts) on it, and you asked me, does it affect you as a basketball player? Just thought that was the strangest thing.

Sheridan: And you’re not doing any, it was tough to interview you at the time. I mean, it wasn’t tough to interview you, but you were very young and I think Tommy Shepherd was the PR guy for the Nuggets.

Abdul-Rauf: Yeah.

Sheridan: And Tommy would kind of brief us and say, listen, you got to be patient with Mahmoud. I don’t know if you had changed your name yet. ‘You got to be patient. This is a tricky situation for me and it’s a tricky situation for y’all.’ So Tommy told everybody, he’s a good interview, but you’ve got to be patient. So you learn listening skills by doing that, but what I want to do, I wanted to interview you because he said five minutes, listen, I’m going to get to the meat of it. You were ostracized by the NBA community, blackballed by the NBA. You applied your trade in Osaka, Japan. Where else?

Abdul-Rauf: Russia, Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, Kyoto.

Sheridan: Because you stood up for what you believe in.

Abdul-Rauf: Mmhmm. True.

Sheridan: And this is America, so you’re actually allowed to do that. Sometimes you take a stance that’s not in alignment with…

Abdul-Rauf: It’s not popular.

Sheridan: Exactly. So what’s it like? What’s it like to have the rug pulled out from you in such a way that you’re almost…

Abdul-Rauf: It’s the height of oppression. You’ve lived your life, most of your life as an athlete, honing your skills, trying to play at the top level and you finally get there and it’s not basketball related, it’s because you’re taking a position that doesn’t just have to do with you, but it has to do with social justice — just the oppression that millions of people are going through, not just in this country but globally. Martin Luther King says, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ So what happens, what the countries are doing abroad ricochets and comes back and affects us. That’s the way it works.

And just here, even, a lot of military — and the military doesn’t get a blanket slate just like teachers don’t get a blanket slate, but you know military personnel, you get politicians saying year in and year out, ‘oh, they gave the ultimate sacrifice,’ but still you got them homeless. Don’t get proper medical care. Some don’t even have medical care, but this is how you treat those who gave their life? It’s hypocrisy.

So they don’t understand, the stand wasn’t just about justice as it pertains to Muslims, it was about universal justice, period. But you know, they frame it the way they want to. And like Noam Chomsky says, ‘the threat of a good example.’ You’ve got a person speaking out and they don’t want athletes to have a voice. They just want you to play ball like (Laura Ingraham) or whatever said, ‘shut up and play ball.’

Related:  Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Speaks Again, and Says a Mouthful

Sheridan: She said, ‘shut up and dribble,’ right? But she makes a living by being a loudmouth. A lot of people make a living by being a loudmouth and a lot of people try to try to balance that, they make a living by trying to do what they do best, but because they have a public platform, athletes have a public platform and what athletes say matters. What Colin Kaepernick does matters. What LeBron James says on CNN matters. And there’s a reason why Donald Trump didn’t criticize LeBron when he was in Ohio. Ohio is a swing state. Now California, that’s a Democrat state, now he’s a target, a target of Trump.

Abdul-Rauf: It’s oppressive that just because of a position that you take, you can
literally destroy a person’s career. And you do it in such a sophisticated way because you’ve been doing it for years, so then you can protect yourself from legal ramifications, so you cut their minutes and make it seem like they can’t play anymore. ‘He just didn’t cut it.’ Here we are now. I’ve prided myself for years. You have your moments, but I’ve prided myself in staying in shape, trying to be at the top of my game at 49 years old right now, by the grace and mercy of Allah still being out here able to play.

My best basketball I don’t think has been played yet, and I’m not just saying that. It’s definitely oppressive and it’s sad because I’m not the only one it’s happened to and won’t be the last one it happens to. As long as we keep allowing stuff like this, a lady told me once, ‘what you allow will continue.’ And this is why it continues, but at some point I hope — we talk about change all the time, but until people are willing to sacrifice their positions and their wealth and come out in force, these types of things will continue to happen.

Sheridan: At times in society and in our personal lives, we focus on problems and
we don’t focus on solutions. Now if there was to be a solution to the bigotry, racial intolerance, homelessness, s*** with the V.A., all the stuff that’s in society that’s institutionalized and corrupt and appears to be broken — if there was a massive solution in your mind, what would it be? What would it look like?

Abdul-Rauf: Well, I don’t know what the massive solution would be, but me being a person who’s always trying to center my life around God, and I know everybody don’t believe in the existence of a higher being, but that’s what governed my life. It governs everything I do, but at the same time, I think there’s enough wealth in this country to eradicate poverty. You know, when people are financially, everybody doesn’t have to be wealthy, I don’t believe that socialism is answer or everybody’s got to be equal in the sense of sameness, but you know, the basic necessities. Healthcare, a roof over your head, food on the table, shelter, clothes on your back — those are necessities.

I found that when people have what they need, there’s less stress, less anxiety, less worrying about what somebody else has, and you know, it seems like there’s a system designed to keep the one-percent, the wealthy, having the majority of the control, 90 percent of the world’s resources, and the rest, you know, you’ve got to fight for subsistence. So I definitely think that’s a start. And I’m not saying the economy alone. I mentioned faith, I mentioned understanding and all of that beautiful stuff, but I think people are frustrated.

