I got to know Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when I was working at the Cherry Creek Athletic Club part-time during college. He was a member of the club at the time. I wouldn’t call us friends, exactly. But we were friendly.
Abdul-Rauf was a quiet guy. His tape said he was 6’ tall; I would have guessed about 5’ 10” and-a-half, at best, and he was remarkably slight in stature. He had a mild form of Tourette’s and would randomly yell something incomprehensible, and his head would bob and his neck would twitch, and it would startle other members at the club who didn’t know him.
He was also a professional basketball player — one of the greatest point guards in Nuggets history and one of the all-time greatest free throw shooters in the history of the game. I’m not kidding on that, he was a machine. He missed the all-time season record in the ’93-’94 season by one throw. One. He was a staggering 90.5 percent from the line. For his career.
But more than all that, he was a good man. One of the reasons I liked him so much — he frequently brought inner city black kids into the club as his guests to hang out and play some ball with him. It drove a number of the other Cherry Creek elite guests crazy at the time.
Their racism was barely contained: “Um… do you know who those children belong to?” they’d ask me.
“Which children?” I’d feign ignorance.
“The ones over there… the um, African American kids playing on the basketball court.” The syllabic stress on the race never went unnoticed.
“Oh, those are guests of Mr. Abdul-Rauf,” I’d reply smugly.
He did it often. And he did it in many cities he visited — he spent a lot of time with inner city kids, because he came from their world, knew their pain and wanted to help them find a good path.
Oh, and remember the 72-win 1996 Chicago Bulls? You know, the ones with Jordan and Pippen and Rodman, and Kukoc? Yeah, he put up 32 points and 9 assists on them when the Nuggets trounced The period, Greatest period, Team period in NBA history at Big Mac 105-99, snapping their 18-game winning streak.
But that was in February. A month later, his career began its tailspin. Not due to injury, or a drop-off in talent. No, his career tanked because Abdul-Rauf didn’t stand for the National Anthem. He was traded after the ’96 season to the Kings, spent two seasons in Sacramento, then bounced around for years in leagues in Turkey, Japan, Greece and Italy. He retired to Atlanta in 2011.
Our sense of nationalism rears its head in some weird ways. The very freedoms we hold so dear can destroy those who choose to exercise them. Sure, Colin Kaepernick’s career was already stalled like a ’71 Pinto before he decided to sit for the singing of the anthem. But that doesn’t make our collective sense of outrage any more or less ridiculous than when Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam or when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium at the ’68 Olympics.
The irony is painfully evident. The First Amendment exists specifically to protect the unpopular speech. The things the majority doesn’t want to hear. It exists precisely for the Kaepernicks and Alis and Smiths and Carloses to stand up for what is clearly still an issue — almost 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — in what’s supposed to be a post-racial society.
It’s a catch-22 for these men. We judge them for the riches of a career they could only have in this country. And when they’ve earned enough spotlight to have a voice loud enough to be heard, we judge them for not singing the praises of the nation that “gave them this opportunity.” Never mind the work they might have put in on their own to get here.
Kaepernick’s career as an NFL quarterback may have been over before he took a seat. But Abdul-Rauf’s career in the NBA was at its apex, and we effectively ran him out of town on a rail.
We can do better. It’s not right. It’s not just.
It’s not American.