Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: A Portrait of Perfection

Court Zierk@CourtZierkCorrespondent INovember 12, 2009

Imagine being alone on a basketball court for hours. Left in seclusion long after your teammates have retreated to the showers and headed home. Physically exhausted beyond all bearable thresholds. Body aching to the point of near collapse.

Now imagine wanting to leave more than anything else. Wanting to put down that basketball. Wanting to change out of your sweaty clothes, and the shoes that now hurt your feet. Wanting to meet up with your friends. Wanting to be anywhere but where you’re at.

But, for some reason, IT won’t let you.

IT holds you there beyond your control. IT won’t let you leave until you take that basketball that you long to put down, and put it through the hoop 10 times in a row without so much as hitting the rim.  IT holds you there until you demonstrate perfection.

And once perfection is achieved, IT lets go just as easily as IT took hold.

The IT I am referring to is a neuropsychiatric disorder of the brain called Tourette’s Syndrome that results in uncontrollable body movements and tics, and IT has haunted former NBA great Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf his entire life.

Born Chris Wayne Jackson on Mar. 9, 1969 in Gulfport, Mississippi, Abdul-Rauf was the middle of three boys born to Jacqueline Jackson, a cafeteria worker thought also to display the strange symptoms of the inherited disease.

Growing up in a poverty-stricken home with a single mother, Abdul-Rauf was known to frequent the city's playground basketball courts, often practicing for hours on end, shooting hundreds of free throws a day, meticulously perfecting the trajectory and arc on his shot and the way the ball would strike the net.

Making sure the ball didn't even touch the rim.

IT wouldn't let him leave these rundown courts until IT told him his shot was perfect.  

In some patients, symptoms of Tourette's Syndrome manifest in such a way that the brain will establish unreasonable goals that simply must be achieved before feeling satisfied.

When he shot those hundreds of free throws, each and every one had to feel perfect. The ball would have rest in his palm in exactly the right way. The ball would have to roll off of his fingertips in exactly the right way. The spin on his shot would have to feel perfect.

He would stay there on that playground until he had completely met the goal his mind unknowingly set for him.

This was both the blessing and the curse of Abdul-Rauf's life.

This same disease that left him in tears at night, crying himself to sleep because he was unable to control the tics and strange behavior, was also the same disease that forced him into the countless hours of practice that would ultimately lead to his success as a professional basketball player.

At Gulfport High School, Abdul-Rauf would emerge as an athletic prodigy. In a city where circumstances often seemed bleak, he quickly became the city's darling and its beacon of hope.

He led his Gulfport High School team to multiple state championships, set numerous state records, and is still considered by many to be the greatest player to ever come out of the state of Mississippi.

Following his senior year, Abdul-Rauf was considered a blue chip recruit and was sought after by many top-notch college programs. He would ultimately choose to attend Louisiana State University.

His first year at LSU is widely known as the most prolific single season for a freshman in NCAA history.  He averaged 30.2 points per game and still holds the NCAA record for most cumulative points scored for a freshman.

His sophomore season was equally impressive, and Abdul-Rauf was named to the first team All-American squad for the second straight year and even graced the cover of Sports Illustrated . He would declare himself eligible for the NBA Draft following the completion of his sophomore year.

In the 1990 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets used their third overall pick on the young prodigy, and seemed confident that they were welcoming in the future of their franchise.

His first two years in the NBA, Abdul-Rauf really struggled to live up to his highly touted potential.

In his rookie year, he injured his foot, gained 30 pounds, and in limited playing time averaged 14.1 points per game. His second year, his scoring average would dip to 10.3 points per game, and critics around the league were quickly beginning to label him a bust.

In the midst of his struggles on the court, Abdul-Rauf became disillusioned and debilitated by the fame that accompanies life in the NBA.  To escape from his struggles, he began to immerse himself in the teachings of Malcolm X, and became interested in the Islam faith.

In 1993, he officially converted to Islam and changed his name from Chris Jackson to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, which loosely translated means "elegant and praiseworthy, most merciful, most kind."

His personal transformation seemed to directly correlate to his performance on the court. In the 1993 season, Abdul-Rauf averaged 19.2 points per game and won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. He was rewarded by the Nuggets with a contract extension.

Abdul-Rauf would go on to have a solid NBA career, with his best years coming with the solid Denver Nuggets teams of the early 90's. But unless you ever saw him play firsthand, you will never truly understand how truly great he was as a player.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend every Nuggets home game during the 1993-1994 season with my dad. Throughout the course of that season, I cannot begin to explain how many times I was simply astounded by his display of talent. I truly believe to this day that he is the purest scorer in the history of the league.

I remember watching him during warm ups, standing at half court, effortlessly and routinely sinking jump shots like he was shooting 20 footers.

He was the fastest player I have ever seen without the ball in his hands, and he came off screens as good as anyone in the history of the league, including Reggie Miller.

He had textbook form on his jump shot, the most lightning quick release I have ever seen, and he could get his shot off with even the smallest opening in the defense.

He had a killer crossover and an amazing ball fake. I saw him embarrass his opponents with that countless times over that season.

Watching him shoot free throws was almost a spiritual experience for me. I can probably count on one hand the number of times the ball even hit the rim that year. You will never see another player who was that automatic from the line.

Don't believe me? YouTube it. There are several mixes available now that pay homage to his talent.  Before I wrote this, I sat at my computer for an hour watching his best performances and reminiscing on how great of a scorer he was. Needless to say, I became quite nostalgic.

I suspect that in many respects, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf no longer lives in the
consciousness of most sports fans, analysts, or announcers partly because of his ill-fated decision to sit during the singing of the national anthem and partly just because so much time has passed since his relevance in the NBA. 

From what I hear, Abdul-Rauf has made several stops in Europe since disappearing from the NBA and is still playing ball for the Kyoto Hannaryz in the Japanese BJ league.

I'm sure that to this day, IT still has an inescapable hold on him and won't let him quit playing the game of basketball until it feels perfect. I feel fortunate to have been a witness to his IT , and to me IT truly did make him a portrait of perfection.