With Very Strong Will, Abdul-Rauf Finds a Way : Basketball: Tourette’s syndrome, an oft-misunderstood neurological disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, goads Nuggets’s star along.
The urge, near-unquenchable, is to be perfect. He can’t help it.
Sitting at his arena locker in Washington, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf suddenly has to tap the silver end of his belt against the silver metal buckle once, twice, three times before sliding it into place. When he bends to tie his tennis shoes, he is apt to tap both palms against his shin until five minutes pass . . . then 10 minutes. Whatever it takes, he must start over until the knot of his laces, the tuck of his game jersey, the sound of his shot snapping the net seems just right. Just perfect.
The compulsion spills into everything he tries to do.
Earlier in the day, when a shooting game with teammate Mark Randall ended in defeat, Abdul-Rauf said, “Let’s go again.” Again Randall won. “Again,” Abdul-Rauf said, hissing, “I’m getting maaad now” under his breath, through clenched teeth.
Hours later, considering a question about the same game, he will cut loose a sudden whoop, ride out two shrugs of his shoulder and a snap of his left arm before he is stuck repeating the first few words of his answer until “it sounds just right coming off my lips.”
Until everything feels just right--which is to say, nothing short of perfect--Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf must keep trying. Come exhaustion. Come frustration. Come pain. Come what may.
Tourette’s syndrome, an oft-misunderstood neurological disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, goads him along like this. “Sometimes I want to quit doing something but it just won’t let me,” he says. Sometimes, his face knit with concentration, he is liable to blurt “Stop it, stop, stop! “ Or, “Please, Allah. Allah, please “--a plea for just a moment’s respite.
Next to the wonder of his rise this high--Nuggets assistant coach Mike Evans says, “Mahmoud is one of those amazing individuals who made it on sheer will"--there is the unfathomable mystery of how all of Abdul-Rauf’s uncontrollable tics, his abrupt convulsions, his momentarily logjammed freedom of expression disappears in those milliseconds when he must execute a basketball play with precision or translate thought into action instantaneously.
Though Tourette’s symptoms can be controlled by medication such as Prozac or Haldol, the symptoms never totally disappear for Abdul-Rauf, who has a fairly moderate case. Abdul-Rauf concedes there’s even parallel between his Tourette-driven quest for perfection and the instant appeal he found in Islam, which he converted to in 1991 when he was still known as Chris Jackson, the scoring phenom from Louisiana State. As he notes: “Islam is a quest for perfection in life too.”
As a child, having the disorder was harder. “People would ask, ‘Boy, are you crazy? Are you schizo or something?’ ” he says. Now on days when his twitches are particularly bad he’s liable to joke, ‘Ooh, I’m going to throw some awesome head fakes today.”
After four NBA seasons--his first two flops, the last two marked by his ascent toward stardom--Abdul-Rauf also smiles more now about the referees who mistook his whoops for complaints and slapped him with technicals, and the rivals who still get startled by his explosive “Uh-HUHS!” and the sudden flights of fancy that send him speed dribbling around his ankles, snapping off crossover dribbles and rising for a jump shot--all with a quickness that’s mind-bending.
“I make ‘em when I want and I miss ‘em when I want!” Abdul-Rauf crowed at Randall during their shooting game.
Later, reminded of the boast, Abdul-Rauf wistfully jokes, “I wish.”
“People don’t know what having this is like sometimes,” he says.
It is a constant battle--the impulse to be perfect, the tug-of-war within him. And when something finally works out? “It’s a relief,” Abdul-Rauf says.
Not a pleasure?
“Well . . . a ‘pleasurable’ relief,” he agrees with a laugh.
Tourette’s typically becomes apparent in children between the ages of 5 and 8. But Abdul-Rauf was 17--already a basketball wunderkind in Gulfport, Miss.--before he was diagnosed. Before that he was just thought to be a bit peculiar.
He remembers often crying himself to sleep as a child, fearing something might be seriously wrong because his twitching, the urges that gripped him, couldn’t be helped. “By junior high, though, I figured it probably wasn’t life-threatening because I’d had it so long and hadn’t died yet,” he says now, almost matter-of-factly.
He was raised a devout Baptist. Even by high school, he still prayed to God to make whatever possessed him stop.
One doctor who examined Abdul-Rauf as a child wrongly concluded he was epileptic and prescribed medication. Another simply decided Abdul-Rauf had odd “habits” and sent him home. For a time, Abdul-Rauf suspected he’d been altered by childhood falls on his head. Family members mentioned a distant uncle who also acted “crazy” and committed suicide, shooting himself in the head.
Doctors now know Tourette’s is inherited, but it’s not a psychological disturbance. It frequently coexists with obsessive-compulsive disorder--two findings that seem to explain Abdul-Rauf’s hyper-perfectionism and, quite probably, his mother Jacqueline’s habits of examining her kitchen stove repeatedly to make sure it’s turned off, or checking and rechecking to make sure she has locked her front door.
“I didn’t even know she did that until a couple years ago, when we were talking in Denver,” Abdul-Rauf says.
Abdul-Rauf’s eventual diagnosis of Tourette’s was a stroke of luck. Bert Jenkins, his basketball coach at Gulfport High, was married to a nurse. Lil Jenkins couldn’t bear to watch the boy’s struggles anymore. “She used to come home and cry at night,” Jenkins says. “Finally she talked Chris into going with her to see a specialist in Houston.”
That Abdul-Rauf’s Tourette’s would go unnamed that long is fairly common.
