With the San Antonio Spurs looking to deliver the fifth title of the Tim Duncan era, I remain perplexed at people who can’t appreciate their excellence. There are many who would rather see Blake Griffin or Russell Westbrook soaring through the air and attacking the rim against the Heat in this year’s NBA Finals, which until further notice, should be called the Miami Invitational, as opposed to the ball movement, cutting, screening and pick-and-rolls of Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili.
But those folks must not understand the true beauty of the way basketball is meant to be played.
In San Antonio, we’re being treated to one of the greatest collectives that the game has seen in modern history: awe-inspiring in their spacing, synergy, execution and passing in the same way that the Lakers and Celtics of the ‘80s and Bulls of the ‘90s were.
I’m chomping at the bit for Game 8 to tip off on Thursday night, because in essence, the first game of the 2014 Finals will be a continuation of the great seven-game championship series that we witnessed last year.
As I deal with my hoops withdrawal until Game 1, and struggle like Pookie after Scotty put him in rehab in New Jack City, my mind has been wandering to this concept of under-appreciation.
Greatness can arrive in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes, it’s simply in a singular skill set. Or encapsulated in one game. Or a series. In the case of Philadelphia 76’er legend Andrew Toney, aka The Boston Stangler, it’s an isolated sample of four years.
For some, like the game’s greats, the Bill Russell’s, the Michael Jordan’s, the Magic’s and Bird’s, the Shaq’s, Kobe’s and LeBron’s, their reign at the crescendo is long and loud enough to escape being ignored. For others, the view from the mountaintop is all too brief.
For Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, his extraordinary body of work during his two remarkable seasons at Louisiana State University was enough to tickle the memories of those who witnessed it for a lifetime.
With an arsenal that included an impeccable handle, more mesmerizing shakes than a fervent Amber Rose twerk, an insane vertical leap, an underrated assist game that was overshadowed by his prolific scoring, lightning hands that thieved like Bernie Madoff and a hiccup-quick release on his jump shot that was as dependable as a dramatic paternity test on Maury, Mahmoud did more than simply dazzle.
At birth, he was named Chris Wayne Jackson, a child of poverty in Gulfport, Mississippi. The city’s white sand beaches betray the relentless hopelessness that simmers underneath the region’s oppressive heat. Less than 20% of Gulfport residents own a college degree, as the median income level lags far behind the remainder of the country.
As a child, with a basketball and a dream, he isolated himself from the unpleasantries that suffocated and snuffed out the dreams of many within his circumference. He played from dusk to dawn, shooting for hours on end.
“I had the ball five seconds…four…three,” Mahmoud told Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick. “If I missed, I’d go back to one second left. I’d always pretend I had the quickest defensive man in the world on me to see how fast I could get the shot off.”
His mom, Jacqueline, was a single mother of three boys who often escaped into the abyss of alcohol. Working in the cafeteria of the Veterans Administration hospital in nearby Biloxi, she struggled from paycheck to paycheck.
Chris and his brothers, Omar and David, were not accustomed to three meals a day, often making due with syrup sandwiches and sugar water. At times, Chris consumed coffee in place of a nutritious meal.
He failed the fourth grade and by the time he reached junior high school, was placed in Special Education classes. He suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, which was then undiagnosed, a nueropsychiatric disorder that is characterized by extreme physical and verbal tics.
Sitting in class, he struggled through agonizing bouts as his neck snapped, jaw clenched and eyes blinked uncontrollably. Without provocation, strange sounds jumped out of his mouth.
“It took all of my power just to not twitch or yell out,” Abdul-Rauf told Robert Sanchez of 5280 Magazine. “I’d sit there and pray, ‘God, don’t let me move, please don’t let me move.”
Within the sanctuary of the basketball court, alone, he’d imagine being on the wrong end of hard fouls, then stationing himself at the charity stripe. He trained methodically, which was a byproduct of his Tourette’s.
He practiced skills over and over, often setting unrealistic goals, until everything felt perfect. The feel of the dribble, the way the ball left his fingertips on passes, the arc of the ball on the jumper – it all had to be flawless.
“Sometimes, it would get so cold outside, but I refused to leave,” Abdul-Rauf told Sanchez. “I dribbled the ball around, shot from the outside, the inside. Step in, then back and POW!, nail that shot. But it was so cold, I’d start shivering. My hands would freeze and it hurt to move them. After I was done, I’d dribble the ball home, through the legs, around the back. Keep the defender off me. Dribble down the street, people trying to sell you marijuana – ‘Hey boy, try this’ – ignore them, keep dribbling that ball. Don’t let it get away. Head up.”
In high school, that meticulous preparation spawned an athletic prodigy. Prior to Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson’s recent emergence at Lanier and Prentiss High Schools, Abdul-Rauf was recognized, bar none, as the greatest prep basketball player in Mississippi’s history.
On the court, the Tourette’s blended seamlessly into the game’s persistent motion, the uproar of packed gymnasiums and chirping of ref’s whistles. While only a diminutive high school freshman, Louisville was the first of many big time programs that came offering scholarships. By the time he made his college debut during the 1988-’89 season, the rest of the country learned what aficionados down south had already known – the lil’ fella was a hoops genius. A scoring machine. A revelation!!!
In his third college game, he scored 48 points against Louisiana Tech. Two games later, he dropped 53 on Florida, which set the NCAA freshman record.
