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Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, NBA-exiled after protesting during the anthem, opens up about the state of activism in professional sports

“Guys shouldn’t feel compelled to have to make a decision between speaking the truth of their conscience and losing their job.”

Strolling on Yonge Street in the days prior to the BIG 3 slate in Toronto, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf ran into a Ryerson University student who wanted to pick his brain.

Abdul-Rauf was entering his prime in the 1995-96 season when his conscience kicked in. In accordance with his Muslim faith, he decided not to stand during the national anthem because he viewed the flag as a symbol of oppression and racism. When reporters caught wind, his career spiraled out of control. He was fined $32,000 by the NBA before making a compromise: he would stand during the anthem, but instead of staring at the flag, he would turn his head down and pray.

At the end of the season, he was traded to the Kings. When his contract expired two years later, teams wouldn’t touch him. At 29 years old, ‘the Steph Curry before Steph Curry’ was exiled.

In the 20 years since, Abdul-Rauf submerged himself in the second mission of his life: an uncompromising desire to be free, to live in conjunction with his values, and fraternize with like-minded individuals.

So what, the student asked Abdul-Rauf, would you tell youth who are trying to become active?

“There’s a verse in the Quran that says, ‘Be in the company of the righteous,’” Abdul-Rauf told SB Nation. “I told him why we’re told to do that.

“They’ve done studies and found that if you’re out of shape and want to get in shape, if you hang around a person that’s in shape, chances are you’re gonna get in shape. If you’re not smart, you hang around smart people, you’re gonna become smarter. If you wanna be an activist, if you want to be moral, associate yourself around those groups of people. This is what I’m constantly trying to achieve.”

That’s why meeting Colin Kaepernick was, in his words, “beautiful.”

“Money doesn’t matter. Fame doesn’t matter. Family doesn’t matter,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you get to the point the truth means more to you than anything. That’s powerful. It’s nice to be in the presence of people like that.”

At age 49, Abdul-Rauf is one of the Big 3’s best players, thanks to a strict year-round diet and training regimen. As a co-captain of The 3 Headed Monsters, he’s already notched two game-winners this season.

Abdul-Rauf sat down with SB Nation to discuss the recent protests during the national anthem, his inspiration, his desire to move overseas, and more.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

SBN: Who inspires you?

MAR: One, my faith. I know it’s cliche to say, but the life of the Prophet, the imams.

Outside of that, numerous people. Growing up, [Julius Erving] was my influence that motivated me in basketball. Not just because of his athleticism, but how he carried himself.

I read a lot. I’m inspired by a lot of different authors, whether it’s Paulo Coelho, Huey P. Newton, Randall Robinson, Arundhati Roy. I’m just constantly being inspired.

I’m reading a book called The Color of Law. That book pretty much … [laughs]

I can guess what it’s about.

Yeah. I’m constantly reading. An old book by Khalim Siddiqi, The Power of Islam. I’m always reading on that subject. I pick and choose other books, whether it’s history, politics, religion.

You played everywhere. What makes you love the game so much that you just have to play?

That’s a tough question. I don’t — I guess I do love the game. But I’m just competitive. I understand losing is a part of life.

I guess it all depends on how you look at losing. I joke with people. They may lose a game. When they lose, I say, ‘You lost.’ When I lose, I say, ‘I didn’t lose, I learned.’ So it’s different.

I hate when people count me out. We discriminate a lot, and sometimes we do it to ourselves. ‘Because I’m old, I’m not able to’ — no, no, no. We have the capacity to adapt and achieve great things. It’s those things that keep me going.

For those of us who do believe in religion — I do — if I’m questioned, if my God says, ‘Hey, what you got for me?’ I really wanna be like, ‘I don’t have anything left. I used everything you gave me.’ I always feel that I’m far behind because it keeps me hungry and it keeps me humble. A combination of feeling humble and hungry.

I guess that’s why you’re so dedicated to your health.

I try to be conscious of all those things, but it’s hard. I just posted something showing this lettuce was made of plastic. [laughs] Really, you hope that you’re eating right. Getting proper rest, staying away from negative stress, exercise. It’s a holistic approach. I pray I’m doing the right thing. There’s no profit in healing folks, so there’s a cycle. What’s in the food makes you sick. What’s in the medicine doesn’t really cure. I’m always leery.