Given the involuntary movements associated with Tourette’s, there theoretically is nothing to stop Abdul-Rauf from sending a convulsive shot off the scoreboard instead of the backboard. “And before he got here, we did wonder about that,” admits Evans.
Likewise, it would seem, nothing could stop Abdul-Rauf from taking an indulgent 40 shots a game.
But it never happens.
“Believe me, the thought is there sometimes,” Abdul-Rauf says. “It’s a constant fight to hold back, to miss a shot and let it go . . . to just go on.”
But how? Precisely how Tourette’s symptoms suddenly go into abeyance is a mystery, another part of the disorder that no one understands.
In moments of concentration, with a chore at hand, everything just somehow comes together as needed. Abdul-Rauf can shoot free throws with such precision that his current percentage of 95.3 is menacing Calvin Murphy’s longstanding, NBA single-season record of 95.8%.
Even Abdul-Rauf says he’s not sure where his Tourette’s stops and his talent or his will kicks in. All he knows is the urge to perfect his basketball skills through a thousand rehearsals helped make him the player he is today, with one of the sweetest shots in the NBA. What once seemed to be an onus has turned into his brilliant advantage.
Merely describing the feeling he gets when everything dovetails and he is playing well sends Abdul-Rauf into an animated, almost scat-singing, reverie. Sitting in a chair, dribbling an imaginary basketball throughout, he transforms his moves into breathless riffs. “Say I’m trying to spin and shoot? I go ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-baba, BOOM!” he says. “And if I want to spin, dribble between my legs, and shoot? Then it’s ba-baba-ba, ba-baba-BA, BAM!”
Basketball gives him some peace--that “pleasurable relief” he spoke of earlier--but he says Islam gives him “total peace.”
In numerous ways Islam’s emphasis is on ritual--such as the five daily breaks for prayer, with every movement carefully proscribed. And Abdul-Rauf found himself naturally drawn to the religion, which also preaches total devotion. Adherents are urged to shape their lives spiritually, socially, economically and politically according to the five pillars of faith: the profession of faith, ritual prayer, paying alms, fasting during Ramadan and a pilgrimage to Mecca (or hajj).
Abdul-Rauf’s curiosity about Islam was first piqued when he read Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” at LSU. After joining the Nuggets, he made the snap decision to convert the day he got his first copy of the Koran, after reading just a few pages.
“I felt like it spoke to me,” he says.
Like everything else he does, Abdul-Rauf has undertaken his conversion enthusiastically. He reads religious tracts voraciously. From town to town across the NBA he visits fellow Muslims and their mosques. He and his wife Kim, who was raised a Roman Catholic, are currently going through a divorce against her wishes, largely because Abdul-Rauf considers their religious differences irreconcilable.
He made his hajj last summer, and quotes the Koran as easily as the well-thumbed Bible he used to carry at LSU. “He’s always been one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever known--just an amazing, sensitive kid,” LSU Coach Dale Brown said. “He’s had every reason not to succeed. The Tourette’s. He never knew his father. He grew up in absolute poverty. . . . “
At LSU, Jackson was an instant sensation. He scored 48 points in his third game, then topped that with a 53-point effort two games later. He led the Southeastern Conference with scoring averages of 30.2 and 27.8 the two seasons he stayed.
Some of his performances were near-mythic: As a freshman, he scored 15 of LSU’s last 17 points in a win against Maryland, the Tigers’ last 16 points against Kentucky.
The Nuggets traded their No. 1 draft pick and all-star guard Fat Lever to nab Abdul-Rauf with the No. 3 pick in the 1990 draft. But Abdul-Rauf had foot problems caused by extra bones in his feet and delayed surgery until after his rookie year.
Thinking he needed to bulk up his 6-foot-1, 169-pound frame for the NBA, he reported at a flaccid 185 pounds. (He now attributes some of the weight gain to Haldol, a medicine he later quit taking.)
Whatever the reason, the lack of conditioning made him ill-suited for then-Nuggets coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense. Before long their relationship had disintegrated into a non-communicative standoff. Nuggets General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff publicly told Abdul-Rauf to “stop bitching” and start playing.
That prompted LSU’s Brown to jump in: “If he (Bickerstaff) wants to destroy Chris Jackson, all he has to do is keep putting statements like that in the newspapers.”
His second season was even worse. Afterward, Abdul-Rauf picked up a magazine one day and read a stinging article that declared “I was a bust.”
Finally he responded with a fury. He dropped 32 pounds before the 1992-93 season, resuming the dawn-to-dusk work habits that marked his adolescence.
After a January lull, Abdul-Rauf put together a scoring streak that coincided with the Feb. 11 start of Ramadan, even though his weight has now dropped to a wraith-like 147 pounds.
Though some recent reports said the Nuggets were still chafing behind the scenes at Abdul-Rauf’s weight and his admitted two-month break from his medication, Abdul-Rauf’s retort is rancorless but unwavering.
“I understand now there’s more to life than playing ball,” he says. “I don’t live to please my teammates, my coaches, the fans.
“I live to please Allah.”
So much so that Abdul-Rauf says, “Right now I don’t even know how long I’ll be in the NBA. After a time you just want something that’s stronger, deeper. Some of me says it’ll be after this contract, in four more years.”
If that happens he would be only 29. The reason he would walk away is the obvious one that guides everything in his life. “The holy Koran says, ‘Which of the favors of your God would you deny?’ ” Abdul-Rauf says. “I’d like to build a mosque, build a community, build businesses--just go out and propagate Islam. I want to live Islam and die Islam.”
Smiling serenely now, he hardly needs to add, “I want to get it perfect.”