On Sunday afternoon, before 48-year-old Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took the court in the brand new Big3 three-on-three basketball league to show off his electric shotmaking skills, he bowed his head in prayer and put his hands out, palms up, while the national anthem played in the Barclays Center.
A dazzling shotmaker, Abdul-Rauf was one of the best free-throw shooters in NBA history. But the anthem protest that he began in 1995 was Abdul-Rauf’s signature move — and the reason why he thinks his NBA career ended prematurely when he was just 29 years old.
That’s why he’s not surprised that Colin Kaepernick has yet to be signed to an NFL team after his own season of anthem protests.
“He’s being black-balled,” Abdul-Rauf told the New York Daily News this weekend. “I’m not surprised. As soon as it happened, I expected it. The same thing happened to me.”
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf twenty years ago. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf TODAY before his first Big3 game. No retreat. No regrets. pic.twitter.com/tEEgcaNP5r
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) June 26, 2017
In fact, Abdul-Rauf predicted this would happen to Kaepernick back in September 2016 in an interview with The Undefeated.
“They begin to try to put you in vulnerable positions,” Abdul-Rauf said in that interview last year. “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, so we trade him.”
“It’s kind of like a setup,” he told Jesse Washington. “You know, trying to set you up to fail and so when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, it was really because he took these positions. They don’t want these type of examples to spread, so they’ve got to make an example of individuals like this.”
Abdul-Rauf, who converted to Islam in 1991, stopped standing for the national anthem during the 1995-96 season. For about 60 games, he would either stretch during the anthem or stay inside the locker room, and it wasn’t an issue. But when a reporter asked him about it, he did not hide his reasoning behind his decision — and controversy exploded.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way,” he said at the time, according to The Undefeated. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game, and when he returned to the court, he struck a deal with the league — instead of sitting for the anthem, he would stand with his teammates but close his eyes and look downward. He would usually spend that time silently citing Islamic prayer.
Abdul-Rauf received death threats for his decision and even had his home burned to the ground. The Denver Nuggets, which had drafted Abdul-Rauf third overall in the 1990 draft, traded him to the Sacramento Kings in 1996. With the Kings, his playing time drastically diminished. He went unsigned after the 1998 season, and played most of the rest of his career overseas until he retired in 2011.
Now that he’s back playing professional ball in the United States thanks to Ice Cube, he has no qualms about continuing his anthem protest.
“I don’t feel like much has changed, if anything at all. Black folks are still being victimized disproportionately in the penal institution,” he said. “It seems they are definitely disproportionately being shot and killed by policemen. Just overall the position that we are confronted with, and also being a Muslim, look at what Muslims are going through in this nation. I don’t think really anything has changed, by and large.”