Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: Here, gone and quickly forgotten

Mitchell Layton/NBA

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was on his way to a long career as one of the league's most electrifying guards. Then, he took a stand on something he believed in and he quickly faded into obscurity.

SB Nation Reebok Retro Week

On Basketball-Reference.com, you can find out the greatest statistical fill-in-the-blanks at the click of a finger. One can peruse this site for hours and still not have his or her thirsty curiosity quenched.

But while the site is almost always accurate, it doesn't mean that everything is true. Per the site, we can find out quickly that Steve Nash is the NBA's all-time leader in free-throw percentage at 90.41 percent, followed closely by Mark Price at 90.39 percent. With the clock rapidly ticking on Nash's career and Price long retired, it's possible that the latter could reclaim the crown from Nash.

But what if I told you that neither Nash nor Price was statistically the best free-throw shooter of all-time. What if I told you one of their contemporaries did it better?

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf finished his nine-year NBA career with a 90.5 percent free-throw shooting percentage. To qualify as a leader in free throw shooting, you must shoot 1200 career free throws. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf shot 1161 overall. Thirty-nine short. Three weeks or so short.

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Focus On Sport

Those in Abdul-Rauf's hometown of Gulfport, MS tell a legendary tale about the man formerly known as Chris Jackson. Per 5280, the Denver magazine:

At Gulfport High School, the basketball coach offered his players an incentive: They could shave minutes off practice by hitting consecutive free throws. Every successful consecutive shot meant less running and fewer drills. One day Chris was the shooter. He made 283 shots in a row. Practice was cancelled that day.

Jackson's rise in Mississippi was rooted in two things: sports and being diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that creates uncontrollable verbal and physical tics. While many would initially view it as a deterrent, Jackson used Tourette's as a way to refine his craft. (Jackson wouldn't be diagnosed with his condition until he was 17 years old). Obsessively practicing to get things right, be it his speech or free throws, made him fluent in a variety of skills. That repetition would in some ways lead him to eventually convert to Islam in 1991 and change his name in 1993.

*****

There are a generation of basketball fans who do not realize there was another guard in Shaquille O'Neal's life who made the big fella complain about his lack of touches. Jackson's two years at LSU are arguably the two best seasons anyone's put up in college basketball history. A freshman campaign featuring a 30.2 scoring average (NCAA record) and countless tales of 50-point nights led Jackson to be called The Next Pistol Pete. If you need a reminder, you can watch the battles between Jackson and Larry Johnson, Tim Hardaway or Allan Houston.


After his second year -- his only one playing with O'Neal -- Jackson went pro. With Jackson's draft status now solidified, the Denver Nuggets, a middling organization at the time, traded their two first-round picks in the 1990 NBA Draft to move up and select him third overall. However, it wasn't until Jackson changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (along with the Nuggets making a much-needed coaching change by hiring Dan Issel) that we saw that collegiate talent take form in the NBA. Abdul-Rauf dropped 32 pounds and got the starting gig for Nuggets in his third season. He averaged 19.2 points per game, was selected to participate in the All-Star slam-dunk competition and won the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 1992-93.

Jackson -- nay, Abdul-Rauf -- was finally on his way. He just needed a stage to show he was one of the best in the world.

*****

No one gave the No. 8 seed Nuggets much of a chance against the mighty Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 playoffs. But hey, maybe if Abdul-Rauf could produce offensively and teammates like LaPhonso Ellis and Dikembe Mutombo could slow down the high-powered Sonics, things could get interesting.

Ellis and Mutombo held up their ends of the bargain, but Abdul-Rauf could not find easy sledding. Gary Payton stifled the league's Most Improved Player for all five games, holding him to 30.8 percent shooting from the field and preventing him from distributing the ball. Dan Issel called on Robert Pack to lead the way in clutch moments, benching Abdul-Rauf when necessary. Pack was limited offensively, but was willing to defer, defend and run the break, and that helped swing the momentum for Denver.


The Nuggets eliminated the Sonics in five games, leading to many visuals embedded in our brains. There's Mutombo's emotional embrace of the ball on the court after the whistle sounded in Game 5. Pack's dunk on three Sonics players immediately comes to mind.

