He cannot help himself. The stove burner is hot. He reaches out his right hand, feels the heat rising up from the burner and—flick—touches it. And again. And again. He will not stop until the touch feels perfect.
He cannot stop himself. He has been tying his shoes for 10 minutes now. One shoelace must not touch the other before it is time. Can't have that. He is frustrated from doing it over and over again. There were times as a boy when he would be in tears over this. It's not his choice. It's the way it must be. The laces must feel perfect.
He cannot understand himself. He has been trying to leave the gym floor for the last 45 minutes. He is exhausted. He is gasping for breath. There are two more practices tomorrow, but still he keeps on. He must swish 10 straight shots before he leaves. And not just any swish. The net must snap perfectly. If even one doesn't swish to his absolute satisfaction, he must start over. He will shoot until they all feel perfect.
Every day, every minute, every second, Tourette's syndrome messes with Chris Jackson's life. "Man, there are some days I get to practice and I'm beat," he says. "I'm fighting myself all morning. Getting dressed, I'm tucking in my shirt for 10 minutes. I have to. If I don't, I'll feel crooked out there. Tying my shoes, and touching everything. People just don't know."
November 15, 1993
And yet without Tourette's, even he admits he would not be where he is today.
Chris Jackson was 17 before he was found to have Tourette's syndrome, a genetic disorder of the neurochemicals in the brain that fully affects approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. and may affect as many as 1 in 1,500 to a lesser degree. Until then folks in his neighborhood in Gulfport, Miss., just thought he was a little peculiar, touching things all the time, whooping uncontrollably, jerking and rolling his eyes and doing weird things like clicking his seat belt in and out, over and over, until the sound felt perfect.
Hell, his family was a little peculiar anyhow, wasn't it? Hadn't his uncle Crazy Willy shot himself in the head? Something odd in the blood?
The son of a white man and a black hospital cafeteria worker, Jacqueline Jackson, Chris was the middle of his mother's three boys, all three conceived with different men. Was it a strain of Tourette's that made Jacqueline do the crazy things she did? Like hiding behind Chris's bedroom door and scaring him half to death. Or often traveling halfway to work and then doubling back to check if a door was locked or the oven turned off, things she had already checked 10 times that day. She had a perfectly good bed she rarely slept in; instead, she slept on the couch or on the floor. Even later, when Chris bought her the best bed money could buy, she wouldn't sleep in it.
Until Chris was in junior high school, doctors thought he had epilepsy and prescribed huge pills. But the pills made him sick, so he would pretend to take them and then hide them in the bricks behind the washing machine at home.
Whatever it was inside his head, it scared him. One day when he was in junior high school, he stood at the mirror and watched as his shoulders gave 100-volt-like jerks as his eyes blinked and rolled, as his head flicked to the side, over and over again. "God, help me stop," he prayed. But he could not stop. Shoulder. Eyes. Head. Repeat and repeat. He stood there and cried. And he cried himself to sleep.
Whatever it was, it tortured him. If he had been outside for two hours in the broiling sun and he wanted to get off the court for an hour, the Tourette's wouldn't let him. A car might be waiting. Friends would be mad. He might be in tears, yet he would still shoot. The ritual must be served. "It's a weird feeling," he says. "I want to leave. But it won't let me. It keeps me there." It. To Jackson, the Tourette's must have felt like a demon.
It's funny what turns some people into stars. Some are driven to stardom by obsessive parents. Some are driven to it by a competitive will. Chris Jackson was driven to it by a chemical disorder of the brain.
In the same way Tourette's makes him open and close the refrigerator door over and over until it feels perfect, in the same way it makes him set a water glass down on a restaurant table repeatedly until it feels perfect, Tourette's made him shoot and shoot and shoot until his shot felt perfect. And before long, it nearly was.
