Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (born Chris Jackson) was a sharp-shooting NBA guard who, but for the slimmest of statistical margins, would have owned the record for highest free-throw shooting percentage in a season for a decade and a half and who would still today be the career leader in that category.
Does free-throw shooting percentage much matter? When your professional legacy is otherwise defined by a defiant, faith-based stance against the American flag, it kinda does.
After starring for two years at LSU, Chris Jackson was drafted third by the Denver Nuggets in 1990 behind Derek Coleman and Gary Payton. In an era when four year college careers were the norm, Jackson was the only underclassman drafted in the first round that year. Expectations were high.
After two undistinguished years on undistinguished Nuggets teams, Rauf began to blossom in the ’92-’93 season, his quick-release shot complementing the inside games of Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis. He changed his name in ’93 (he had adopted Islam in ’91) and the ’93-’94 campaign would prove to be a watershed season for both player and team.
The culmination of the team’s success would come on May 7, 1994, when the eighth-seeded Nuggets defeated the Western Conference’s top-seeded Seattle Supersonics in a best-of-five playoff series, an unprecedented achievement at the time and one still memorialized in frequent league playoff teasers featuring shots of Mutombo prone on the court after the final buzzer sounded, gleefully squeezing the life out of the game ball.
But Rauf’s personal moment of truth came three weeks earlier in Houston in the last regular game of the season. He entered the game having gone 218 for 227 at the free throw line, a 96% rate that would have beaten Calvin Murphy’s 13-year-old record of 95.8%. If he had taken no free throws that game, the record was his. Late in the game he was fouled.
As fate would have it, Calvin Murphy, who ended his career as a Houston Rocket, was in the stands that day, sitting in the front row beside the franchise owner Leslie Alexander. During a timeout before Rauf stepped to the line, the referee tossed the ball to Murphy, who rubbed it and tossed it back. Rauf’s first shot fell true. As Rauf set to take his second, Murphy rose to his feet and stared in mock-seriously, as if casting a hex.
When the shot fell short, Murphy beamed in celebration, his seatmates cackling around him. Rauf would not get a chance to shoot again. The resulting one-for-two performance put him at 219 for 229 on the season, a 95.6% rate. Good for second best.
What Happened Next?
During the ’95-’96 season, Rauf regularly refused to stand for the national anthem, claiming the American flag was a symbol of “tyranny and oppression” that conflicted with the tenets of his faith. A national hullabaloo ensued, prefiguring similar debates on free speech and patriotism that would rage more acutely a few years later. The scandal-averse league office suspended Rauf for a game, a punishment contested by the ACLU and the player’s union but generally supported by Joe Fan. After receiving criticism from prominent Muslim players, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, Rauf reconsidered his defiant practice. Thenceforward, he would stand for the anthem while praying for “those who are suffering.”
Rauf never quite rebounded from the flag flap. Unlike, say, Muhammed Ali, whose controversial social postures were leavened by his enormous charisma, Rauf had a serious-minded, even dour, disposition which was compounded by a moderate case of Tourette’s Syndrome. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings in ’96 and after two years there and one in Turkey, he returned to the NBA for a brief stay with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000.
That season was Rauf’s last in the NBA. He finished with a career free throw shooting percentage of 90.5%. His 1161 attempts left him 39 attempts shy of the 1200 required by the NBA to recognize the stat as a record. In the record books, Steve Nash is listed as the career leader in that category with 90.4%.
In 2009, Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors finished the season with a 98.1% free throw percentage, besting Calvin Murphy’s then 28-year-old record. It is not known whether Murphy simply failed to send a hex or whether he’d run out of mojo.
Where Are They Now?
Rauf spent much of the ’00s playing professionally in Europe and Asia. Today, he is a retired father of five living in suburban Atlanta. Calvin Murphy was inducted into the NBA Hall-of-Fame in 1993, the year of Rauf’s near miss. Steve Nash is a likely first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Jose Calderon is a point guard on the Dallas Mavericks.
Rauf at the line, the crowd hooting in derision, Murphy staring in. It’s a compelling image. Unlike almost every other entry in this book, we have here an example where it appears to all come down to one instant, a discrete event when a man either takes the top spot or becomes an also-ran. As such, there is a great temptation to zero in on this moment: What is going through Rauf’s mind? Was the final miss related to Rauf’s character − his aloofness, his faith, his Tourette’s? Were they a consequence of those qualities? Would Larry Bird have missed a final shot with a prize on the line? Would Calvin Murphy?
Readers, resist the temptation to pose these questions. Or rather, once posed, let them disappear unanswered. It may be the dramatic fulcrum of the story, but there are no lessons in that final moment. To reduce a pattern of sustained success to a long sad journey toward failure is to fundamentally misperceive reality.
In this case, it’s better to direct our unanswerable questions elsewhere. Here’s the alternative line of inquiry I propose. Instead of looking at Rauf’s final miss from the free throw line, let’s look at his first. It came − astoundingly − in the sixth game of the season. After going 21 for 21 in his first five games, Rauf went 1 for 3 in his sixth, at home against the San Antonio Spurs. Why? Were the lights a bit too bright on that 22nd shot? Was the pitch of the hot dog vendor’s cry too distractingly high? Let’s not be foolish.