BATON ROUGE, La. – On Feb. 29, 2020, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s number 35 jersey was lifted into the rafters in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on the campus of Louisiana State University, formerly called Assembly Hall.
This is the same arena that he used to call home. The place where it all began.
Yes, ironically it just so happens to fall in a leap year, and on the last day of Black History Month. A fitting rarity. A unique day for a unique story.
It has been over 30 years since Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly known as Chris Jackson, has worn the number 35 jersey representing the LSU Tigers.
It has been 30 years since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as freshman Phenom, shortly after he scored 53 points in just his 3rd collegiate game against the University of Florida and 30 years since he overwhelmed college opponents during his record-breaking two years in Baton Rouge.
Mahmoud’s life will not be defined by what took place during the two years he played basketball at LSU, rather it will be more about the journey and life experiences that took place during the 30 years after, which made him into the man and human being that he is today.
The honor of the jersey retirement is a symbolic gesture for his accomplishments during his phenomenal basketball career at LSU.
The real reward is in the transformational process of becoming a better human being in the face of obstacles and challenges that would cause most people to question their very existence and purpose in life.
Abdul-Rauf arguably had the best two years of any guard who has ever played college basketball.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf earned consensus SEC Player of the Year honors in his freshman and sophomore years at LSU.
During his sophomore year, he played with Shaquille O’Neal. He set an NCAA freshman scoring record by averaging 30.2 points per game during the 1989 season.
Abdul-Rauf became just the second freshman to earn AP First Team All-American honors, finishing his LSU career seventh in school history in scoring with 1,854 points.
He only needed 33 games to reach 1,000 points, which is usually the amount one scores over a career.
He went on to score over 20 points 52 times, over 30 points 28 times, over 40 points 11 times, and amazingly over 50 points 4 times in his 2 years as a tiger.
He scored double figures in 63 out of 64 games at LSU.
Although Abdul-Rauf was experiencing huge success on the court during his time at LSU, he was struggling off the court due to his experience and environment growing up in Gulfport, MS.
As a young boy, he faced enormous challenges including poverty, being misdiagnosed for many years before finally beginning diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, raised in a single-parent household, suffered from low self-esteem, and a lack of quality education.
With these types of obstacles he had every excuse to give up, however, he embraced these challenges and used them as fuel to motivate him to make life better for him and his family.
During his time at LSU, his coach Dale Brown gave him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
This single gesture would forever change his life.
Reading this book altered the way he looked at his life and childhood growing up in Gulfport, but more importantly, it changed how he viewed himself.
Once his perception of himself changed his vision of the world became clear, and he knew that he had to make some serious life-altering decisions.
Abdul-Rauf decided to forego his last 2 years of college eligibility and enter the 1990 NBA Draft.
He wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA and see his mother and younger siblings in a better place rather than struggling back in Gulfport.
Abdul-Rauf was selected as the number 3 overall pick by the Denver Nuggets.
During his 9-year NBA career, Abdul-Rauf played for the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and the Vancouver Grizzlies (alongside fellow Muslim and friend, Shareef Abdur-Rahim).
Abdul-Rauf was named to the NBA All-Rookie team and competed in the 1993 NBA Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend.
He led the league in free-throw percentage in the 1993-94 and the 1995-96 seasons.
His free-throw percentage of 0.956 in the 1993-94 season ranks 3rd all-time in NBA history.
After the 1993 season, he was voted by the media, players and coaches as the NBA Most Improved Player.
In 1994, the first time in NBA history, he was a part of the 8th seeded historic Denver Nuggets team who upset the #1 seeded Seattle Supersonics. In 1996,
Abdul-Rauf scored 32 points and dished out 9 assists against the 72- win Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls team in an upset 105-99 victory.
He also scored a career 51-points against Karl-Malone and John Stockton’s Utah Jazz, who went on to lose in the 1996 NBA Finals against the same Chicago Bulls team that Mahmoud and the Nuggets defeated.
At the height of his career and during the season in which he averaged a career-high of 19 points and 6 assists per game, Mahmoud decided that he could no longer keep silent about what he saw taking place in the world outside of the NBA.
So, he did what he felt was right.
He took a position based on the new foundation of truth and esteem he gained from studying and discussing world history, current events, and most importantly Al-Islam.
