No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of free and the home of the brave
— “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Verse 3
It's difficult to watch “Stand” — Jocelyn Rose Lyons’ new documentary on a blacklisted NBA star — and not conclude that an ability to ignore the woes of crack-era Black America was as much a prerequisite for player participation as height and dribbling ability.
The subject of “Stand,” Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, was a first-wave three-point shooting star, the 6' 1" prequel to Steph Curry. But on March 12, 1996, the 27-year-old phenom stopped rising with arena crowds for the singing of America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” What he expressed as religious piety was received as a political act.
In that one move, Abdul-Rauf kick-started a culture battle that would find him failed by NBA coaches and administrators, the league’s players and fans, and the mainstream media, as well.
“We should have had his back,” admits former Nuggets teammate Jalen Rose, “and we didn’t.”
At this point in time, two decades before it would lead all major sports leagues in wokeness, the National Basketball Association was all too willing to destroy one man’s career as a small price to pay for stoking its exploding international popularity and keeping ticket buyers happy.
The New York-based sports consortium disappeared Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf like De La Soul had long been in the era of streaming.
Probably the first Black basketball player whose politics were openly rebellious was John Brisker. In his days with an American Basketball Association locker room, Brisker gained infamy by ripping the underwear off a teammate, offended that the guy was wearing cotton. In 1985, Brisker was declared dead after disappearing into Uganda and, according to rumor, being killed for running afoul of then-President Idi Amin.
Abdul-Rauf’s actual ostracism precursor is Craig Hodges. During the Chicago Bulls' 1991 visit to the White House, having won the NBA championship months before, Hodges, another dead-eye point guard, handed President George H.W. Bush a letter outlining what he found racist about the Bush administration. (At the time, Hodges was wearing a dashiki, a shirt popular in West Africa.)
Later that year, Hodges nagged Michael Jordan to become more involved in America’s struggling urban areas and his fellow players to protest the Rodney King police assault by boycotting Game 1 of that year’s finals. The Bulls cut him after the 1991-1992 season. Despite Hodges being a more than serviceable player, not even the league’s bad teams picked him up.
To begin to understand why Hodges and Abdul-Rauf lost their exclusive and hard-earned privilege, it’s important to comprehend the condition of Black America in the 1990s. The AIDS epidemic was peaking. Rodney King-style beatings were still the nation’s hidden icebergs of amorality — cell phone cameras weren’t yet a thing. The crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging cities, and prisons filled up with dealers and sellers alike.
Before Abdul-Rauf became a test case for how Americans might treat a Muslim in conflict, he was Mississippi youth basketball phenom Chris Jackson. Arguably the greatest prep player the state ever produced, Jackson was also widely recognized for having Tourette Syndrome, a disease poorly understood in the 1980s. And his poverty was of the sort that only Mississippi can deliver. It featured an unacknowledging father whose absence haunted the boy.
In “Stand,” we see the ballplayer star at Louisiana State University, his disorder as much a help as a hindrance. Jackson’s erratic movements made him difficult to guard; Tourette’s obsessive-compulsive aspects made him what in sport is called a perfectionist. The heckling that Jackson received wasn’t limited to Tourette’s. When LSU traveled to play Mississippi State, the overwhelmingly white crowd in his home state chanted “Who’s Your Daddy?” — a reference to Jackson’s open psychological wound.
Shaquille O’Neal joined the Tigers for season two. At 21, Jackson had a starring (though unpaid) role in the multimillion dollar show that was Louisiana State University hoops. On a visit to his family’s Mississippi home, Abdul-Rauf says, the ramshackle shack with a brokedown bathroom overwhelmed him. He tells Rose Lyons’ camera that, in that moment, he decided to swap college for the NBA draft. He was the third player chosen.
Jackson discovered Islam in his rookie year with the Denver Nuggets. By his own accounts, he overdid it, thinking that traditional garb and mistaking hardline adherence for living as an authenticity, “thinking all of those things made you more of a Muslim, because I was going through changes.”
It wasn’t until 1993 that the name change came. He had read Malcolm X’s autobiography and Howard Zinn’s history. In 1996 — a full two decades before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests — Abdul-Rauf decided that standing for the National Anthem was active support of oppression. Denver sports talk radio began scoring drive-time points based on the young star’s defying the league’s mandate that players stand. Boos began raining down on the Nuggets harder than I have ever seen Americans boo a home team. That’s when national media figures such as CBS News anchor Dan Rather began serving audiences stories on “the highly paid athlete who won’t stand for the national anthem.”
At first, Abdul-Rauf prayed during the anthem, shielded from booing fans by much taller players. The NBA suspended him and he says he asked if he could support the team in dress clothes. Bernie Bickerstaff — the league institution who was both head coach and GM at the time — told Abdul-Rauf, “they don’t even want you in the building.”
He was tainted. Next season, Denver shipped him out to the then-sorry Sacramento Kings. Abdul-Rauf says he recognized the beginning of his deletion from history while watching a sports television piece on the NBA’s best three-point shooters. He wasn’t mentioned, in spite of having elevated that avenue of scoring. Abdul-Rauf soon gained weight, played poorly, and bopped from franchise to franchise overseas before returning to the NBA during the 2000-2001 season for a final, unmemorable stint with the Vancouver Grizzlies — a Canadian franchise.
After the terror attacks of 2001, he told conservative journalist Bernard Goldberg “the war on terrorism is a euphemism for a war on Islam” and that Israel might have been involved in the terror attacks. This ended any chance he’d had of getting signed in America again. He lost so many millions of dollars. The NBA has never apologized.
“I didn’t realize he was being blackballed,” insists former Bulls guard and Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, displaying naivete.
* * *
“Sometimes you have to play the game,” O’Neal says in “Stand”. “It’s about corporations. And the corporate mentality is very strict.”
O’Neal has earned $200 million in endorsements.
People of color with mainstream jobs work at the pleasure of white people.
Generational wealth is critical for Black equality to ever become a thing. On the other hand, the old teammate of Chris Jackson can only permit himself to use “the R-word” in describing those Mississippi State fans who in unison taunted his teammate about his heritage.
“Stand” has a shock ending about a mystery man, which can only be described as poetically apt. Basketball is a game for the young. While Abdul-Rauf spent his young adulthood figuring himself out, Shaq was doing ride-alongs with law enforcement agencies from Miami to Los Angeles and building an image of innocuousness that could push everything from Taco Bell to The General.
One day, Shaquille O’Neal, too, will be free.