My first exposure to Islam came via a point guard who used to go by Chris.
I was 19 or 20 when Chris Jackson changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. As a sports cards salesman from Colorado, the change impacted me on a number of levels.
The sports fan in me had heard this story before. I knew that Muhammad Ali had once been Cassius Clay. The same could be said about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lew Alcindor.
Still, to experience the change – and as a Nuggets fan and ticket holder, I have memories of both Chris Jackson and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf – was something new.
This experience went to an entirely different level in March, 1996, when Abdul-Rauf was suspended for refusing to stand for the national anthem.
I had a brother in Desert Storm. I was always rather patriotic. Still, if there was any conflict within me over Abdul-Rauf’s decision, I can’t recall it anymore.
If anything, Abdul-Rauf’s protest raised my awareness of social issues… It certainly opened my eyes to Islam.
That I learned about a faith that many associate only with the Middle East via a black convert is not actually all that odd. Indeed a full 24% of American Muslims are black.
But what I learned more than anything else came from the player’s demeanor.
The Abdul-Rauf I saw was elegant yet unbending, humble yet proud. I didn’t think much more about it then, but I was aware that whatever kind of “different” Abdul-Rauf represented, it was something to be appreciated.
Abdul-Rauf’s stance cost him everything… at least the way that most of us use that word. What if gave me was a new outlook.
In my scholarly career and in my work and friendships since, the world exampled by this diminutive mountain of a man is something for which I could not be more grateful.