Nearly 24 years ago, basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knew he had to stand up for his beliefs, even if it was going to cost him his NBA career.
And it did cost him his career.
Abdul-Rauf ― who was known as Chris Jackson before he converted to Islam in 1991 and later changed his name ― was a talented shooter who in 1994 had a free throw percentage of 95.6, the second-highest in NBA history.
But it wasn’t his near-perfect free throws that drew him into the spotlight. In 1996, over the course of several games, the Denver Nuggets player chose to either sit quietly or wait inside the locker room during the national anthem. There was a host of issues that led to Abdul-Rauf’s protest. He said mostly that the flag, to him, had become “a symbol of oppression” that contradicted his Muslim beliefs. His actions went largely unnoticed until a reporter asked why he was seated. When the news of his protest spread, Abdul-Rauf’s position was met with swift punishment from the NBA and the American people.
The NBA suspended him for one game and he subsequently lost over $30,000 in wages until he agreed to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Commentators fiercely debated Abdul-Rauf’s views, questioned his patriotism, and scolded him for being ungrateful.
He and the basketball league quickly reached a compromise that allowed him to stand and pray with his head down during the anthem. But the damage was done. Abdul-Rauf’s playing time dropped and though he’d dominated the season at just 29 years old, once his contract expired he was weeded out of the NBA.
Like many activists before and after him, Abdul-Rauf paid a stiff price for sticking by his principles. There were no hashtags or social media campaigns ― for or against him ― but he had more enemies than supporters. Abdul-Rauf moved on to play abroad before he retired in 2011. Over 20 years later, he doesn’t regret a thing.
HuffPost spoke to Abdul-Rauf from his Atlanta home about George Floyd’s death, the anti-racism protests and how his Muslim faith continues to keep him grounded.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
How are you feeling and processing everything right now?
Outraged. But this is a feeling I’ve been having for many, many years, and I think Black people in general [have]. To constantly wake up to televised and broad-daylight public executions in what we would classify as the murder of Black people, with George Floyd being the most recent and visible casualty.
It’s reminiscent of when you reach back in history where people used to send postcards of lynchings and burnings and mutilated bodies to share with their loved ones and their friends. Now it’s just video shared and it’s on television.
It definitely and rightfully so makes you angry because you think about not just the person’s life that was lost, but you think about the generational damage that it’s caused.
To see these images, and to think about how their children and their loved ones are going to have to live with that image for the rest of their life, and all of us who are privy to it as well. It has long-term effects and some of these effects for some people are going to be irreparable. So there’s a lot of thoughts that are going through my mind.
How do you think society has changed in the way people respond to injustices today versus back when you were protesting the national anthem?
I think one of the differences is that now you have social media. Anybody with a phone could film something, and then it goes viral and more people have access. The media, even if they don’t want to focus on it, are now forced to because of the public outcry.
But outside of that, I don’t see that there’s much of a difference. You always had people speaking out and challenging the system. But not much has changed.
If you take the images that we have now on television, and you turn it into black and white, it looks the same. If you pull up the conversation of what was going on then, the issues that black people and minorities were dealing with and what they were demanding, it’s some of that same stuff now.
Isn’t it frustrating that these issues are still the same?
Of course, it’s frustrating. James Baldwin says that if you’re Black in this country, you’re almost always enraged.
Every year you’re promised something by so-called representatives, and every year we are lied to and we’re given crumbs. [The promised changes] are never something that’s meaningful and impactful, that makes you feel that there is real change that occurs. We’re told just to be patient.
Sometimes the only language that political or powerful institutions can hear after you’ve had all the talks, and the conversations and the waiting, is when the property is destroyed or there’s an attempt on life. Only then there is this need to have a conversation about how we need to end racism. It shouldn’t take that, but it does, unfortunately. It’s going to take a lot of different strategies to make people listen.
What do you think needs to happen to break this cycle?
There’s a lot of things that have to change. The whole system needs to change because right now Black people don’t trust the system. We don’t trust law enforcement. We don’t trust what politicians say.
It’s beautiful to see the constant and consistent protests ― that they haven’t let up, even after the arrest. The people have been through so much. Keep it going and put the pressure on. Don’t take your feet off the gas at any cost whatsoever. Now we need to push for other things and let them know this is serious now.
Brands and institutions like the NFL, Nike, Amazon, have all put out statements addressing George Floyd’s death ― including the NBA, which has recently been hosting virtual roundtables on the issue of police brutality. But 24 years ago, the NBA suspended and fined you. Do you think these institutions are changing how they go about these issues?
I would be more inclined to embrace their genuineness if I can see a consistent defense when injustices occur and when their hiring practices change. Outside of that, for me personally, it’s for public consumption and to protect their wealth.
Do you think if your protest happened today, the NBA or society would have responded differently? Why do you think your stance was so controversial back then? You received death threats and were the target of ugly and racist commentary.
People don’t like for you to attack the American symbol, which is the flag. They don’t like for you to attack the government or the military or talk about police brutality or racial inequality. Just look at Colin Kaepernick.
It’s hard for this country to admit that it’s done wrong because there are consequences that come with that. Then you gotta talk about reparations and you gotta talk about compensating people, and they don’t want to do that.
You have been an agent of change for various social justice movements ― some causes that were acknowledged and some were not acknowledged. What advice would you give to those people who feel like their voices and concerns aren’t being heard?
The results [of our work], one could say, is never up to us. We see something that needs to be done and we address it. The outcome may not come during this time that you’re living in, but you’re planting seeds. You may not benefit from the growth of that tree and what it produces. But down the line, generations may benefit from it.
I’m speaking from what my understanding of Islam teaches me. Allah says in the Quran that he can turn your greatest enemy into your most intimate friend. You never know how information that I give a person may impact or influence them.
My advice is to continue to work and always try to find and locate people who think similarly and have some of the same passions. I think about the verse where Allah says to be in the company of the righteous.
Your faith was obviously the foundation of protests then. How has your faith helped you hold on to those same principles and make sense of the world today?
My faith is everything. I’m not perfect. Islam governs everything I do. It governs my understanding as to how I approach politics, how I approach my family, my health, my children, how to approach people who don’t share my faith.
So when I have an issue, whether we’re talking about justice or we’re talking about love, I don’t want to hear what man says about love. What does my faith say about love? What does my faith say about peace?
You had minimal support when you were protesting and the backlash that ensued after. This has me thinking about people’s silence today and the idea of complicity. What advice do you have for people so as to make sure they aren’t silent and complicit this time around?
Read things that are going to make you uncomfortable. Read things that are going to challenge your overall perception. There’s a saying that once your mind grows, it can’t go back to its normal place.
Information is power. I love to learn, whether it’s through books or listening to people. And I also love to share because you never know who it’s going to influence. I’m constantly reminding myself of this because once you throw something out there, you are responsible for trying your best to uphold it ― not just in words but in your behavior.
So force yourself to be uncomfortable, to learn something different, and to think outside the box that you see yourself.
Are you hopeful?
You always have to remain hopeful. We’re always going to have moments of justice, just like we’re always going to have moments of oppression. We just try to work to close the divide.
It’s not ever going to be perfect but we’re going to try to make it as perfect as we can.
I’m definitely hopeful right now just to see what’s happening. There will be something that comes out of this. Whether you’re Palestinian or African American or whether you’re Muslim or you’re Christian, we just want fairness, equality and justice across the board.