That’s one of the reasons I want to move overseas. There’s trade-offs to everything, and for me, the healthy lifestyle is priceless, where you can get food and it’s natural. I’d give up some modernity for those things. Especially with Tourettes Syndrome, you have to really be conscientious, not only of what you eat, but how you eat, because it could exacerbate the symptoms.

I read somewhere Tourettes is part of the reason you’re so dedicated, you said, to achieving ‘stillness’.

My ex-wife used to say, why do you go to the gym so much? One day, I had to sit her down and explain. ‘Listen, I never use this as an excuse, but when I train, I literally get to the point where sometimes it’s near death.’ I’m breathing so hard, but then there’s a period once you stop and your breath starts to slow down, you get into a zone. Just sitting here. And you may stare off. At that moment, it could be 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, you’re totally still.

Once I wake up, it’s constantly trying to control your voice, the intonation of your voice, the tensing up, the movements. You’re constantly moving all day long. Sometimes people think you’re stretching, but most of the time, that’s Tourettes. You learn how to camouflage it.

Those moments of stillness are priceless. Some people have it all the time. They take it for granted. So my training a lot of the times is just to get those moments of stillness, even if it’s only for a short while. I kinda shut up. [laughing]

Do you think that informs what you ended up doing as a player, choosing to pray during the national anthem and not stand for the flag?

No question. It’s not just with basketball. It transcends so many other things. When there’s something on your conscience, it’s like, I gotta free myself. I gotta get this off. I would lend it more to conscience.

But that [stillness] definitely plays a part in it. You don’t feel comfortable. You don’t feel right. For me, it’s hard to sleep if I know there’s something I could have said or did, but I didn’t. Because I feel like a coward, and I don’t want to feel that way. I said ‘No, no no, life is short.’

An old guy told me once, ‘None of us will make it out of here alive.’ I’d rather leave on a better truth than a better falsehood any day. And it’s not the easiest thing to do, but we all have to make choices. I’m not always right, but I have to go with what I think is right. If I’m proven wrong — OK, this wasn’t the right thing — I’m quick to say I could have did it better. But until then, I’ll keep moving in that direction.

What’s something you look back on and think you could have done better?

A lot of things. My training could have better. My relationships could have been better. Even dealing with the flag thing, I could have been way more informed. Not that I wasn’t informed, but I could have been more informed, more articulate. Even playing basketball when I would sometimes have 50-something points.

I learned even as a young man, from elementary on up, this is the way my mind works. When people tell me ‘Great game’ I say ‘Thank you’ and I mean it, but immediately I send messages to my mind and I say, ‘Never be satisfied, there’s always room for improvement,’ so that I won’t get comfortable.

Because sometimes we start believing in the stories we tell and we start patting ourselves on the back. I don’t ever want to do that.

I have to assume it took you by surprise when you were asked about the anthem. You were doing it for a while, and one day, a reporter noticed. Did you have time to articulate a response?

I read a lot, but sometimes the thoughts don’t come to you. Everybody has their days, where things are flowing, but some days when it’s not. We’re human.

That particular day, I had no idea. I was finishing a shoot-around. They came to me and popped the question. ‘What do you think?’ I spoke my conscience, one thing led to another, and it went global.

But no regrets. No regrets whatsoever. Once you throw something out there, you have to own it.

It’s so different now with social media

They have less control of the story. We didn’t have social media. So even though I received a lot of letters — from Jews, Christians, Atheists, agnostics, you name it — [saying] ‘We support you, we believe in the same thing,’ and I’m sure if they sent it to me, they sent it to the media outlet, the media then could choose to put that to the side and concentrate only on what they wanted. Now, you can’t really do that because of the power of social media.

A Muslim guy named [Husain] Abdullah was playing football. He went into the zone, he went into prostration. The NFL immediately said, ‘We’re gonna fine you, we’re gonna suspend you.’ Then, on social media, it’s ‘What about Tebow?’ and they pulled back.

That’s the power. We didn’t have that.

When you protested, do you think the NBA Players Association lobbied enough for you?

No, I don’t think so. To some degree, you want people to understand, you want people to be enlightened. Who doesn’t? If you share something with somebody, you want them to agree with you.

At the same time, that really wasn’t my focus. I was so focused on where I was trying to go. I wasn’t focused on my career ending, who accepted it, who didn’t. I’m looking at my life as a child, the things I missed out on, things I didn’t learn, in a sense, systematically. Deliberately, as far as I’m concerned. I felt cheated.

Now, I’m on a mission and I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to better myself. I’m trying to be enlightened. Whatever comes of that comes of that, I could care less.

