By his own admission, this weekend's Boys and Girls Club basketball camp has been a long time coming for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Back in his hometown, where he starred on the Gulfport High Admirals before moving on to LSU and later the NBA, Abdul-Rauf, formerly Chris Jackson, spoke on a number of topics at the Legacy Group's networking luncheon Friday in advance of his youth clinic.
"We didn't have the worst, but we didn't have the best," Abdul-Rauf said of his youth to more than 100 in the crowd at Cafe Climb. "Those things have a tendency to affect you."
It was in Gulfport, he said, that his drive and determination were established.
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"At 9 years old, I was blessed to know that basketball was something I wanted," he said. "For me, it was a way out. It wasn't just something I wanted to do, but something I felt like I needed to do. ... I knew I had to make it. There was no B or C option for me. I put the weight of my family on my back because if I didn't make it through basketball, that was it."
Abdul-Rauf began waking up at 4:30 a.m., rain or shine, and started honing the craft that would eventually get him noticed by college coaches and NBA scouts.
Often times, he said, while dribbling down the street or playing at a local park by himself, he would imagine an invisible opponent.
"I was always trying to escape my imagination and my imagination was the greatest thing I had," Abdul-Rauf said. "The more I did that the quicker I became. I said, if I can escape my imagination, man can't stay with me like my imagination can."
The training paid off. Once at LSU, Abdul-Rauf was an immediate scoring machine for the Tigers, averaging more than 30 points per game as a freshman.
"As I think back to those moments, how things fell into place starting with a belief," he said, "starting with a vision, starting in the direction of your prayers and vision, being consistent with it, making sacrifices, being resilient. All of those things."
Abdul-Rauf didn't directly address the flag controversy until after his speech was over, when he was asked by a woman in the audience about his experiences with racism.
He recalled that day, on March 12, 1996 in Denver, when he chose not to stand for the National Anthem. He called what he experienced in the days -- and years -- after "religious racism."
"It just carried over and my career was never the same," he said. "I was in my prime, but I'm very grateful because everything happens for a reason. I needed to go through that to be where I am today."
Abdul-Rauf later told the Sun Herald he's now OK with how his NBA career eventually ended.
"I'm definitely at peace. I can do nothing to change that, but I can build upon now for the future," he said. "Those things I went through really helped mold and shape who I am today. I learned a lot from it all and everything happens for a reason."
Abdul-Rauf, the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft, amassed 586 career games played in the league before leaving to play abroad. He averaged 14.6 points per game over the course of his career, with highs of 19.2 ppg twice, in 1992-93 and 1995-96. He also set a career 90.5 free-throw mark.
So, what's in store for Abdul-Rauf once he heads back home to Georgia? In addition to public speaking, Abdul-Rauf has been training NBA players like Ben Gordon and said he hopes to do more one-on-one training rather than joining the coaching ranks.
"I love the skill development side to make it easier on the coaches," he said. "That way there's less they have to worry about their guy being ready and then they can concentrate more on the X's and O's."
While registration for today's camp is full, Abdul-Rauf said he hopes the event becomes a regular occurrence.
"It's about really trying to inspire them -- not just in basketball because not everyone is going to make it," he said. "But basketball can be a tool that you can use to build on other things. In sports you learn mental toughness, you learn teamwork. At the end of the day it's about giving back."