You know, we live in a country that is, I guess, wealthy to a large degree. But we still are terrible when it comes to, I think when we compare with education, even compared to some third-world countries, healthcare in some third-world countries. You got to make a choice between feeding your family, losing your home, or taking care of your health. We shouldn’t have to make those choices. So I think that’s a beginning. I was thinking of some other things. My mind is kind of going in and out right now when you were talking.

Sheridan: Well, you’ve been all over the world. If you had to pick one spot — take your time thinking about this — one spot you’ve been where you’ve never seen poverty, like the kind of abject poverty that you saw in that place, like I’ve seen stuff in Beijing I never thought I’d see in my life.

Abdul-Rauf: Oh, it’s everywhere. I mean some, you know, some places are worse than others. America, I think I was just talking about this last night to someone, or night before last. I think America is good at hiding its flaws but highlighting everybody else’s. You know, you go to skid row in L.A. and I heard it’s about 55 blocks and they say when you ride down 55 blocks, it looks like a third-world country, but a lot of people don’t know that it exists. Right here in New York, I was reading a book years ago by Kozov, he’s a social scientist. And he talked about right here in New York, you go in certain areas and you see nakedness. You see people living in tents, you see people defecating on the ground, I mean, in huge numbers.

But that stuff is not necessarily exposed. They put murals when driving by, they don’t want you to look and see those neighborhoods. So for those neighborhoods, instead of using the money to build them up, what they do, they will prefer painting nice murals with people looking out the window with flower pots in the window, because they want you to see that and they don’t want you to see the disgust that exists. Because there’s a chance that if you see it, you’ll have a heart for it and you’ll want to change it. So America is good with highlighting everybody else’s flaws.

You know, Africa for example. I was talking to somebody, I said, ‘you’ve got so many great looking modern cities in Africa, Rwanda, I mean, you name it. Huge high-rises, highways, but they don’t show you that. They show you the poverty. They show you that because this is the image they want you to have in mind. So we have to educate ourselves. We have to be enlightened. With enlightenment, there’s a saying that ‘what you think influences your behavior, your behavior forms your character, and your character determines your fate.’ So it starts with enlightenment, with educating ourselves about really what’s going on.

There’s a saying that ‘if you want to find yourself, lose yourself in the service of others.’ Extend a hand and give. And we’ve become a selfish society, too. Because we’re taught, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps, concern yourself with you.’ So we withhold so much, and you get more from giving any day. There are going to be people who burn you. But by and large, I’ve found that when you extend yourself to a person and you give them of yourself and you’re genuine, most people feel obligated to return the favor. There’s gonna be a guiltiness in it like, ‘man, this person just helped me out.’ And most people I think are not going to turn around and want to stab you in your back. But what we do, the first little thing, ‘ah, I can’t trust nobody else.’ Don’t let one person make it.

There’s a story that this guy was in the desert and they said he was begging for some water. This guy was riding by on his camel, and when he got off the camel, the guy who said he needed stuff pushed him off the camel, took his stuff, and took the camel. The guy whose stuff was taken yells out to him, ‘whatever you do, don’t tell anybody.’ He said, ‘why?’ He says, ‘because somebody else may come on the road and they may really need it and they hear this story and don’t want to help.’ And that’s the way we are. That one example — ‘you know what? Don’t pick nobody up, don’t pick this hitchhiker up.’ Be cautious, but we just start passing by people.

Sheridan: There’s no one-size-fits-all rule.

Abdul-Rauf: Right. Then we don’t even, sometimes homeless people, sometimes
even if you don’t have nothing to give, give a smile, be courteous. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged and recognized as people that you see — ‘hey man, how you doing?’ I sit sometimes and I just watch. I observe people all the time. And we just got a serious problem. But a lot of it comes from the top, from the conditioning, what we’ve been conditioned to think and do. And it’s sad.

Sheridan: People feed their fears and there’s a lot of people that play the fear game because it serves them economically, politically, or whatever, it just serves their purposes. And if you play on people’s emotions, emotions take over and people emotions always trump reason. So, if you make an emotional decision, you make a decision while you’re emotional, it’s probably not a reasonable decision.

Abdul-Rauf: That’s one of the things I love about going to certain places overseas. When I was in Greece playing on a consistent basis, man they say, ‘hey, you gotta delay coming to practice or you gotta go around.’ And them people go to the streets, they say, ‘hey man, we ain’t taking this. You ain’t dropping, you not taking our money, you not taking this.’ And they were willing to get physical. Sometimes it takes that. I really believe that. Praying about it alone ain’t gon’ get it. Voting about it alone ain’t gon’ get it. Talking about it alone ain’t gon’ get it. Frederick Douglass said something years ago and it resonated with me. He said, ‘I prayed for freedom for 20 years and I never received an answer until I started praying with my legs.’

Sheridan: My legs, you said?

Abdul-Rauf: My legs, meaning praying alone — no, you’ve got to have action. You got to move toward it and that’s what we do. We depend on politicians who year in and year out lie to us. They tell us, ‘we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this’ — only to give you crumbs but to take most of it away from you. And it’s just amazing to me that we keep allowing that same thing to happen.

Sheridan: I’m going to wrap because the bus is going to come. But one more question. If you had something to say to President Trump that you wanted them to hear, what would you tell him?

Abdul-Rauf: I don’t like to curse.

Sheridan: So do it without cursing.

Abdul-Rauf: You know what, he’s not worth it.

About Aaron Mansfield

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today and the New York Times. Mansfield is a PhD candidate at UMass Amherst.

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