Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf Speaks on His Love for Basketball and Civil Rights

As the keynote address to the 2019 Harvard Sports Law Symposium on April 1, former NBA player and civil rights activist Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf spoke about his childhood, basketball career and experience advocating for social justice in the United States. Professor Intisar Rabb initiated the conversation in a “fireside chat” with questions about Abdul-Rauf’s inspiration for playing basketball and desire to become a legend in the league. Abdul-Rauf recounted his love for basketball as a child and then as pre-teen, his daily struggle with Tourette syndrome, and the many hours spent practicing on the court at 5am to perfect his game. Coaches in high school noticed. A donation from a local doctor lead Abdul-Rauf to a basketball training camp, where he played against (and dunked on!) Michael Jordan, and after all in attendance recognized his outstanding skills on the court.  Abdul-Rauf had a great run in college basketball at LSU. He scored 58 points in a single game and averaged 30.2 points per game—far beyond expectations. He was named SEC Player of the Year and First-team All-America. Abdul-Rauf credits his Muslim faith for keeping him grounded and more focused as a basketball player.

Abdul-Rauf The Denver Nuggets selected Abdul-Rauf as the number three pick in the 1990 NBA draft. In his first season he was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. He was at the top of his game. Shortly thereafter, a reporter noticed that Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the flag. When questioned, Abdul-Rauf explained it was a contradiction to stand when there were injustices that had largely been forgotten and went unmentioned going on in inner cities and around the world. This was his way of bringing attention to hidden injustice, which he felt was his obligation, because “you can’t be for God and oppression.” Fines, suspensions, shortened playing time and retiring from the NBA followed Mahmoud’s protest. But in the end, Abdul-Rauf does not regret his stance against injustice in America and abroad, despite the negative effect it had on his NBA career while he was at the height of his game. More than personal gain, he champions justice. He is happy that today when those same problems arise—as recently highlighted by the likes of Colin Kaepernick—some players are able to access support, file lawsuits, and hold athletic corporations accountable. If doing so stops injustice, he counts that as a “win,” too.

This event was livetweeted and can be found using #AbdulRaufTalk.