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.
But after he started sitting down for what he believes in—and after Nuggets fans made a cause c�l�bre 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 from?" Mississippi?
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 Almighty Dollar."
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.