Far From His Flock Grizzlies reserve guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is also an imam in Mississippi

March 05, 2001

Had you driven along U.S. Highway 90 through Gulfport, Miss., on
a Friday evening not long ago, an arresting sight would have
awaited you on the beach, no more than 50 steps from the
roadside. An imam dressed in long, flowing garments stood on a
sheet of plastic giving a sermon to a handful of rapt followers
known as Masjid al-Haqq (House of the Truth). That's what
Grizzlies guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf proudly calls the flock he
founded in his hometown in 1999, during his two-year layoff from
the NBA. "Building a community is a lot of hard work, much harder
than basketball," he says. "I didn't touch a ball more than five
times after I stopped playing, and even when I did, it wasn't
serious."

So how did Abdul-Rauf, 31, wind up in Vancouver? One of those
five occasions he touched the ball happened to be a charity game
in Jackson, Miss., last August, in which he abused a cast of
former SEC players for 29 points. At the end of the 1997-98
season, after averaging 7.3 points in 31 games for the Kings,
Abdul-Rauf signed a two-year, $3.4 million contract with
Fenerbahce in Turkey. He quit the team two months later, claiming
players weren't receiving their paychecks, and said he had no
desire to resume his career. After the charity game in Jackson,
however, a mutual friend of the 6'1" Abdul-Rauf and Grizzlies
star Shareef Abdur-Rahim told a Vancouver scout about
Abdul-Rauf's performance. Team president Dick Versace took a
gamble on the No. 3 pick in the 1990 draft, a 90.9% career free
throw shooter who had scored 51 points in a game in '95, and
signed Abdul-Rauf for the veterans' minimum of $800,000.

Although he has shown flashes of his electrifying
past--including a season-high 19 points in 20 minutes in a
116-104 win at Washington last week--Abdul-Rauf was averaging
only 4.8 points in 9.6 minutes through Sunday. "I don't think
they have any intention of playing me, but that's O.K.," he says
of the Grizzlies. "I had a talk with [coach Sidney Lowe], and I
said, 'I work for my Creator. That means I'll have more
discipline and work harder than if I did it for you or the
team.' He didn't understand. He thought I was undermining the
team."

Communication breakdowns are nothing new for Abdul-Rauf, who is
still best known for the firestorm that followed his refusal to
stand for the national anthem while playing for the Nuggets in
March 1996. The NBA suspended him, and after one game out he
agreed to stand and pray during the anthem. "I don't regret what
I did," Abdul-Rauf says, "but I've learned in Islam that you want
to consider all possibilities before you make a decision. There
was a better decision to make."

Though Abdul-Rauf, who still battles Tourette's syndrome, would
like to play for two or three more years--"If I could get a
consistent 12 to 18 minutes, I'd be content," he says--he knows he
can get along just fine in the outside world with his wife,
April, and their sons, Ali, 2, Alim, 1, and Ammar, two months.
From its humble beginnings two years ago, Masjid al-Haqq has
grown to 40 members who meet twice a week. Paraphrasing one of
his favorite passages from the Koran, Abdul-Rauf says, "Man gets
what he strives for, and the fruits of your striving shall soon
be seen."

--Grant Wahl

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL F. GERO/SABA

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