In the world of American sports leagues, it is almost unanimous that the NBA is the most progressive and player-driven league in the country. This embracement of players holding a particular social and political position wasn't always the case in the NBA. For us to get here, there had to be someone to spark the flame. One of the fire starters, in this case, was none other than Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Before going by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and converting to Islam, he was known as Chris Wayne Jackson. Before he made a name for himself on the NBA hardwood, he was playing at the Louisiana State University. In an era where the game of basketball was played inside out, Abdul-Rauf broke that mold and got his buckets from the perimeter. As a freshman, Abdul-Rauf averaged 30 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. He followed his amazing freshman season with averages of 27 points, 3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. He finished his college career as a two-time SEC player of the year.
After dominating the SEC, he took his talents to the NBA draft. Although he wasn't the most physically gifted player, all of the scouts and fans watching were aware that he was a bucket who could change the fortunes of any team that drafted him. The Denver Nuggets saw something in him and picked him with the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft.
At that moment, Abdul-Rauf accomplished a lifelong goal and overcame so much. Coming from a single-parent household struggling to make ends meet, Abdul-Rauf was able to change his and his mother's lives. After years of suffering from Tourette syndrome and not being diagnosed until his teenage years, Abdul-Rauf now had the platform to bring awareness to the disorder. His journey to becoming the third pick was full of trials and tribulations, but he was living out a dream.
For the first two years of his NBA career, Abdul-Rauf was not able to become a consistent starter at the point guard position. Relegated to a bench role, he did what he did for most of his life; persevered. By his third season, he was a full-time starter and averaged 19.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. He ended the 1992-1993 season as the NBA's Most Improved Player. Abdul-Rauf had arrived and began to slowly break into NBA stardom.
His rise continued until controversy started to surround his name. After converting to Islam in 1991 and changing his name two years later. Abdul-Rauf entered a new chapter in his life. His spiritual and political beliefs weren't widely accepted, but it was never the topic of discussion. The eyes of the NBA world all focused on him when he refused to stand for the United State's national anthem. In his eyes, the American Flag was a symbol of oppression and injustice. Something that he could not pledge his allegiance to. Backlash followed and the NBA decided to suspend Abdul-Rauf during the 1995-1996 season for his refusal to stand during the Star Spangled Banner.
Abdul-Rauf's suspension didn't last long. A compromise was reached between himself and the league. He was back on the court again. The aftermath and backlash he received ultimately changed his career and halted his rise to stardom. His minutes and role on the team change. As the leading scorer on his team, he was brought off the bench to "help" the team. Eventually, he got traded away from the Denver Nuggets to the Sacramento Kings. From there, his time in the NBA began ticking. His minutes on the court started to decrease. His shot attempts dwindled down, and he was ultimately relegated to a bench role. By the 1998-1999 season, Abdul-Rauf was playing ball overseas in Turkey.
His NBA career took a turn. He went from being the NBA's Most Improved Player to an afterthought in a matter of four years. It couldn't have been because of his play on the court. Taking a look at how the events unfolded, it's hard not to see why someone will be led to think Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was blackballed out of the NBA.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was ahead of his time. None of us got to see it. Take a look at his highlights and you will see glimpses of Stephen Curry and Trae Young. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a game changer, a lot of people just don't know it. He is one of the NBA's biggest what-if stories.
Fast forward 20 years from when Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem, and Colin Kaepernick found himself in the same predicament during the 2016 NFL season. Both athletes took a stand and exercised their rights and both got blackballed subsequently. History repeats itself. Our job is to learn from our past so we don't repeat it.