What’s the weirdest tweet you can possibly imagine? Is it weirder than ex-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praising Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the same tweet?
No? Yeah, of course not. And the weirdest single thing about it is completely in the eye of the beholder. Is it the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the guy who once stood in front of the UN and said the United States was probably responsible for the 9/11 attacks, appears to have enough opinions about basketball to know who Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is? Does he really follow the NBA? I mean, it wouldn’t be insane—it’s a very popular product worldwide and there’s an Iranian center currently on the Miami Heat roster. Or is he just pandering to get some licks in on Trump after his insanely stupid LeBron tweet? If he is pandering, isn’t it pretty goddamn weird that Ahmadinejad, a politician even if he is an extremely weird and dangerous one, is making room for this stuff in his feed, which usually hosts tweets like this…
…and this celebration of mid-2000s pains in George W. Bush’s ass…
...for snarky commentary about Trump going full racist on LeBron because the president was watching CNN late at night and saw Bron say something negative about him? Is the moment that we’re living in, you and me and everyone who uses a computer and is inundated day after day with snarky Trump own after snarky Trump own, is it really so damn powerful that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, a dude who said that AIDS was engineered by the West to torment poor countries, is driven to perform in this dance that half of America does with slumped shoulders and vomit dribbling out of their mouths? Is this just what politics is right now, no matter where you are, no matter what phase of your career you’re in?
And then, of course, there’s the matter of the players he selected. Certainly, LeBron and MJ, that makes sense. They’re extremely good at basketball and they were both mentioned in Trump’s asinine tweet about how Don Lemon wasn’t smart, or something.
But… Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf? I mean, sure, he was a man before his time; an off-the-dribble three-point shooter living in a world that didn’t understand what he was doing out there, worthy of reminiscence by backward-looking sports dorks the world over. Phil Jackson once bizarrely compared Steph Curry to him. And sure, he’s a Muslim, that’s got something to do with it, but it’s not like Islam is exotic in the NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, maybe the best basketball player to ever live, was a man of the Five Pillars. Hakeem Olajuwon fasted during Ramadan every year, playing professional basketball games on an empty stomach as an expression of his faith. Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, Nets forward Kenneth Faried, and Knicks center Enes Kanter practice Islam and currently ply their trade in the league.
Abdul-Rauf wasn’t just a Muslim, however. He was also a shit-stirrer. In 1996, he sat in the locker room during performances of the American national anthem. At first no one noticed, but eventually a reporter did and asked him why. He said the flag represents oppression to him, he said that his faith told him to resist oppression, and he said that he didn’t criticize anyone who stood for the anthem, and so everyone should leave him alone.
They didn’t. The NBA, unlike the NFL, a stupid-ass league run by short-sighted, greedy weirdos, put a clause in the CBA concerning conduct during the anthem, and told Rauf he had to stand. The union and the league eventually sorted out a compromise: Rauf would be allowed to stand with his hands raised and his eyes closed, the traditional stance of prayer in Islam, and he would be hit with a fine for previous incidents.
But it didn’t just end there. American sports leagues, as we see in the Kaepernick saga, are tinderboxes where this shit is concerned. A little spark of dissension in the locker room creates raging fires of public grievance. Being nonconformist about the anthem really pisses people off. God only knows why this applies to sports and not every other aspect of American public life, which are all struck through with healthy irreverence. Maybe it’s the audience. Maybe it's the thicket of commercial ties that every sports team needs to turn a fatty profit.
Letters to the editor of the Denver Post spelled out people’s feelings on the matter pretty clearly: “That Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf won’t stand when the national anthem is played shows a disgusting lack of respect for the millions of people of all races and religions who do respect and value their citizenship in this country. Maybe he should consider relocating to some other country, maybe one that doesn't have a national anthem.”
Woody Paige, the longtime Denver Post sports columnist and a current panelist on ESPN’s Around the Horn, was fairly civil about Rauf’s protest for a while, even complimentary (one column about the topic ends with the extremely-sports-columnist couplet: “By sitting down, Abdul-Rauf has stood up.”). But by the end of the year, public opinion and a sore foot that sidelined Abdul-Rauf for the last eight games of the season, a season that ended in the Nuggets just barely missing the playoffs, drove him off the cliff. “He is a quitter,” began Paige’s March 29, 1996 column. “He quit because of a faint heart and a weak character… A man’s physical suffering can’t be judged by others. Some can perform hurt; some can’t. However, professional athletes—and actors, lawyers, construction workers, presidents, doctors and ditch diggers—are expected to play with pain… Abdul-Rauf’s sore foot is as sincere as Babe Ruth’s belly ache.”
In his season roundup, Paige advocated for trading Abdul-Rauf for “..a first-round draft pick or a point guard or even Betsy Ross. Abdul-Rauf was a disruption, a distraction and a dissenter, and he should take his mangled baggage out of Denver International Airport.” That is what ended up happening, with Abdul-Rauf getting shipped out to Sacramento for not much, where he had his minutes slashed for two straight years in what should have been the prime of his playing career. After his contract expired, no one in the whole NBA could make themselves sign him, so he played in Turkey instead, spent a year out of basketball altogether, and then returned to the Vancouver Grizzlies, of all teams, and farted out one last year before heading for the exit.
Abdul-Rauf, for his part, has no regrets, even having lost millions of dollars due to the league’s de facto expulsion of him for adhering to what he felt his faith demanded (he’s currently a co-captain—and one of the oldest players—in the BIG3 league). The NBA, you have to imagine, doesn’t really either. When commissioner Adam Silver was asked about Kaepernick’s protests, he reiterated that standing for the anthem was NBA policy and that they would continue to enforce it.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a person reasonable people agree with. Even compared to Trump and the other maniacs in the executive branch, he believes some truly unnerving crap and presided over a country with an atrocious human rights record. But when you see how the capital class that owns sports teams are willing to ruthlessly enforce norms of expression in expelling dissenting players from their leagues, and when you’re subject to legit roastings from tyrannical Iranian ex-presidents, it’s hard not to wonder if the United States is prone to quashing dissent just like the countries we regard as our enemies. It just takes a few more steps to get there.