Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is an American success story, but not because he is an American.
Abdul-Rauf once was a skinny kid out of the bayou in Mississippi who had a between-the-legs crossover move that made him the scourge of college basketball during his two seasons at Louisiana State. Then known as Chris Jackson, he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Denver Nuggets in 1990. The expectations were as lofty as his NBA draft position.
He was slow in fulfilling those expectations. And when he and the Nuggets searched for reasons why, they found a big one. Abdul-Rauf was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, a condition that tortures him with ticks and involuntary grunts and barks, as well as compulsive behavior.
But in a world of controlled giants, the little man (6 feet) with Tourette's has not only survived, he has flourished.
It is the kind of breakthrough one has come to expect in a league, such as the NBA, that often has served as a microcosm of what is just in American society. That Abdul-Rauf can function in a circuit alongside a Dennis Rodman and a Steve Scheffler and a Michael Jordan is a triumph of tolerance.
The NBA committed a major turnover, however, when it suspended Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand for the national anthem before games because of his religious beliefs.
"The NBA's rule on this point is very clear," the league's deputy commissioner, Russ Granik, said, "and all our rules apply equally to all our players."
Laughable hypocrisy, that.
The NBA, after all, is the league of the superstar call. It allowed Jordan to keep on playing last spring, even though he flouted its rules by changing his jersey number. It turns an ear when Charles Barkley climbs atop his soap box.
What if it were Hakeem Olajuwon who'd refused? He says he doesn't understand his fellow Muslim's position, but then again Olajuwon is a recently christened U.S. citizen. And a member of Dream Team III, or whatever they're calling the latest NBA-Olympic cash register-ringer.
The pregame national anthem is an odd, tired ritual anyway, not relevant the way it may have been when it began in baseball during World War II. Not standing for Francis Scott Key's ditty isn't the same as not standing for hymns at church. No one is attending a sporting event to worship the flag.
Nor should they be, really.
Standing for the national anthem is not a condition of our citizenry. Nor is worshipping the flag, a piece of fabric that we are allowed to burn if we want, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the NBA commands it, then it is pushing upon us idolatry.
Occasionally, I also do not stand in salute, not because I'm on deadline or too fatigued, but to protest an American policy or faux pas. I have been called a "Commie," or worse, by fans who aren't too busy drinking beer or hurling expletives during the rendition to notice. But protest is a right that I have, courtesy of my citizenship.
When, at age 16, I was forced to renounce my Japanese citizenship, to obtain a U.S. passport, no one ever said anything about pledging unconditional fealty to my country. It has to work both ways, doesn't it? I am a Japanese American in a country that once interned Japanese Americans just because of race. Does anyone forget Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942, by the beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt? I don't.
My daughters are growing up, of Chinese descent, in a country that once renewed a Chinese Exclusion Act. Should I forget this, too? I can't. And people should understand why. If a dog bites you once, the tendency is to be wary of that dog for the rest of its days.
So don't tell me that I should remember what country I live in. I do, all too well. So does Abdul-Rauf. The oppression of which the Denver guard speaks is a well-documented fact of U.S. history.
"I just don't look at Muslim issues, I look at Caucasian America and I look at the African American being oppressed in this country," he told the Rocky Mountain News last week. "And I don't stand for that. I'll never stand for that."
Abdul-Rauf, of course, found a way to reconcile with league rules. He will stand, not out of respect to the flag, but to pray. What he just stood for will not soon be forgotten.
Protest is too often confused by the mainstream with fomentation of outright revolution. It is nothing close. Nobody, Abdul-Rauf included, has turned their back on his country. That Abdul-Rauf was courageous enough to make his point says much about his love for American values.
These, too, are not the '60s, where a Muhammad Ali, John Carlos or Tommie Smith can be ostracized from the sporting public for practicing or expressing religious or political beliefs. Those battles were fought then so a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf could exercise his freedom of expression today.
And thus the NBA capriciously made Abdul-Rauf a scapegoat. There were compromises, of course. But Abdul-Rauf says the league refused to allow him to wait out the anthem in the locker room or, even, in hallways, the way many reporters and even league and team officials do.
By maintaining that it never compromises its rules, the NBA again considers us all fools. It allowed Jordan and Barkley to drape American flags over the corporate logos on their warmups during a medal ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, after all.
Shame on you, David Stern.
For his non-violent act, Abdul-Rauf could have lost $665,847 in salary if he had sat out the rest of the season. That's over six times the highest amount ever levied for fighting. And even the league's most heinous offenders, drug abusers, get three strikes before they're out.
Overreaction? The NBA drove its point right through the heart of one of its players.
"After three-quarters of the season's over, it's interesting that right now the league chose to make a stand," said Bryant Stith, the Nuggets' team captain, "instead of waiting till the end of the season when both parties could sit down and come to an understanding for next season."
Check out the standings. The Nuggets still are in a dogfight for a playoff berth. The league knows that, and it knows Abdul-Rauf would be under intense pressure to find a compromise.
The league, no doubt, also was banking on a young man's love for basketball overcoming a twinge of conscience. That is so insidious.
No matter how Abdul-Rauf's decision came about, it was inevitable. The NBA knew that. And, in the process, the league got to pander once again to the jingoistic corporate set to which it has sold its soul.
Better yet that the NBA forces its players to pay homage before each game to the almighty Dollar.
Speaks of the Week
-- Minnesota's J.R. Rider, on his improved behavior this season: "I'm only different in that I'm trying to be more considerate for my teammates. Sometimes when you're late or you miss a bus or your name's in the paper for a suspension, it takes away from the team's success. Now I'm more aware of that. I'm a pretty smart guy. I know right from wrong. It's just, sometimes, I'm late. Or I'm lazy."
-- Laker forward Elden Campbell, on scoring the basket that led to Magic Johnson's 10,000th career assist: "I can add that to my highlight film. My kids won't believe I ever had any."
Glenn Nelson covers the Seattle SuperSonics and the NBA for the Seattle Times. Some of the information contained in this piece was obtained with the assistance of reporters in other NBA cities.