Had you driven along U.S. Highway 90 through Gulfport, Miss., on a Friday evening not long ago, an arresting sight would have awaited you on the beach, no more than 50 steps from the roadside. An imam dressed in long, flowing garments stood on a sheet of plastic giving a sermon to a handful of rapt followers known as Masjid al-Haqq (House of the Truth). That's what Grizzlies guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf proudly calls the flock he founded in his hometown in 1999, during his two-year layoff from the NBA. "Building a community is a lot of hard work, much harder than basketball," he says. "I didn't touch a ball more than five times after I stopped playing, and even when I did, it wasn't serious."
So how did Abdul-Rauf, 31, wind up in Vancouver? One of those five occasions he touched the ball happened to be a charity game in Jackson, Miss., last August, in which he abused a cast of former SEC players for 29 points. At the end of the 1997-98 season, after averaging 73 points in 31 games for the Kings, Abdul-Rauf signed a two-year, $3.4 million contract with Fenerbahce in Turkey. He quit the team two months later, claiming players weren't receiving their paychecks, and said he had no desire to resume his career. After the charity game in Jackson, how ever, a mutual friend of the 6'1" Abdul-Rauf and Grizzlies star Shareef Abdur-Rahim told a Vancouver scout about Abdul-Rauf's performance. Team president Dick Versace took a gamble on the No. 3 pick in the 1990 draft, a 90.9% career free throw shooter who had scored 51 points in a game in '95, and signed Abdul-Rauf for the veterans' minimum of $800,000.
Although he has shown flashes of his electrifying past—including a season-high 19 points in 20 minutes in a 116-104 win at Washington last week—Abdul-Rauf was averaging only 4.8 points in 9.6 minutes through Sunday. "I don't think they have any intention of playing me, but that's O.K.," he says of the Grizzlies. "I had a talk with [coach Sidney Lowe], and I said, I work for my Creator. That means I'll have more discipline and work harder than if I did it for you or the team.' He didn't understand. He thought I was undermining the team."
Communication breakdowns are nothing new for Abdul-Rauf, who is still best known for the firestorm that followed his refusal to stand for the national anthem while playing for the Nuggets in March 1996. The NBA suspended him, and after one game out he agreed to stand and pray during the anthem. "I don't regret what I did," Abdul-Rauf says, "but I've learned in Islam that you want to consider all possibilities before you make a decision. There was a better decision to make."
Though Abdul-Rauf, who still battles Tourette's syndrome, would like to play for two or three more years—"If I could get a consistent 12 to 18 minutes, I'd be content," he says—he knows he can get along just fine in the outside world with his wife, April, and their sons, Ali, 2, Alim, 1, and Ammar, two months. From its humble beginnings two years ago, Masjid al-Haqq has grown to 40 members who meet twice a week. Paraphrasing one of his favorite passages from the Koran, Abdul-Rauf says, "Man gets what he strives for, and the fruits of your striving shall soon be seen."