OF ALL the rockets' red glare in all the gym joints in all the
world, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had to walk into hers.
As it was, 16-year-old Suzanne Shields of St. Ignatius College
Prep in Chicago was scared enough. She had been scared for a
month, ever since the Chicago Bulls told the soprano they loved
her demo tape and she could sing the national anthem a cappella
on March 15 at the United Center. Nothing major. Not the
playoffs, not the Orlando Magic, not Dennis Rodman Lingerie
Night. Just an average game with the Denver Nuggets.
But then the Abdul-Rauf caved in.
All season Abdul-Rauf, the Nuggets' slick-shooting, joyless
point guard and a devout Muslim, had staged his own disjointed
protest against the playing of the national anthem before NBA
games. Some nights he would listen with his hands in his
pockets. Some, he would stretch. Some, he would stay in the
locker room. "The flag represents tyranny and oppression," he
said, adding that standing for the anthem was a form of
nationalistic worship forbidden by his religion.
March 25, 1996
But after he started sitting down for what he believes in--and
after Nuggets fans made a cause celebre of his
practice--Abdul-Rauf on March 12 became the highest-profile U.S.
pro athlete ever suspended over a song. Emotional debate ensued
over whether Abdul-Rauf had a right to boycott the anthem.
The controversy set up an ideological slam-dunk contest, with
the ACLU and the NBA players' union taking Abdul-Rauf's side and
most Americans who were polled taking the other. One fevered
caller to a Denver talk show said, "If he doesn't like it here,
why don't they deport his butt back to the country he came
Initially, Abdul-Rauf seemed intractable. "If I have to, I'll
give up basketball," he said. Immediately, he was pounded by
fellow Muslims. "The Muslim teaching is to obey and respect,"
said Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon. "To be a good Muslim
is to be a good citizen." Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Abdul-Rauf to
reconsider his stance. Mohammed Jodeh, head of political affairs
for the Colorado Muslim Society, declared that Abdul-Rauf's
position contradicted Islamic teaching.
After he had missed the Nuggets' March 12 home game with the
Orlando Magic and forfeited $31,707, or 1/82 of his $2.6 million
salary, Abdul-Rauf rethought his position. Last Thursday he
decided he would stand for the anthem the next night in Chicago
but pray during it "for those who are suffering." While
explaining his decision on ESPN that afternoon, he asked
rhetorically, "Am I sorry for it? Do I feel I'm wrong for doing
what I did? No." Would he lose any money in the deal? No. The
Nuggets would pay the $31,707.
"See, the Almighty was served," said one Denverite. "The
And so it was that Abdul-Rauf stepped off the team bus last
Thursday night at the Chicago Westin Hotel to the bright lights
of nine minicams and a man warbling the anthem, Francis Scott
Off-Key. Suzanne's star-spangled banner debut the next night
would be the most talked about since Roseanne's.
"She looks like she's about to throw up," said the Bulls
employee who was watching over Suzanne before her introduction
on Friday night. In the Nuggets' locker room, guard Bryant Stith
actually said, "We're just trying to get through this next
anthem." Tim Marshall, one of the participants in the scheduled
halftime wheelchair basketball game, said, "Tell you what, I'd
stand if I could."
In the sold-out crowd there were 10 signs asking Rodman to throw
them any article of clothing for every placard asking Abdul-Rauf
to leave the country. What was most in evidence were U.S.
flags--little ones, big ones, people wearing them like shawls.
"This guy's making $3 million a year," asked Bulls fan Chuck
Place, whose wife, Merri, was draped in a flag, "and he's
oppressed?" (Of course, Abdul-Rauf's supporters point out you
don't have to be oppressed to be sympathetic to the oppressed.)
Finally, it was time. The United Center public address announcer
said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand [pause] for the
playing of our national anthem." Abdul-Rauf jumped up from tying
his shoes and stood in line with his teammates.
Never in your life have you seen so many people in their seats
five minutes to tip-off. Never have you seen so many players
standing perfectly still and straight. Never have you seen so
many hats doffed, so many hands over hearts, heard so many
voices trying to reach those high G's. Somewhere, you just knew
a scoutmaster was crying.
From the beginning the fans cheered in tribute to the anthem,
drowning out poor Suzanne. "I didn't hear any of it," said the
Bulls' Michael Jordan, who, for the first time in his life,
stood unnoticed in a room with 23,692 people.
All eyes were on Abdul-Rauf, who clenched his eyes tightly,
cupped his hands six inches in front of his face and stayed that
way despite being bombarded by photographers' strobes. Finally,
about the time Suzanne hit "free," he took his hands and wiped
them down his gaunt, goateed face.
"I thought the point of the anthem was to face the flag," said
Denver forward Reggie Williams afterward. "It seemed to me
everybody was facing Mahmoud."
And that was that. It was one of those rare times when
sportswriters could have typed their leads before player
introductions. In fact, as Chicago jumped ahead 9-0, the guys
who update the standings could have gotten a head start too. The
Bulls would win their 39th straight at home, 108-87.
Abdul-Rauf was booed halfheartedly every time he touched the
ball. He nearly shot that often, too, but played well enough,
scoring 19 points. "He's a good kid," said Jordan. "He's got his
beliefs, and I may not agree with them, but I give him all the
credit for trying to stick to them."
Did you hear the boos, someone asked Abdul-Rauf? "No, I was
thinking of my Creator," came the reply.
As for Suzanne, after she finished singing, she got a hug from
her mother and some pink back in her face. "Imagine," Mom
gushed. "All those cameras, all those cheers. Just for my little