He scored 15 of his team’s final 17 points against Maryland and 16 of the Tigers’ final points against Kentucky. Against Tennessee, he scored 50. FIDDY!!!
In January, more than 54,000 people showed up at the Louisiana Superdome to watch him play against Georgetown. It was one of the most highly-anticipated, regular season games in NCAA history.
Mahmoud scored 26 that day in the 82-80 victory, in front of what was, at the time, the largest live college basketball audience in history. Coach John Thompson’s vaunted Hoyas defense threw everything at Mahmoud, to no avail.
“I never knew which way Chris was going,” then standout freshman and defensive wunderkind Alonzo Mourning told Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated. “He puts you in a triple threat position. You don’t know whether he’s pulling up to shoot or to pass, or whether he’ll keep driving inside or what. Then, which side. Where? He’s everywhere. Give him one step and it’s over. And I think he’s the best shooter in the country.”
With the game tied at 80 in the closing seconds, Mahmoud slithered through a triple-team to make the pass. Although Mourning blocked Russell Grant’s shot, Ricky Blanton corralled the loose ball and made the game-winning layup.
“I wanted Chris to take that last shot, but I didn’t tell him he’d get gang guarded,” former L.S.U. coach Dale Brown told Sports Illustrated. “I knew he’d get out of that trap, though. They locked up Houdini, and he got out, didn’t he. Chris dances. He skates. He evaporates. It’s like Shazam!”
Georgetown’s Dwayne Bryant could only shake his head after the game.
“Jackson lulls you to sleep by drifting around with the ball,” Bryant said. “Then he explodes. He’s the next great college player.”
The element that added even more magnificence to his freshman season was that the remainder of that luminous recruiting class – Stanley Roberts, Maurice Williamson and Harold Boudreaux – were Proposition 48 casualties that had to sit out the season due to not attaining the required standardized test scores in high school.
So, in the finest season ever put together by a freshman in the illustrious history of college basketball, Mahmoud singlehandedly elevated his team to his own spectacular level. He reminded many of another L.S.U. legend, the incomparable Pistol Pete Maravich.
Illinois’ Kendall Gill called him, “the best guard I’ve ever played against.”
He surpassed Fly Williams’ NCAA freshman scoring record by averaging 30.2 points per game. After a similar sophomore campaign, he decided to turn pro after the bathroom sink collapsed in his dilapidated Gulfport home while washing his hands.
Mahmoud, who’d been named a first-team All-American for both of his college seasons, was selected with the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA draft behind Derrick Coleman and Gary Payton.
As a rookie with the Denver Nuggets, he injured his foot and gained 30 pounds. His 14 point average, followed by an abysmal 10 points per game the next year, labeled him a bust.
But off the court, his world was expanding. Never one to live the “Blame It On The Ahkahol…” lifestyle, he read vociferously while his NBA cohorts reveled in debauchery. He built himself a library of Malcolm X’s speeches and texts.
He converted to Islam, changed his name, which in Arabic means “elegant and praiseworthy, most merciful, most kind”. He purchased a run-down crack house and built a mosque in his hometown. But he soon found that the world was not as welcoming to him anymore.
“I was laughed at by so many people,” he told Sanchez. “They just wanted the boy to dribble the damn ball. Don’t open your mouth, just dribble that ball. Don’t question anyone, just dribble that ball.”
With his spiritual journey in motion and his mind at ease, he lost 30 pounds, hit the courts for nine hours a day and came back to average 19 points per game in his third pro season, winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. He led the Nuggets in scoring again the next year.
During the ‘95 season Mahmoud advised the Nuggets that he would no longer stand for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. He said that recognizing the flag would be his participation in “a blindly patriotic nation ignoring its ignominious past.” In his eyes, to do so would be a sin.
The league handled it discreetly and for a while, Mahmoud’s silent protest was hardly noticed. He would stretch in the tunnel, then jog onto the court after the song had been played and join his teammates.
But when he found himself on the court in March and the national anthem came on, he sat down. And all hell broke loose. The hate mail poured in. He reached a compromise where he would remain standing, yet pray during the anthem.
He got booed mercilessly, was traded twice, than unceremoniously kicked to the curb of obscurity.
Mahmoud finished up his playing career three years ago in Japan. In 2001, his 6,600 square-foot Gulfport home was vandalized and burned down.
He was castigated for being an ungrateful, young millionaire who didn’t appreciate being granted access to the American Dream.
“It only becomes the American Dream when more people are able to do it, when the disparity between the rich and the poor is lessened,” he told Sanchez. “Just because I can do it doesn’t make it a dream. The American Dream is when it’s fair. I know what it’s like to not have health care, to be starving when I’m in my house. Just because I made it, don’t think that it was because of America’s kindheartedness that I did it. I struggled every damn day of my life.”
Mahmoud was a savant, a basketball genius whose otherworldly exploits amazed even long-time observers and connoisseurs.
How good was he?
He was the only individual who ever played on the same team with Shaquille O’Neal – they were teammates on the 1989-’90 L.S.U. Tigers during Shaq’s freshman year – and overshadowed him!
At a mere 5-foot-10, 165-pounds soaking wet, he was the true definition of mercurial, the greatest freshman to ever play college ball and a dynamic, yet underappreciated talent who is never spoken of with the reverence that he deserves.