It’s not that I expected that. In light of a lot of the things I was coming across and reading, I didn’t expect a lot of help to come from that way.

But no, in retrospect, they didn’t push for anything substantial.

Can you elaborate on feeling cheated?

Looking at education in and of itself, there are so many things they don’t teach you, but information is there that could be very helpful. There’s a verse in the Quran that says ‘Oppression is worse than killing.’ When you kill me, my body is gone. There’s nothing else you can do.

But when you oppress people, when you misinform them, when you miseducate them, when you deny them a knowledge of self, a knowledge of history, they’re always susceptible to someone else’s interpretation of who they are. You’re damaged goods now. You have to constantly fight back to find out who you are, where you came from. We’ve been damaged, I think, more than anyone.

So you’re coming up in an era where you hear ‘If you white you alright, if you yellow you’re a good fellow, if you brown get down, if you’re black get back.’ The blacker you are, the worse you are. You see it in TV. They’re in the ghetto, in the projects. It seems like right when they’re about to make it, they go back in.

These are the messages that are constantly being sent to you. That you know what? No matter how hard you try, some of you might make it, but most of you are gonna end up like this, this, and this.

I recall a book, The Prince of Slaves. Abdul-Rahman, he was captured, and Timbuktu, his father, was a king, and he had no idea. Then I started reading about Timbuktu, and I’m like, ‘Wow.’

I got pissed because maybe if I had known this, I wouldn’t have thought the way I thought about myself when I was a little boy. That I didn’t have a chance academically, that I was almost doomed and basketball was the only option I had. Statistically, it was a gamble. Statistically, you have a better chance of becoming an engineer, a doctor, or a lawyer.

I think it’s in some cases deliberate what’s held back, and what’s taught.

Do you think players right now in the NBA are doing enough as far as protest?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that people are where they are in their life and you can’t expect — where you are is where you are, you’re gonna do only what you can. But we always can do more. We have enormous power. And we need each other.

Really, there’s no basketball without players. You need the owners as well, but one may argue, you can become your owner. Right?

If there was a fund created by athletes for when they have to take a certain position, for those athletes that are not well with their money, [so] they can feel strong about taking that position. So when you need to, you can say, ‘OK, we’re not playing until we get what we want. We wanna be treated fairly too.’ This thing that happened to Kaepernick shouldn’t happen now. Guys shouldn’t feel compelled to have to make a decision between speaking the truth of their conscience and losing their job.

And it’s not that they’re saying something that’s untrue. There is police brutality. There is racial inequality. And his job is lost because of that? Politicians say it all the time. People say it all the time. Why can’t an athlete do that?

We’re humans first. We decided to become athletes later. We don’t lose our humanness when we decide to become athletes.

Do you think even now, NBA players feel compelled to keep their beliefs quiet?

Of course. A lot of them do.

Look, it’s scary. No one wants to lose that income. Then you’re like, ‘How am I gonna feed my family?’ We can’t go and become a doctor tomorrow, an engineer tomorrow. We’ve spent most of our life developing our skills in this game. It’s not like we have a skill of being a carpenter or a plumber.

Some of us are able to do more than one thing, but it’s not for everybody. There’s a lot of people out there, that if you listen to the conversation on the bus, on the plane, go to the barber shops in the neighborhood, you’ll hear their real views. But when the camera is on, we feel like we have to be this extra person, say the right thing, even though it’s the wrong thing for you. It’s sad.

We’re so — we’re weak as human beings. We can’t appreciate the fact that a person could have a different view than us. I’m not trying to kill you. I’m not. Let’s talk about it. Convince me.

There’s only one league for players unless they want to leave North America. Do you think the Big 3 could become an alternative over time?

It’s an alternative now. Of course it’s not on the level of the NBA where it’s gonna sustain you like that financially, but it definitely has the potential to grow even more. Let’s face it: there are people here that are well off. There are people here too [where] this Big 3 is saving them financially. It’s giving them breathing room.

That’s why I’m so big on trying to stay in shape. If my name was on it, I’d want guys to come in in shape. Just because somebody else’s name is on it doesn’t give us the right to not take care of our bodies, not come in and try to compete.

I look at it not just for me. I look at it down the road for those people who are having financial difficulties, but who can still play and for whatever reason couldn’t get into another league. This could save them financially. This could save their families, their marriages. Go out there and compete for them too so this thing can continue.

Because you don’t know, down the road, who it may save.