(Photo: CAIR, Chicago)
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that game.
We were riding around the city when someone mentioned that there was a basketball tournament at one of the area’s high schools. A team from Gulfport, Mississippi had a star point guard that was playing that night against one of the city’s best high school teams – Washington-Marion High School – so we made our way toward the gym. Washington-Marion was, to us, the best team in the city. A predominantly Black high school located on the north side of town, I always viewed WM as a representation of our Black community – particularly through sports – even for those of us who didn’t attend WM. When any of their teams played, the Black community would be out in full force. Even as a kid, my father would take me to the football games on Friday night. Those cold-ass Friday nights in Goosport.
And I couldn’t wait.
At that stadium, we were amongst our people – praising the Cole to Joseph connection; admonishing the bad decisions of the coaching staff on 3rd and a “short” one if they didn’t convert; jamming to the band during the halftime show. I could hardly contain myself when I’d get home and tell my older brother, who often opted to kick it with his high school friends, which numbers the band played as opposed to telling him which team won the game.
“You missed it, man! They played I Feel For You by Chaka Khan and then they hit that P.Y.T. by Michael Jackson. You missed it, man! I’ll bet St. Louis don’t play that,” I would tease. Then I would break into my best rendition of a flute player, whistling a solemn classical tune – imagining something his predominantly white Catholic high school might play.
“Don’t make me hit you with this pillow, bruh,” he’d say.
By the time we arrived at the basketball game, the small gym was packed. Standing room only. WM’s basketball team was stacked with the best that our city had to offer. They would eventually become State Champions. In short, it was about to go down.
At guard, a 6-1 inch senior, number 35…Chris Jackson.
He put on a performance that was out of this world. It seemed as if he couldn’t miss – and he rarely did that night. I’ve never seen anything like it. Scored 55 points. It was incredible. Ask anyone who was there. Reminded me of when I used to dunk on my college roommate on the dormitory courts behind Voorhies Hall. Right, Jay? *Disclaimer* That last statement may or may not be factually accurate. Was it simply a coincidence that the blue and orange of his uniform emblazoned with the number “35” matched perfectly with the blue and orange colors of the school’s gym in which he was playing that night? It’s like he belonged there.
But his story goes beyond that night in 1987 in that small gym in Lake Charles, Louisiana where an overflow of high-top fades, shiny patent leather shoes, turtlenecks, one-too-many-sprays of Lagerfeld, and “It Takes Two” by Rob Base blaring through car speakers outside would welcome him to the Boot. Indeed, his story is one that transcends sports. After that night’s performance, we all knew that he was special and would undoubtedly make it to the NBA. Little did we know, however, that Chris Jackson would later change his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and become much more than just a great basketball player. He would come to represent the views of many of us who witnessed his greatness years prior.
After a record-setting career at nearby Louisiana State University, Abdul-Rauf was taken by the Denver Nuggets with the third overall pick in the first round of the NBA draft. He would scorch future Hall-of-Famer John Stockton for 51 points, and take it to Michael Jordan for 32. The sky was the limit.
Fast forward to March of 1996, when a reporter noticed that the Nuggets’ star guard was not standing for the national anthem. By this time, Abdul-Rauf had not been standing for the playing of the anthem for quite a few games dating back to the previous season. Normally, he would be in the locker room or in the hallway leading up to the court. This night was different, though. He was on the court this time and while the song was playing, he stretched. And stretched some more. All without paying any attention to the flag. And then he sat down.
Now he was being called to task. He stated his reason bluntly and confidently – much like Colin Kaepernick did 20 years later; much like Muhammad Ali did 30 years before.
He said that the United States flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” He added, “This country has a long history of that. I don’t think you can argue the facts. You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way. I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting. I won’t waver from my decision.” (It will be worth your time to watch his extraordinary documentary, which goes into much further detail).
With that statement, Abdul-Rauf became a marked man. It didn’t help that many Americans did not fully understand Islam – only what they heard on American news stations falsely equating every terrorist act with Muslims, hypocritically ignoring their own domestic terrorism at the hands of home-grown Americans. That false narrative and anti-Muslim xenophobia continue to this day. Despite being one of the best guards in basketball, four short years later his NBA career was over.
He would ultimately become marked in another way. On a personal level, I would not fully realize the breadth and depth of his stance until many years later when I started paying attention. His integrity became a symbol of strength and courage to me – traits essential in challenging the status quo.
Black athletes who have spoken their minds on social injustices have always been punished monetarily as it relates to their profession – “blackballed” as they call it. Curt Flood comes to mind. John Carlos and Tommy Smith. Paul Robeson. Kap. Ali. Jim Brown before he started buck-dancing. There are not that many degrees of difference between all of these athletes if one thinks about it at all. The prevailing strain in their protests is their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, no matter the consequences. Unapologetic. Unmoved.
Recently, the NFL enacted a rule that prohibits protesting racial injustice and police brutality. To some, Black lives have never mattered. They never will. Their response to the NFL’s new decision is the same response they have when a Black life is taken: Good. Fuck ’em. This retort by the same ones who call you friend.
This decision by the NFL is what happens when white supremacy can no longer hide its agenda. When their authority is being challenged. I still won’t be watching – but I am interested in seeing how this plays out. The NFL and the president have been forced to go to an extreme level of flexing its power but what are they going to do when the next wave hits? And it will hit.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins has already used an interesting approach to answering questions from the press by holding up hand-written signs. It was beautiful. Stunning. Exquisite. Sad. Harsh. Troubling. Blunt. The card display started off with a straightforward message of “You aren’t listening.” It continued with “In 2018, 439 people shot and killed by police (thus far),” and “60% of people in prison are people of color.” These are the realities of America but America is not listening, nor do they want to. This is a theme that is literally as old as the ground on which you now stand.
No matter how much Sarah Huckabee Sanders gets annoyed, stay on her ass, April Ryan. That was dope. Continue to ask the hard questions. Do not let her off the hook. She will either have to listen to you or kick you out of the press room. If she does the latter, she will have lost – so you win either way.
Unlike the NFL.
The League is running out of ideas. They are already dishonoring the flag by going against everything for which it supposedly stands by redefining so-called freedom of speech in America by taking away its very essence. Which route will they run next? As more and more prominent Black athletes continue to rock the boat (as well as white athletes who recognize that their voices are valuable in this fight, shout out to Chris Long), the NFL will find itself in deeper waters. There’s no escaping that.
Abdul-Rauf comes to mind at times like this, especially with the NBA Finals taking place. I cannot help but wonder how great he could have been had his career been allowed to proceed. He followed his conscience and paid dearly for it but I also genuinely believe that, because of his stance, he gained much more than any basketball career could have ever given him. Maybe it took that sacrifice to get to where we are now – where our voices will not go away; to a point where we will not be silenced.
(Photo: BIG 3)
As he victoriously left the court after that dazzling performance in my hometown, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. I’ll gladly stand for Abdul-Rauf now – today – with an even greater appreciation for him than I had back then.
But I’ll be damned if I stand for that anthem.