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20 Years Before Colin Kaepernick, This NBA Star Protested During the National Anthem

5 minute read

In 2016, the year that then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice, Kaepernick met with former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the Bay Area. Abdul-Rauf may have been the only other athlete on the planet who knew exactly what Kaepernick was going through.

Back in the 1990s Abdul-Rauf, the leading scorers for the Denver Nuggets, declined to stand for the anthem at NBA games. He called the flag a symbol of “tyranny and oppression.” The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for a game: he agreed to stand during the “Star Spangled Banner,” but bowed his head and held his hands in prayers during the song. His actions inspired criticism. Denver traded Abdul-Rauf after the 1995-1996 season; he was soon out of the league.

So it made sense for the pair to huddle during that tumultuous time for Kaepernick. “I’m very adamant that when I talk to an athlete, particularly a Black athlete, that I never approach things from a position of giving advice,” Abdul-Rauf, who’s written an engrossing new autobiography, In The Blink of an Eye, with journalist and author Nick Chiles. “Because there’s this notion of, ‘he’s being influenced.’ Like it couldn’t possibly come from his own mind.” So they talked, casually, about their experiences, for about an hour. “But he did say something that was a major takeaway for me,” says Abdul-Rauf. “He said, ‘this the most free I’ve ever felt in my life.'”

After his own anthem protest, Abdul-Rauf says he felt a similar freedom. Now he’s sharing his story in full, in a book released by Kaepernick Publishing, the former-NFL quarterback’s own imprint. The book traces Abdul-Rauf’s childhood in Gulfport, Miss., where he grew up poor and surrounded by a few unsavory characters who tried to exploit his exceptional basketball talent. In college, Abdul-Rauf set an NCAA scoring record as a freshman at LSU that still holds, averaging 30.2 points per game. After he teamed with Shaquille O’Neal as a sophomore, Abdul-Rauf left LSU for the NBA. Denver picked him third overall in the 1990 draft, but Abdul-Rauf, who also has Tourette Syndrome, struggled during his first few seasons. In the 1994 NBA playoffs, however, his Nuggets became the first No. 8 seed to topple a No. 1-seed, as Denver shocked the Seattle Supersonics, who finished that year with the best record in the NBA.

In 1991, Abdul-Rauf “reverted” to Islam. “In Islam, we don’t use the term conversion because we believe to submit to Islam is to return to our natural state,” Abdul-Rauf writes in In The Blink of An Eye. In 1993, he changed his name from Chris Jackson to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

In the historic arc of sports activism, Abdul-Rauf occupied a lonely, sometimes forgotten space between the civil rights icons of the late 1960s—Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell—and the modern wave of activism reacting to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, George Floyd, and other Black Americans. Back in Abdul-Rauf’s athletic prime, in the 1990s, a different ethos—most famously articulated by Michael Jordan—was prevalent. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” Jordan said, explaining his refusal to endorse Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in his 1990 Senate race against incumbent Jesse Helms, whose career was marked by repeated charges of racism. (Helms prevailed). “You’re always encouraged to stay away from certain topics,” says Abdul-Rauf. “Just stick to basketball. It’s very offensive. Because it’s not good for business, right? Even though it’s terrible for life.”

Another NBA guard, Chicago Bulls reserve Craig Hodges, wore a dashiki to a White House ceremony after Chicago’s 1991 title. There, he handed a White House official a letter in which Hodges urged Bush to show more concern for the African American community. Hodges played one more season in the NBA, and he believes he was blackballed.

Abdul-Rauf says he was protesting a host of social ills—that still persist today—when he sat for the anthem. Among them was health care inequality. “You have a country that’s supposed to be so exceptional, right, and have all of this wealth, but yet you have millions of people without health care,” says Abdul-Rauf. “You have two difficult choices. Pay for my mortgage or pay for my house.”

The negative reaction to Kaepernick’s protests in 2016 did not surprise Abdul-Rauf. (Kaepernick hasn’t played another down of NFL football since that 2016 season). The same sort of rejection, says Abdul-Rauf, happened to him. “I knew he was getting ready to get it,” says Abdul-Rauf. “I know how it works. There’s a discrediting campaign. Let’s not play him. And after a while it’s like, can he still play? So it justifies making decisions. And I’m watching the all play out and it’s like, boy, this looks familiar.”

After playing a season in Turkey in 1999 and sitting out the 2000 season, Adbul-Rauf returned to the NBA, with the Vancouver Grizzlies, for the 2000-2001 campaign. He was 31 at the time. But in December of 2001, he gave an interview with HBO Real Sports suggesting that 9/11 could have been an inside job. Indulging in the conspiracy theory during the interview, Abdul-Rauf writes in his book, “turned out to be the fatal blow to my NBA career,” though he says his skepticism hasn’t changed.

Abdul-Rauf insists he has few regrets. He recalls a conversation he had years back with Harry Edwards, the famed sports sociologist and activist who helped organize the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. “He said, you know, Mahmoud, when Muhammad Ali took his stand, it was in the framework of a movement, the Black Power movement,” says Abdul-Rauf. “When Kaepernick took his stand, it was in the framework of the Black Lives Matter movement. With you and Craig Hodges, you all were in an ocean by yourselves.”

He’s far from alone now.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com