Abdul-Rauf reverted to Al-Islam in 1993, a few years after he entered the NBA.
It was during this time that he began a spiritual journey that allowed him to reflect and question everything that he was taught growing up as a Christian.
It also paved the way into intellectual enlightenment that led him to question everything from his upbringing in the racist environment of Gulfport, MS to the mistreatment of African Americans and others in nations throughout the world.
Al- Islam gave him the courage to speak out about the oppression and injustice that he felt were represented by the flag of the United States.
In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a powerful stance to not stand during the national anthem that played before every NBA game.
“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.
“I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.” This stance resulted in a one-game suspension and $32k in fines.
This was the beginning of the end of what was once a promising NBA career, cut short as he was quickly phased out and subsequently blackballed out of the league.
In 1998, at the age of 29 and still, in his prime, he was not offered a contract with any NBA franchise. Mahmoud was forced to take his talents overseas to Turkey, followed by stints in Russia, Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
In 2017, Mahmoud joined the Big 3, the newly formed professional 3-on-3 league founded by O’shea Jackson Sr. (Ice Cube).
At 50 years of age, he is still playing basketball and defying the odds, armed with his lighting quick release and change of pace dribbling skills keeping defenders off balance.
He is known for his game-winning clutch baskets.
He is the Co-Captain of his team, the Three-Headed Monsters, who are perennial championship contenders, making the playoffs in every year since its inaugural season in 2017, including the runner-up in 2017.
Mahmoud’s life off-the-court has been just as impactful as his talents on the court.
He mentors, trains, and develops high school, college, and professional basketball players, through one-on-one sessions, basketball camps, and clinics, passing down his knowledge and over 40 years of basketball experience.
Mahmoud has spent the past 15 years going city-to-city lending his voice to uplift humanity by sharing his story and life experiences to inform, inspire, and motivate Muslim and non-Muslim audiences; on college campuses, banquet halls, conferences and conventions, and mosques.
He also travels the world as an ambassador for organizations, using his platform to raise money and awareness, and he is also hands-on in providing aid to humanitarian causes.
The most cherished and important role in his life is his role as a father.
After growing up without having a father in his life and being brought up by his mother, Mahmoud takes the most pride in rearing and being present in the lives of his five children Ali 21, Alim 19, Ammar 18, Safiyyah 16, and Amir 14.
All were in attendance except Alim, who wasn’t feeling well.
Mahmoud exemplifies what it means to use everything you have to make life better for everyone with spirit, grace, humility, and a genuine love for humanity.
Today 30 years later everything has come back to the place where it all began for Mahmoud.
He finally receives the honor, respect, reward, albeit long overdue, for his contributions to college basketball and outstanding play at Louisiana State University.
He became the 14th LSU athlete or coach to have their jersey retired and the 5th men’s basketball player.
Although he shared this moment with former teammates, coaches, classmates, and the LSU fans, his most beloved and cherished fan club includes his five children who along with his late mother are his greatest inspiration.
“Growing up without a father, I would wake up and I would train relentlessly,” Abdul-Rauf said.
“Because one of my goals was to have a family someday and to be able to raise children. I wanted them to know even though they weren’t there through all those years of training, I wanted them to experience this.”
On February 29, 2020, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s number 35 Jersey will go into the rafters in the same arena that he used to call home, where all the national notoriety began.
On the campus where the journey from being a college basketball phenom and a young man from Gulfport to trying to find his place in society all began.
Along the way, he found his voice and his identity as a human being.
Along the way, his NBA career was cut short because he used his platform to take a stand for truth, freedom, justice, and equality for all people.
He returns with dignity, respect, and honor.
He returns as a man of faith, a servant of God, a social activist and humanitarian, and a loving devoted father.
Most importantly, he returns 30 years later completing a full circle journey, as a better man, a better human being, the world being better because of it.
It is better not because of what it represented on the front of the jersey, but more so for who he has evolved into on the back of the jersey.
Abdul-Rauf, servant of the most merciful, most compassionate, and that is the highest honor anyone can ever want to be known for.
(Hanif is the CEO/President of Crescent Sports Media – Crescentsportsmedia.org / Crescentsportsmedia@gmail.com. He and his wife Baiyina Hamed Khalil are founders and owners of Kamp Khalil Kampkhalil.org – Hkhalil@kampkhalil.org).