Although their father spent a decade on the run, Az and Abdul Jr. insist he remained a major force in their lives. He separated from the boys' mother, Mae (Koko) Evans, when Az was an infant, but he still prided himself on being an involved father. Koko, who recently remarried and took on the surname Elliott, says that despite his flaws, her ex-husband "was a devoted father and a devoted husband. When I was pregnant, he cooked for me every night. And when I had each of my babies, I was so anemic that it took me a month or two to regain my energy. So he pretty much was the mommy and daddy. When I wanted to go back to college, he stepped up and took care of the kids"
Though he was a high school dropout and had done time for marijuana smuggling, Abdul was a respected figure in the Gardena, Calif., neighborhood where he raised his boys, who stayed with him on weeknights. "People respected him because he was so real," says Abdul Jr., "and because of the way he took care of his sons."
All that changed a few months after Az's 10th birthday.
Welcome to the Jungles, Az. You and your brother have been shuttled across L.A., from your father's three-bedroom house in Gardena to your mother's one-bedroom apartment at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road in South Central L.A. Now you're smack dab in the middle of a group of crime-infested housing complexes known as the jungles, and as you sit on the couch with a lump in your throat on this November afternoon in 1987, you're finding out you won't be leaving mom's place anytime soon.
"Boys, look here, Daddy's got a problem," your father tells you and your brother. "I'm in some trouble with the law, and we've got a decision to make. I can go to jail for the rest of your childhood, and the only time you'll see me is when you come to visit. Or I can go away for a while, and I'll stay in touch as much as I can. What do y'all want me to do?"
"We don't want you to go to jail, Daddy," you and your brother tell him. "Do what you've got to do and come on back."
It's decided, then. There's just one kicker: "The only thing is, you won't be able to tell people I'm your father. People will ask questions, but no matter what happens, you'll have to say you never knew your dad."
He did it all for the boys—that's Abdul Sr.'s story, and the people closest to him are sticking to it. But the suspicion lingers: Wasn't Hakim, a practiced street hustler, conning his family—and himself? ("Of course we told him not to go to jail," Abdul Jr. says now. "I was 12 years old, man. What was I going to say?")
Before being arrested for involvement in the cocaine deal, Abdul Sr. held down several traditional jobs and parlayed his clout in the community into extra cash. Lawyers and real-estate agents paid him to funnel business from the neighborhood. "I did a lot of stuff that was barely legal," Hakim says. "Say I'd see a car accident. I'd refer someone who was involved to certain lawyers and collect a fee."
At times Hakim was also involved in activities that were flat-out illegal. "He put food on the table, but no one knew what he was doing," says Elliott. "It was better that I didn't know, because some shady things were going on."