Abdul-Rauf, then known as Chris Jackson, was a two-time All-American at Louisiana State University before being taken third overall in the 1990 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets. He converted to Islam a year later.
“I had a lot of questions with my Christian background while growing up,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I felt like I was being someone I wasn’t meant to be.”
Abdul-Rauf was consistently among the Nuggets’ best players, and narrowly missed setting an NBA record for free-throw percentage when he shot 95.6 percent during the 1993-94 campaign.
He was having his best season in 1995-96, averaging 19.2 points and 6.8 assists per game, when his career changed forever after he stopped standing for the national anthem, saying it conflicted with his Muslim beliefs.
The Denver media picked up on it and when the team played at Chicago in March, fans booed and jeered him, and the scrutiny of his actions intensified.
The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf — the ban lasting only one game after he and the league reached a compromise that allowed him to stand but close his eyes and pray during the playing of the anthem.
That did little to satisfy those who questioned his patriotism.
Abdul-Rauf was traded to Sacramento in the offseason and played for the Kings for two seasons. He then played in Turkey in 1998-99 before returning for his final NBA season with Vancouver in 2000-01. The anthem stance seemingly taken a toll as his numbers declined each of his final three years in the league, and he never quite lived up to the expectations of being a No. 3 pick.
Since then, the native of Gulfport, Mississippi, has been inactive or played overseas, with stops in Russia, Italy, Greece and Saudi Arabia. Being abroad seems to suit him just fine.
“I feel like I could live anywhere, not necessarily in the States,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I’m the type of person who could pick up his bags and go live anywhere and I’m not going to miss anything.”
His current one-year contract with Kyoto came about when the team’s coach, former NBA player David Benoit, called to say he’d like to have Abdul-Rauf on the team.
Benoit played against Abdul-Rauf both in college and the NBA and knew the veteran would bring a lot to the expansion team.
“His experience is the most important thing,” Benoit said. “He wants to go out and play ball like he did a few years back and it’s exciting to see a guy his age still do it. Like any other player, he has lapses, but his experience is the main thing, not only for the younger Americans coming here to play but for the younger Japanese too.”
After a hamstring injury early in the season, Abdul-Rauf is settling in, averaging 16 points a game for Hannaryz.
“I love Kyoto, the people are wonderful and I’m not just saying that. I’m a person who speaks his mind and I’m really enjoying it,” Abdul-Rauf said.
The league is also enjoying that Abdul-Rauf is bringing it some much-needed attention.
“Abdul-Rauf is a guy that demands respect because of everything he has accomplished on the basketball court,” Osaka forward Lynn Washington said. “The play of ex-NBA players is needed in this league as the sport becomes more popular in Japan.”
Abdul-Rauf’s teammates are the ones who are benefiting the most.
“I just try to learn as much as possible from him,” said Kyoto’s Sunao Murakami. “I watch him closely every game and feel so lucky to be on the same team. He’s the best player in the league and that’s impressive given he is 41.”
As for the future, Abdul-Rauf says he wants to go into coaching when his playing days are over.
“I’ll play as long as God gives me the ability and the strength,” said Abdul-Rauf, who lives in Atlanta in the offseason. “Right now I have my health and am still competitive. So as long as I have the combination of those two things I will still play and afterward, I’ll look to coach.”
One thing Abdul-Rauf knows for sure, he’ll continue to practice his faith.
“I have no regrets (about converting to Islam),” he said. “It was the best decision I ever made in my whole life. It’s a great gift.”