Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf talks about the 1996 flag controversy
Twenty years before Colin Kaepernick chose to make a political statement by sitting during the national anthem of a preseason NFL game, there was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
The former Gulfport and LSU star — known as Chris Jackson during those days — took a similar stance in 1995-96 when the Denver Nuggets’ sharpshooter told the NBA he would no longer stand for the anthem.
Prior to the March 12, 1996, game, Abdul-Rauf remained in the locker room during the anthem. But in that game, he chose to sit during the anthem, which caught the attention of the nation.
He later told reporters the U.S. flag was “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny, so it depends on how you look at it. I think this country has a long history of that. If you look at history, I don’t think you can argue facts.”
Abdul-Rauf was suspended one game and ended up compromising with the NBA — which has a rule that players, coaches and trainers must stand in a “dignified posture” along the sidelines during the anthem. Moving forward, he was allowed to pray during the anthem as long as he did it standing up.
While in Gulfport last March for a youth speaking engagement, Abdul-Rauf recalled his choice to stand.
He called the blowback he experienced in the years after “religious racism,” and felt his decision to sit blacklisted him from professional basketball in America.
“It just carried over and my career was never the same,” he told the Sun Herald in March 2015. “I was in my prime, but I’m grateful because everything happens for a reason. I needed to go through that to be where I am today.”
After converting to Islam in 1993, Abdul-Rauf saw his performance improve drastically. The 1995-96 was one of his best seasons professionally as he averaged 19.2 points per game, a career high 6.8 assists per game and converted a league-best 93 percent of his free throws.
The Nuggets dealt him three months later to Sacramento. His minutes immediately began to decline, from a career-best 35.6 during the 1995-96 season, to 28.4 the next season and down into the teens after that. Abdul-Rauf spent the 98-99 season in Turkey, played 2000-01 with the then-Vancouver Grizzlies, and then played until 2011 in Russia, Italy, Greece, Saudia Arabia and Japan.
Although Abdul-Rauf transformed from budding NBA star to exile and journeyman almost overnight, he said he came to peace with how his basketball career turned out.
“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.”
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback justified his decision to sit by saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
According to ProFootballTalk.com, Kaepernick has not stood for the anthem at any of the 49ers three preseason games.
The NFL does not have the same rule as the NBA regarding the anthem. Instead, NFL players are “encouraged but not required” to stand during the anthem.
Kaepernick plans to sit during the anthem moving forward until he sees “significant change” in race relations.
49ers coach Chip Kelly has said the team will not release Kaepernick, who is in the midst of a quarterback battle with Blaine Gabbert.
Once seen as the QB of the future in San Francisco, Kaepernick’s production on the field took a sizable step backward in 2015.
Like Abdul-Rauf, Kaepernick appears to be solid with his decision.
“If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right,” he said.
Abdul-Rauf declined an interview request for this column.