Two decades before Colin Kaepernick knelt for the National Anthem as part of a protest against racism and police brutality and set off the biggest sports controversy of the decade, there was a strikingly similar series of events in the NBA.
In that case, it was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, of the Denver Nuggets. Abdul-Rauf, shortly after announcing his conversion to Islam, decided in 1996 to no longer stand for the anthem. Much like Kaepernick, he did this as a political protest, and also much like Kaepernick, he had been engaging in the protest for weeks before anyone noticed. (Kaepernick, when he launched a publishing company last year, released Abdul-Rauf’s autobiography.)
There were key differences, though. Abdul-Rauf’s protest came in the mid-1990s, at the height of the era of Michael Jordan and “Republicans buy sneakers, too;” a period when it was exceedingly rare for top athletes to speak out about political causes. And while Kaepernick (it is widely believed) was blackballed from his league, he was never officially suspended. Abdul-Rauf was, briefly, and while he played for two more years after the controversy, there’s convincing evidence that his political stand led to a much shorter career than should have been the case.
Now, there’s a new documentary called Stand. Directed by Joslyn Rose Lyons, it goes into this controversy, as well as the man’s wildly compelling life story. It’s a worthy tribute to an NBA star who hasn’t quite been given his due by history.
A Compelling Life Story
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf grew up in Gulfport, Miss., on the Gulf of Mexico, born to a single mother and a father whose identity remains a mystery. Known for his youth, college career, and early NBA years as Chris Jackson, Abdul-Rauf played at LSU, where he was a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal, made the cover of SI as a freshman, and was the #3 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, after Derrick Coleman and Gary Payton.
Diagnosed in high school with Tourette’s Syndrome, Abdul-Rauf developed great discipline and was considered a first-rate shooter and ball handler. As the film demonstrates, he got off to a slow start in his NBA career and struggled with staying in shape, but turned things around after he converted to Islam in 1991, changing his name two years later. It was his LSU coach, Dale Brown, who gave Abdul-Rauf a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, setting him on the path.
Brown is among the many talking heads interviewed in the film, while another is Steph Curry. And for some strange reason, the page for the film on Showtime’s streaming app features a picture of Curry rather than one of Abdul-Rauf. The two men do look a bit alike and had played similar games, but the movie is about Mahmoud-Abdul-Rauf.
The anthem protest began in 1996 and led to booing fans, calls for him to go back to where he came from (Louisiana?), and an actual suspension by the league, for violating its code of conduct. For employees of a local radio station were later arrested for a stunt in which they blasted The Star Spangled Banner at a local mosque.
The suspension was short, with Abdul-Rauf able to come back a few days later after agreeing to stand for the anthem, although he would pray while doing so.
He was traded to Sacramento after that season, where he played two seasons, and the bulk of his remaining career took place overseas. His 41 games with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000-’01 marked the last NBA basketball he would ever play, although he is among the ex-NBA stars who have played in the Big 3 league.
In 2001, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s dream house in Mississippi burned down while it was under construction and then, after the 9/11 attacks, he expressed truther views and implied that Israel might have been responsible.
There are a few missteps here. The film lets Abdul-Rauf off the hook a bit more than it should on the 9/11 truther stuff. One talking head describes him as one of the greatest players of all time which, while he was a very very good basketball player, is overstating things a bit. And in a late scene in which Abdul-Rauf meets some (white) relatives on his father’s side, I would have liked to have seen more of their discussion.
On a strange personal note, I once met Abdul-Rauf, in the early 1990s, when I was a kid and he played for the Nuggets and was still known as Chris Jackson. I don’t remember much about it, except that he seemed good-natured, and that when I asked him for his pick for the upcoming Final Four, he named his alma mater LSU, despite them not being in the Final Four that year.
As a documentary, Stand is a worthy tribute to a singular player with a singular story.