Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s routine is relatively quiet and pleasantly anonymous.
When he wakes up in suburban Atlanta, the former NBA guard and LSU star’s routine is stripped to essential elements: a workout, a trip to the grocery store, a private training session and a return home, where he might be inclined to read Noam Chomsky or a book about brain activity.
A year ago, the Gulfport, Miss., native slipped quietly into town on his way to a camp in Texas and stopped to see the Tigers’ practice facility.
“Other than that, it’s been sporadic,” he said.
Until Saturday morning, when Abdul-Rauf joined former Tigers such as Tyrus Thomas, Collis Temple, Stanley Roberts, Marcus Thornton and current members of the roster in Johnny O’Bryant III and Jarrell Martin at the Hometown Heroes camp at the Team Automotive Sportsplex.
Two years into retirement, the 44-year-old Abdul-Rauf doesn’t consciously avoid his alma mater or potential appearances that might dredge up a now 17-year-old incident when the former No. 3 pick in the NBA draft refused to stand for the national anthem — citing the American flag as a symbol of repression.
No, a decade spent playing abroad required roaming other continents as a basketball nomad. It can make a man yearn for quiet days and a simple schedule.
“Nothing personal,” he said. “When you have five kids the way I do, it keeps you busy. You come back and don’t want to travel. You just want to stay in one place.”
To see Abdul-Rauf in a gym full of rambunctious children and gangly adolescents is a snapshot of a former athlete at ease with his lot.
Almost two decades later, his quiet protest is a footnote. In 1996, it had been five years since his conversion to Islam. Involuntary twitching from Tourette syndrome persisted. The neurological disorder pushed him to turn simple acts, such as putting on a belt or tucking in his jersey, into maniacal pursuits of perfection. The two blended seamlessly: a faith searching for perfection in life and on the hardwood.
Suspended for one game, Abdul-Rauf compromised: He prayed with his head bowed as the anthem played. And he learned the openness America prides itself upon doesn’t always greet different beliefs or attitudes warmly.
“Athletes aren’t supposed to speak out,” Abdul-Rauf said of the lesson learned. “You’re just supposed to dribble the ball up the floor, excite the crowds and not have any opinions. Politicians can say things we can’t say because that’s their place. I don’t think that’s fair.”
Stanley Roberts, a former LSU teammate and NBA center, said it’s hard to know whether the political and cultural climate would be better now than it was almost two decades ago. At the time, ignorance of Abdul-Rauf’s values might have played a part in the controversy. Now, in a post-9/11 society, the inverse is true: His faith carries a stigma in some quarters of public opinion.
“Today, I think it gets treated a little better,” Roberts said. “People didn’t understand it. It wasn’t that he wasn’t was anti-American. People don’t realize he went and did all the steps (to convert), so it was unfair. It’s a business, and the NBA is a business. You have to recognize that.”
It’s also forgotten that Abdul-Rauf played three more seasons in the NBA, his last in 2000-01 with the Grizzlies. After that, his passport picked up stamps as he played for Ural Great (Russia), Sedima Roseto (Italy), Aris BC (Greece), Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia) and finally three seasons for Kyoto Hannaryz in Japan.
Exposure abroad shaded his view in hindsight. Each culture carries its own flaws — “Some are more totalitarian or restrictive,” he said — that offered a nuanced appraisal of the controversy in the Mile High City.
“It’s open, but yet it’s scary,” Abdul-Rauf said. “But when you voice things in a way that’s not subtle, you can be blackballed. You can’t say what you want up and till a certain point.”
Roberts said the entire affair taught Abdul-Rauf humility and imparted a lesson: You can’t play forever, and the end is coming sooner than you think.
“Lots of players have problems with that,” Roberts said. “He did it well. I didn’t like how the NBA treated it with him, but it happened and made him stronger. Now, he loves what he does.”
Rather than brandish the experience as a scar, Abdul-Rauf said the fallout taught him to strip his life down to its bare essentials and “simplify almost everything.” Traveling abroad helped, and in retirement he relishes working at camps and clinics.
Last month, he was at a stop in Washington, D.C., and he’ll head to Michigan and Texas next month. He’ll start sitting before a keyboard and writing a memoir.
If the mood strikes him, there’s a run to the store to pick up items and cook.
“The simplest things,” Abdul-Rauf said, “can be the most profound.”
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