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Abdul-Rauf: ‘It’s an indication not much has changed’

Former NBA player reflects on his protest and suspension of 1996

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf played nine years in the NBA and is one of the greatest free-throw shooters in league history. But the former Louisiana State University star is best known for refusing to stand for the national anthem during his 1995-96 season with the Denver Nuggets and calling the American flag a symbol of oppression.

The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf in 1996 for refusing to stand. That led to his standing but looking downward and praying during the anthem. The Nuggets traded him to the Sacramento Kings at the end of the 1996 season. He was out of the league by 2001 in what was believed to be some backlash for his protest. He played two seasons in Turkey in 1998-99, sat out the 1999-2000 season and spent his final season in the NBA with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000-01.

The Undefeated asked Abdul-Rauf about his protest and what is going on today in sports during an interview for a story on being Muslim in the NBA.

“It’s an indication not much has changed,” Abdul-Rauf said. “People are taking the same position risking their career, like a [Colin] Kaepernick. You look at what [the Seattle Seahawks’] Michael Bennett is doing, you look at a lot of these athletes now taking positions, and it just shows that we’re still dealing with the same issues. Racial inequality, police brutality.

“And so you have people coming up sometimes and they say, ‘Man, when you did what you did, man, I ain’t understand it back then. And I was kind of like, man, what’s wrong with this dude? He must be crazy.’ He said, ‘I apologize. … I just didn’t understand it, but now I do. I understand it very well now. I appreciate that.’

“So you look back, and your first objective is to try to do everything because this is your duty by God. But by doing it, you also have a responsibility to the people. So you’re also doing it in that light as well, because when it’s all said and done, man, we all want to be free. We all want to be respected. We all want to have equality. Equality means, it doesn’t mean the same [to everyone]. But we all want to have equality, and we should always fight for that. This is what I’m trying to do to the best of my abilities, within my limited capacity, intellectually and physically. So it’s just nice to see now that you see more of it. And I’m just hoping that it can be sustained.”

Do the Nuggets or the NBA owe Abdul-Rauf an apology?

“Basically, I’m not into trying to force people to give an apology that they don’t want to give. I believe that they know what went down. And if they feel they can live with it, then we all have choices to make and we all are accountable for those choices. And then I have a life to live and they have a life to live, but I don’t think at the same time, too, an apology is [needed]. Sometimes people see the advantages of just saying, ‘I apologize,’ because it kind of relieves them of accountability, but I think an apology should be backed by something. … But actions speak louder than words.

“When it’s all said and done, when you look at the history of slavery, for some people, it’s just hard to apologize. I’m sorry for oppressing your people for 400 years, for enslaving them, you know, raping your family, for all the years of unpaid labor. We just want to let you know we’re sorry. … But yet we don’t get reparations, but you say you’re sorry. There are a lot of people that have been wronged, and their career has been short cut for different reasons, so just apologizing is not enough. That’s all I’m saying.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.