Last month former NBA standout player and socially conscientious objector, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, made some rounds through Harlem—including visits to a couple public schools, where he encouraged youths to know their culture, and to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, paying particular attention to the Black Power exhibit—before settling in at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center later that evening. Filmmaker Zareena Grewal’s documentary about Abdul-Rauf, “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” was shown before she conducted an open interview with him, to kick off the inaugural monthly The Message Forum at the center. The daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, introduced them after a brief synopsis on her parent’s relation to the former Audubon Ballroom.
Grewal’s documentary shows how the Mississippi high schooler, then known as Chris Jackson, made it to the NBA after years of dedicated training, despite being diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at 17 years old, after it went undetected for some time. After playing only two years at Louisiana State University, he was selected by the Denver Nuggets third overall in the 1990 NBA draft.
Reading Malcolm X’s autobiography in college had a profound effect on him, inspiring him to convert to Islam.
“It really all started with me at a young age seeing the relationship that existed between Blacks and [Caucasians],” he explained. “I knew something was wrong, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. One thing led to another and I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on.”
During the 1996-97 season he refused to stand during the singing of the national anthem before all Nugget games, citing that the U.S. flag was “a symbol of oppression and tyranny.”
Abdul-Rauf was suspended one game on March 12, 1996, for his act of defiance, before negotiating a deal in which he agreed to stand during the national anthem as long as he could bow his head, close his eyes and silently pray.
“I’m tired of holding my tongue,” the former point guard indicated. “It’s something I believe in and feel that needs to be said. I have a conscience like everybody else, and I have a platform that Allah has given me, so I’m going to speak my conscience.”
Despite death threats and public ridicule, he stood his ground, and said fellow Muslim NBA players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwan urged him on.
“It wasn’t just what was happening to Muslims,” said the man who led the league in free throw percentage in the 1993-94 and 1995-96 seasons. “When I made the decision, it was more global. I have the ability to reach millions of people by speaking out.”
He added that owners “still consider athletes property to be bought and sold.”
After the 1996 season, he was traded to the Sacramento Kings, and then bounced from several other teams, playing in only 62 more games, before being “white-balled” from the NBA.
Analysts contend he was being punished for possessing the internal fortitude to stand his ground based primarily on principle. Also, that he was made an example to deter other athletes from following his example in the future.
The moderator then compared him to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“The similarity was we took positions associated with injustices,” he said. “During that time there wasn’t no social media. The media controlled the narrative then, so if they didn’t want to show something, it wasn’t seen, but now it’s different.”
When asked what his thoughts were regarding visiting, for the very first time, and speaking at the very same location where his spiritual inspiration was martyred, the winner of 1993’s NBA Most Improved Player Award responded, “Still trying to process it, and take it all in. It’s unreal.”