After making his mark on and off the hardwood, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf begins to reconnect with LSU
Late Monday evening, LSU basketball legend Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf finally had a moment to reflect.
It had been a busy day for Abdul-Rauf, whose 50th birthday is just over a week away. He had met with students at the LSU African-American Cultural Center, walked his old stamping grounds and visited with the Tigers men’s basketball team before finishing his night in the Student Union Ballroom as the featured speaker for the AACC’s Black History Month program.
Now, after shaking hands and taking pictures for nearly an hour after leaving the stage, the room was growing quiet as just the program’s sponsors and a few friends remained.
“It sparks memories,” said Abdul-Rauf, who first appeared fully on the national scene 30 years ago, in the midst of a season that saw him set the NCAA freshman scoring record (30.2 ppg) and earn recognition as both the SEC Player of the Year and a First-Team All-American.
Known at the time as Chris Jackson, the dynamic guard went on to duplicate both feats as a sophomore before going on to the NBA, where he would continue to gain notice for his talent and, ultimately, notoriety for his politics.
In the emptying space Monday he stood wearing a sport jacket, an untucked button-down shirt, jeans and white sneakers; his salt and pepper beard serving as the only betrayal of his still youthful appearance.
“There’s a lot of places on campus I just didn’t visit (when I was a student), because I was just so into my own space and so focused on trying to make it into the NBA…I had never been in this room before,” Abdul-Rauf said of the ballroom.
It was a strange to think that there was anywhere that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf hadn’t been, but then again, he has always been on the move. Ever since he left Gulfport, Miss. to make the trip west to Baton Rouge, Abdul-Rauf has been on a journey. For years, that journey created some distance between him and LSU.
As time passed, it seemed as if that distance would remain, keeping one of the greatest athletes to ever wear purple and gold from taking his rightful seat amongst those few who could be called his peers.
A simple phone call was all it took to start figuring out a way to close that distance and bring a member of the Tiger family home.
“I got a phone call from Katrina Dunn (Vice President of the AP Turead Sr. LSU Black Alumni Association),” said LSU AACC director Evante Topp, “and she told me that she went to another one of his speaking engagements at Stanford. We talked about how powerful it would be to bring him to LSU, and that it was time.”
It was time. For whatever reason, neither Abdul-Rauf or the university had done much to bring the two parties together, though both surely have suffered because of it. Topp took the step that others hadn’t, and Abdul-Rauf responded.
“He was actually very open to coming back to LSU, it’s just that no one had reached out to him in that capacity,” Topp added. “We had to be really creative and expand the budget, and we had people who donated. So it showed that there were people who cared about bringing him back, and we just worked diligently since January to make sure that we were able to get him here.”
Even with the invitation extended, Abdul-Rauf had to deal with his conflicted feelings.
“Just coming back on campus gives mixed emotions,” he said. “This is where history was made. I met a lot of good people. I had a lot of good experiences. Of course, not all were great experiences…Nobody wants to made to feel like a piece of meat. You came, and you put in this work, and after it’s over you don’t matter any more, other than if it’s for photo ops. So sometimes when you’re invited, you don’t want to come because you don’t feel that it’s genuine. So, I’m happy to be here. I’m trying to think more of the positive memories and of all of the people here that are supportive, but at the same time you can’t help but think of that side too.”
For their part, many in the LSU community are doing their best to welcome Abdul-Rauf back into the fold. While he may not have known the weight his name and legend still carried, others were continuing to keep them both alive.
“I am so excited,” said Tasmin Mitchell, who ranks third on LSU’s all-time scoring list and helped the Tigers reach the 2006 NCAA Final Four. Currently, he serves as Director of Student-Athlete Development on Will Wade’s staff. “He walked into practice and I doggone near broke my chair trying to say ‘Hey’ to him. I’ve been trying to get in touch with him for a long time, since last year when I got onto the staff, to let him know that we want him to come back here and to be a part of (the program).”
Though his jersey still doesn’t hang from the rafters of the LSU’s Maravich Center, there are number of images from Abdul-Rauf’s playing days around the basketball offices. For Mitchell, the stories of Abdul-Rauf’s legendary work ethic and incredible on-court exploits are still fresh in his memory. He wants today’s Tigers to understand an appreciate that legacy.
“The kids that play nowadays, they don’t really know about him, but I do,” said Mitchell. “I know he was one of the hardest working people in the world of basketball. We know what he used to do. We know he was in there night in, night out, so we wanted to be like that. He’s still an idol of mine and I just appreciate him coming back, and whatever we’ve got to do…we want him there. We embrace him, and he’s well respected around here.”
That respect extends beyond the basketball court. Most of the students that met with Abdul-Rauf know him better for his humanitarian work, which has earned him dozens of awards over the years, including the Sam Lacy Pioneer Award at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists Convention held in New Orleans.
We now live in an era where athletes are making their voices heard on social and political issues at a higher volume than ever before. But when Abdul-Rauf stepped out front in 1996 to talk about systemic racism in America, his stance probably cost him his NBA career and the national recognition his talent deserves. Knowing what he does now, he wouldn’t change his path. He’s made those sacrifices willingly.
“You pay a price when you tell the truth, and you pay a price when you don’t and someone misrepresents you,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I’m not saying I’m perfect with it, but if it’s something that I really believe in, the truth means more to me than what a person thinks. If I feel like saying it, I’m gonna say it, and whatever the consequences are that’s what they’re going to be.”
Two decades later, his willingness to still speak out about the problems he sees in our nation and across the globe continues to inspire.
“I believe him coming back just sheds a light on how big what he did was,” said LSU student Elijah Hanzy III. “When we think today about Colin Kaepernick and what he did and how it was such a dramatic movement; we’re just so much more open minded now. For him to do that 20 years ago, in the political climate our society was in then, it’s just on a different magnitude.”
On the hardwood, he is called “Steph (Curry) before Steph.” Off of it, he is called “Kap before Kap.” No matter the venue, Abdul-Rauf has been a trailblazer, forging his own path and sometimes unsure of the direction it will take him.
The only certainty comes in knowing that the journey will continue. Whatever accolades or criticism that come along the way will take care of themselves.
“We have a saying in Islam that whatever God has for me, nobody can keep it from me, and whatever He doesn’t, no one can give it to me,” said Abdul-Rauf. “So I’m going to go for broke and what’s meant for me is going to happen.”
Hopefully, what’s meant for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a stronger bond with his alma mater and the day when every Tiger fan can look up and see his No. 35 elevated to its proper place in the firmament of LSU’s sports icons.
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David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…