At Gulfport High he was Mississippi Player of the Year for two seasons straight. At LSU he was an instant legend. He led the SEC in scoring as a freshman and rang up an NCAA freshman-record 55 points in one game. He was stove-burner hot. LSU coach Dale Brown said he had been touched by God. Alonzo Mourning, then of Georgetown, called him "the best shooter in the nation." When Jackson left school after two seasons, the Denver Nuggets snatched him up with the third pick in the 1990 NBA draft, after which ex-Nugget coach Doug Moe said the 6'1" Jackson looked like a mini Michael Jordan.
That is why it was such a shock when Jackson turned out to be such a complete and utter disaster.
One: He was out of shape. Friends and coaches had told him he needed to bulk up to play guard in the pros. So he ate a lot and worked out little. He left LSU at 169 pounds, but he came to Denver a flabby 185. Big mistake. He was so slow and fat that then Nugget coach Paul West-head got out a tape of LSU's game with Westhead's old Loyola Marymount team. "I swear," says Westhead, "it didn't look like the same guy."
Two: His feet were killing him. Born with an extra bone near each ankle, Jackson frequently nursed sprains. Doctors told him he needed to have the bones removed, but he chose to suffer until the end of the season.
Three: Nobody in the NBA was quite sure how to deal with the bundle of exposed ganglia that he was. The NBA had never had an acknowledged Tourette's sufferer. In fact, there was only one other athlete in all of U.S. pro sports who had openly discussed his Tourette's—Jim Eisenreich, currently of the Philadelphia Phillies.
There are reasons that their numbers are few in pro sports. For instance, being around a person even moderately affected with Tourette's can wear you out. Jackson cries "Whoops!" all the time. The more excited he is, the more he involuntarily "Whoops!" Often, when out and about, he will whoop a large whoop and some woman will turn and look at him, and he will have to say politely, "No, no, sister. I don't want you." The disorder can make him do things that are outrageously, if involuntarily, inappropriate. At LSU, in the first week that he knew his wife-to-be, Kim House, his elbow snapped involuntarily, and he touched her breast. "That was a mistake," he said.
"Some nights I'd sit next to him," says Nugget teammate Reggie Williams, "and he'd hit me. He doesn't even know he's doing it, but he'd just keep hitting me. I had to ice my arm."
Likable as he is, conversations with Jackson can be monster calorie burners. When someone else starts a sentence, he will involuntarily blurt out, "Uh-huh!" He will repeat what you say to distraction.
Him: "So, is this going to be a good article?"
You: "... what could be negative?"
Him: "What could be negative?"
You: "...what could be negative?"
Him: "What could be negative?"
Him: "I don't know."
Once, at a function with the governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, Jackson was sitting in a chair behind the dais and loosed an "Uh-huh!" and a "Whoop!" in the middle of Romer's speech. Romer, unaware of Jackson's affliction, turned politely and said, "Chris, would you like to add something?"
Twice, NBA referees have given Jackson technicals for nothing more than his usual involuntary facial or verbal tics. "He'd be in team meetings," says friend Alan Levitt, president of the greater Washington, D.C., chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association, "and the coach [Westhead] would start to say something, and Chris would holler out a big 'Uh-huh!' I think Westhead took it as very sarcastic. Even some of the players thought he was putting Westhead down."
"I don't think many of us knew what it was," says Williams. "I think a lot of guys might have thought he was arrogant or just being mean."
There was confusion. People in the Nugget front office hinted to reporters that Jackson's medication (Prozac and Prolixin) was not the right dosage for Denver's altitude. "Just an excuse," Jackson says. "My dosage has never changed since LSU." There was talk that West-head's experience with the tragic 1990 death of his Loyola Marymount player Hank Gathers—a negligence suit brought against Westhead was ultimately dropped in March 1992—had kept the coach from using Jackson. "No," says Westhead, now the coach at George Mason University. "I thought Chris was a terrific young man. But I play who can help you win."
In the shape he was in at the start of the '90 season, Jackson couldn't have helped a four-corners offense win, much less Westhead's hyperspace contraption. So Jackson got fewer minutes than the nightly weatherman. The coach and the player didn't talk much. "It was personal," says Jackson. "I will take it no other way."