There's nothing memorable from Abdul-Rauf, and it's almost like he wasn't even there. Soon, he really disappeared from our consciousness.

***

There's the time Abdul-Rauf took a stand for what he believed in. Well, stand isn't quite right.

The wispy-thin point guard decided at the beginning of the 1995-96 season that he would not stand and salute the United States flag during the national anthem before games. Few noticed this for a long time. Abdul-Rauf would just stretch for the entirety of the song or stand there with his hands on his hips, never making eye contact with Betsy Ross's greatest work of art.

More on Abdul-Rauf's legacy

It wasn't until March that this was finally outed by a local reporter. In Abdul-Rauf's own words, the newspaper reporting the story only posted a "small blurb" in print. But the next day, media requests for Nuggets practice tripled.

On March 12, 1996, commissioner David Stern passed down a one-game suspension to Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand. Two days later, the NBA compromised, forcing Abdul-Rauf to stand during the playing of the national anthem, but allowing him to close his eyes and look downward. Abdul-Rauf decided to say a Muslim prayer quietly to himself instead, but the damage had been done.

Ultimately, Abdul-Rauf decided that standing during the national anthem and saluting the American flag wasn't a part of his Islamic belief system. Abdul-Rauf's willingness to stay strong for what he believed in ultimately helped lead to an early exodus from the NBA and played a role in our faded memory of his game.

But we don't give him credit for standing for other things, like fasting during the NBA season in observance of Ramadan. Abdul-Rauf was scorned for being selfish in doing this during the season (he dropped from his playing weight of 162 pounds to a miniscule 147 pounds), but Hakeem Olajuwon, who was also Muslim and fasted, escaped scrutiny.

There was also the time when Abdul-Rauf covered up logos on his shoes. Why? He was initially given a sneaker deal with Nike, but that deal wasn't renewed and he felt his religious stance explained why. So, he began hiding the logos on his shoes to make a point. If this happened in the present day, he'd be praised for his stance. But in the mid-90's, few fans had any sympathy.

We also forget that Abdul-Rauf made sure to tour the inner cities of every stop on each Denver Nuggets road trip, going from hood to hood to speak to men who had issues with fatherhood, incarceration and drugs. Abdul-Rauf was motivated by his growing appreciation of Malcolm X, one that began when college coach Dale Brown gave him the book. He saw his public speaking work as his pilgrimage to Mecca. NBA Cares would've loved this.

In this sense, Abdul-Rauf was the spitting image of a revolutionary American. He took advantage of the freedoms of the first amendment. He challenged America's economic belief system. He focused on the issues -- drugs, education and others -- that many of our bureaucratic leaders were scared to address. This country lauded other men who lived this kind of life. Instead, America largely spat at Abdul-Rauf.

*****

Abdul-Rauf's protest against the anthem caused his presence to fade even more. Denver traded a 27-year-old Abdul-Rauf to the Kings that summer for the aging Sarunas Marciulionis, who retired at the end of the season.

In Sacramento, Abdul-Rauf went from starter in his first year to DNP-Coach's Decisions and injuries in his second. Then, he was out of the league. A brief stint with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2000-01 season ended quickly, and his career was officially over.

*****

The few who remember Abdul-Rauf's career compare him to present-day stars like Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving. His quick release, shooting ability and handles were all top of the line. While Curry and Irving have become the focal points of their respective team's offenses, Abdul-Rauf was always placed in a smaller role with Denver, where players like Mutombo and Antonio McDyess were given first dibs.

It's unfortunate. When given a chance, he'd always proven himself capable of lighting up anyone who stood before him. Like Michael Jordan's 72-win Bulls, who caught Abdul-Rauf at the wrong time. Or legend John Stockton, who caught a 51-piece from the point god from Gulfport.


The rest remember Abdul-Rauf for one stand in the dog days of the 1996 regular season. Had that not happened, who knows how long he would have stayed in the league?

Long enough to shoot 39 more free throws, that's for sure. If Abdul-Rauf had that record, maybe that would give him the prestige that only enhances Nash's and Price's legacies.

We'll never know how good he could have been. Thankfully, we have videos like this.

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