Over the summer of 1992, with his first chance to really work on his conditioning, he lost 32 pounds, working out alone in two three-hour sessions per day, shooting 600 times a day, plus god-knows-how-many times to finish his ritual. And he got a repeat chance. And nobody loves to repeat like Jackson. Westhead was out; Issel was in. "The slate's clean," Issel told him. "Every starting job is open."
Last season, under Issel's kinder hand and more conventional offense, Jackson bloomed. He won his starting job during training camp, made a 55-footer at the buzzer to beat the Los Angeles Clippers on the road early in the year and went on to lead the Nuggets in scoring (19.2 points per game) and free throw percentage (.935). He also made his last 59 free throws and began this season with a string of eight more. (Minnesota Timberwolf Micheal Williams holds the alltime record of 95 straight and counting.)
Suddenly he seemed a new man. He even joked about his disorder. ("Man, I got a bad case tonight," he said one night in what had been a nervous locker room.) He took over some of the leadership of the team. "He came out of his shell," says guard Reggie Williams.
And, as nobody on earth could have predicted, Jackson was voted Most Improved Player in the NBA for the '92-93 season.
Actually he did not just seem a new man, he was one. He converted to Islam in 1991, adopting the name Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, meaning "praiseworthy, merciful and kind." This July it became his legal name ("See, it's on my license," he says proudly).
Islam "is the perfect religion for him," says Kim, and she might be right. Like Tourette's, Islam demands a quest for perfection. Prayers are repeated five times a day. Nothing must be wasted. Abdul-Rauf is known for holding on to uneaten sandwiches and muffins to give away to needy strangers. He has already made his pilgrimage to Mecca, his haji. There he saw people sleeping in the streets, standing in the sun for long hours and feeding strangers. There was only one problem. "I didn't suffer enough," he says. "I want to go back this year and really suffer." Got to do it over until it feels perfect.
Not that her husband's conversion has been easy for Kim, who is Catholic. He no longer wants to celebrate Christmas. Suddenly she is being told to "lower your gaze and guard your modesty," as the Koran advises women, every time she wears something cut much below the neckline.
Says Abdul-Rauf, "A lot of things are not willing to be done." Against her wishes they have filed for divorce.
Still, the Nuggets' love affair with Abdul-Rauf goes on. "I didn't think it was possible," said Issel in the first days of training camp this season at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, "but Mahmoud looks like he's in even better shape this year than last." He came to camp at 154, one pound below his weight at the start of his senior season in high school. "I feel so quick," he says. "I feel quicker than I did in high school."
With Abdul-Rauf forcing defenses to chase him all over the Denver metropolitan area, the Nuggets' frontline stars—center Dikembe Mutombo and second-year forward LaPhonso Ellis—should have more space and large years this season. The Nuggets might just be the surprise team in the league, and Abdul-Rauf, if you can find his name on the ballot, might just make his first All-Star team. "He doesn't look like he's going to be happy with what he did last year," says Issel with a smile.