The second year was worse. Although he had the foot operation in April 1991 and recovered well, he got fewer minutes and had fewer friends. "Chris just kind of kept to himself," says Nugget teammate Marcus Liberty. "He stayed in his room." Jackson blames his reclusive existence on his playing difficulties. Dan Issel, then the Nuggets' TV color man and now their coach, once said, "If Chris came in the game and missed his first two or three shots, he wasn't going to play the rest of the night." In fact, in the last game of the '91-92 season, with Westhead about to get the pink slip, Westhead kept Jackson on the bench the entire game, as if to say, You're firing the wrong guy.
Through it all Jackson never ever wavered. "I know my day will come," he told his mother.
And, quickflash, it did.
Over the summer of 1992, with his first chance to really work on his conditioning, he lost 32 pounds, working out alone in two three-hour sessions per day, shooting 600 times a day, plus god-knows-how-many times to finish his ritual. And he got a repeat chance. And nobody loves to repeat like Jackson. Westhead was out; Issel was in. "The slate's clean," Issel told him. "Every starting job is open."
Last season, under Issel's kinder hand and more conventional offense, Jackson bloomed. He won his starting job during training camp, made a 55-footer at the buzzer to beat the Los Angeles Clippers on the road early in the year and went on to lead the Nuggets in scoring (19.2 points per game) and free throw percentage (.935). He also made his last 59 free throws and began this season with a string of eight more. (Minnesota Timberwolf Micheal Williams holds the alltime record of 95 straight and counting.)
Suddenly he seemed a new man. He even joked about his disorder. ("Man, I got a bad case tonight," he said one night in what had been a nervous locker room.) He took over some of the leadership of the team. "He came out of his shell," says guard Reggie Williams.
And, as nobody on earth could have predicted, Jackson was voted Most Improved Player in the NBA for the '92-93 season.
Actually he did not just seem a new man, he was one. He converted to Islam in 1991, adopting the name Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, meaning "praiseworthy, merciful and kind." This July it became his legal name ("See, it's on my license," he says proudly).
Islam "is the perfect religion for him," says Kim, and she might be right. Like Tourette's, Islam demands a quest for perfection. Prayers are repeated five times a day. Nothing must be wasted. Abdul-Rauf is known for holding on to uneaten sandwiches and muffins to give away to needy strangers. He has already made his pilgrimage to Mecca, his haji. There he saw people sleeping in the streets, standing in the sun for long hours and feeding strangers. There was only one problem. "I didn't suffer enough," he says. "I want to go back this year and really suffer." Got to do it over until it feels perfect.
Not that her husband's conversion has been easy for Kim, who is Catholic. He no longer wants to celebrate Christmas. Suddenly she is being told to "lower your gaze and guard your modesty," as the Koran advises women, every time she wears something cut much below the neckline.
Says Abdul-Rauf, "A lot of things are not willing to be done." Against her wishes they have filed for divorce.
Still, the Nuggets' love affair with Abdul-Rauf goes on. "I didn't think it was possible," said Issel in the first days of training camp this season at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, "but Mahmoud looks like he's in even better shape this year than last." He came to camp at 154, one pound below his weight at the start of his senior season in high school. "I feel so quick," he says. "I feel quicker than I did in high school."
With Abdul-Rauf forcing defenses to chase him all over the Denver metropolitan area, the Nuggets' frontline stars—center Dikembe Mutombo and second-year forward LaPhonso Ellis—should have more space and large years this season. The Nuggets might just be the surprise team in the league, and Abdul-Rauf, if you can find his name on the ballot, might just make his first All-Star team. "He doesn't look like he's going to be happy with what he did last year," says Issel with a smile.
But how could he? Shots were missed. Some didn't even swish. Can't have that. It just won't let him. "No, thanks," says Abdul-Rauf. "It's got to get perfect."