This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf didn’t stand for the national anthem, and—like Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him and Colin Kaepernick after him—was punished in the process.
For the better part of the 1996 NBA season, Abdul-Rauf either stayed in the locker room or didn’t stand during the anthem, citing his belief that the song represented tyranny and oppression.
Abdul-Rauf was drafted No. 3 overall in 1990, when he went by his birth name: Chris Jackson. He turned into a borderline All-Star, peaking during the season he started to sit for the anthem, averaging 19.2 points per game on 39.2% from three.
It was after a random March game that season—with the Nuggets a paltry 26–35—that reporters finally noticed that he had avoided the national anthem. The public outcry resulted in a one-game suspension, equal to $32,000 in lost wages.
“If I have to, I’ll give up basketball,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1996.
The league and Abdul-Rauf made a deal. He would have to stand for the national anthem, but he was allowed to hold his hands out in prayer as he did so.
For this simple protest, he paid the price, like many activists before him.
Abdul-Rauf said he was excommunicated from the league after the 1998 season, just two years after he averaged nearly 20 points—and sat for the anthem.
Though his play did taper, he was still a sharpshooter who could space the floor. No teams asked him for a tryout. He was just 29 years old.
“It’s a process of just trying to weed you out. This is what I feel is going to happen to [Kaepernick],” Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated in 2016. “They begin to try to put you in vulnerable positions. They play with your minutes, trying to mess up your rhythm. Then they sit you more. Then what it looks like is, well, the guy just doesn’t have it anymore.”
Abdul-Rauf did return for a stint with the Grizzlies in 2000-01, then based outside of the United States, but averaged a career-low 11 minutes a game before he left for Europe for good at season’s end.
Despite the circumstances, he doesn’t have any regrets. And he still doesn’t stand for the Star Spangled Banner.
From the SI Vault:
“Patriot Games Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Caused An Uproar When He Sat Out The National Anthem,” by Rick Reilly (Mar. 25, 1996)