Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ex-NBA star Abdul-Rauf writes about not standing for the national anthem in new book


Two decades before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner," it was former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf whose career and life dramatically changed after he refused to stand for the national anthem. In his new memoir, "In The Blink Of An Eye," he tells of his drive and success in the sport, but that his principles came first.

MAHMOUD ABDUL-RAUF: Reading history and knowing what had happened to the likes of Muhammad Ali and John Carlos and Tommie Smith and all of these others, I knew that this was not going to end well as long as I continued to articulate the things that I'm articulating. But I was good with that.

MARTÍNEZ: The year was 1996, and Abdul-Rauf's coach called him into his office. If his actions didn't change, he was told, he would have to leave the arena.

ABDUL-RAUF: I was so green, I'd never been suspended for anything in my life. So I'm thinking there has to be some type of active legislation. They have to go through a process. And I said, well, can I go get dressed? He says, no. I said, I'm suspended right now? He said, yes. I said, well, can I go get dressed and go out into the arena and support the team? He says, no, they want you off the premises. I said, no problem. And so I went and I informed the team that I'm on my way home, and they look perplexed.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, to be clear, you had already not been standing or acknowledging the national anthem for a while before this, right? So, I mean, when - were you under the impression that - why are people making a big deal about this when I've been doing this for a while?

ABDUL-RAUF: Yes, I was definitely under that impression. I didn't see it as a big deal. And maybe four to six months - the previous season, give or take, I had not been standing for the flag. And so when it was brought to me - and actually it was brought to me by an assistant GM named Todd Eley. He said that some reporter had noticed that I hadn't been standing, and would I be willing to give an interview? And I'm like, no problem. I'll talk to anybody. And then once he captured the interview, that's when it blew out of proportion.

MARTÍNEZ: And just to be clear, what was your stance on the American flag? What were you not standing for?

ABDUL-RAUF: Well, I began to read a lot and come across a lot of authors - the Noam Chomsky - he's the - you know, Arundhati Roys and so many others. And just the things that I was coming across, I didn't know. So, you know, I began to develop a conscience. And the fact that I became a Muslim also, and we're taught in so many ways that you can't be for God and oppression at the same time. And I began to view the American flag, with what I was reading, you know, with just - not just domestic but foreign policy that it was against my belief system, and it was against my principles. And so I didn't want to acknowledge that symbol that represented that.

MARTÍNEZ: How bad did the backlash get?

ABDUL-RAUF: When I started to go to different arenas, there was a lot of name-calling and - but I can't remember specifically what was said. It wasn't good. But I will say this - when I went back to Denver, I didn't hear not one derogatory thing. I didn't hear one boo from the crowd when I entered the arena. And I think a part of it was because in Denver, I'm constantly in the streets, right? Whether at basketball camps, whether it'd be going to businesses, I'm approachable. And I think the people in Denver knew that. And so I think when I came back home, the people were like, you know what, we see this guy every day. We see how he is. You know, the image that you're portraying, assassinating his character the way you are, this is not who we see.

And people disagree. I mean, they have a right to disagree. But what - oftentimes what they don't think about is that stand - it wasn't just about Black and white, about racial inequality. It was just injustices, period. I don't care where it is. And, you know, this country, for example - they don't - there's this talk about even the military. This is for a lot of them, too, because they go and fight, and they say, oh, you made the ultimate sacrifice. But many military people can't even get health care. They're homeless. But this is how you treat people that have given the ultimate sacrifice. A lot of them didn't even realize it - look, this is for you. There's injustices related to you too, whoever you are.

MARTÍNEZ: Your book is published under the Colin Kaepernick publishing label. And you know what? When he was kneeling during the national anthem a few years ago, all I could think of was what you might have been thinking about it - what you were feeling as you were seeing it happen. I mean, what was going through your head and heart as you were watching Colin Kaepernick go through what he went through?

ABDUL-RAUF: I said, he's getting ready to go through it - you know, the same thing I went through, if not worse. Everything that I saw for the most part with him I experienced - you know, the death threats, the, you know, condemning him, saying, you know, shut up and dribble type of thing or, you know, he shouldn't, you know - who is he? Right? What does he know type of thing. And then the decreasing of the minutes - right? - not playing him. I'm like, wow, that's very similar to what I went through. And I remember when we talked the first time in that little private meeting, he said something that resonated with me, and that's the way I felt. He said, this is the most free I've ever felt in my life. I said, I understand exactly what you're saying.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, I think about when Muhammad Ali decided to protest the Vietnam War. And it becomes, I think, framed as part of the larger civil rights movement. And Colin Kaepernick too - that when he kneeled, it was framed as a part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement and what was going on at that time. When you did what you did - I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, Mahmoud, but you were alone. I mean, there was no larger movement that I remember that this could be shared with when we think back on it historically. I mean, how do you think that context factors into how we remember this?

ABDUL-RAUF: You know, I hear sometimes people say, hey, man, when you did it, it was tougher. I said, listen, we can always go back. They say, yeah, Mahmoud, but when you did it, it was tough. But when Muhammad Ali did it, it was tough. Hey, Muhammad Ali, when you did it, it was tough. But when Paul Robeson did it, it was tough. We can always do that. But when it's all said and done, I'm like, man, somebody has to do it. People come up and they say, man, when you first did what you did, I thought you were crazy, and I didn't see it. And some will say, you were before your time. And some will say, man, I want to apologize to you because I didn't see it. And now I do, and I feel this way. I get it. And so I'm just - you know, let's take that momentum. And then wherever you are, you try to make a change with it now that you see. And you speak up, and you - do whatever you can, you know, within your abilities to do it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. His autobiography is titled "In The Blink Of An Eye." Thanks a lot for your time.

ABDUL-RAUF: Thank you even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "COOL DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.