Former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf tells his story — both on and off the court — in the Showtime documentary “Stand,” with the guidance of director Joslyn Rose Lyons.
The documentary examines how Abdul-Rauf’s standout playing career was derailed by controversy over his decision not to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But it also aims to capture more than just the protest — which came some 20 years before NFL star Colin Kaepernick caught flack for kneeling on the sidelines — and instead focuses on the finer points of Abdul-Rauf’s life before and after professional basketball, revealing how he found himself taking a stand for his beliefs.
“I don’t know if this was the right time, only God knows,” Abdul-Rauf tells Variety, when asked why he decided to share his story now. “However, over the years I’ve read more, I’ve met a wide array of people, so much has changed, while remaining the same. With the uptick in athletes being more vocal, I just felt that this was as good a time as any. And we’re not promised tomorrow.”
The film, which debuted last Friday, dives deep into Abdul-Rauf’s history. Born Chris Jackson in Gulfport, Mississippi, the son of Jacqueline Jackson, a single mother who worked hard to raise him and his two brothers, Omar and David. The youngster dreamed of becoming one of the world’s best basketball players, all while battling undiagnosed Tourette’s syndrome, eventually becoming a star player at LSU and getting drafted into the NBA in 1990. In 1991, he converted to Islam, changing his name a couple years later.
Throughout his career, Abdul-Rauf was known for his specific style of play, described in the documentary by Mahershala Ali (who was a college basketball player before becoming an Oscar-winning actor) as “Stephen Curry before Stephen Curry.” In fact, Curry also appears in the documentary to discuss the comparisons in their skills, acknowledging that Abdul-Rauf was a pioneer of the game. But Abdul-Rauf’s career was cut short.
In 1996, members of the media noticed that Abdul-Rauf wasn’t standing alongside his teammates during the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The player’s personal decision became an international controversy, with Abdul-Rauf becoming the target of hate speech and Islamophobia. He was suspended and fined by the league and ultimately compromised, opting to pray silently instead, but the controversy had a profound effect on his playing career, with opportunities falling away left and right. Off the court, Abdul-Rauf continued to be attacked, with the criticism growing so violent that his home was burned to the ground.
When Lyons boarded the documentary last summer, she was already aware of Abdul-Rauf — particularly his diagnosis with Tourette’s syndrome, his conversion to Islam and the news coverage of his protest.
“The media did a great job of creating the narrative: he didn’t stand for the anthem, period, and he was Muslim,” she recalls. “Because social media didn’t exist, because there wasn’t an opportunity for him to have a movement behind him in the way in which we’ve seen a lot of other athletes have now when they’ve made their stance.”
So, it wasn’t until she got the opportunity to dive deeper Abdul-Rauf’s life that she began to understand the man behind the headlines.
“I was very sensitive to the fact that there was a much deeper story there, that was not told,” Lyons adds. “And it really excited me to get an opportunity to direct this film. Because part of our job as storytellers is to bring things into focus that were left in the dark.”
From Lyons and Abdul-Rauf’s first meeting, it was clear they were on the same page.
“Joslyn Rose is easy to talk to,” Abdul-Rauf says, praising the filmmaker. “She’s willing to share her ideas and what she has and she’s a good listener. She’s a creative visionary.”
Part of their connection could be chalked up to their religious background — Lyons converted to Islam in 2003 – but the link was also, somehow, deeper.
“The creative trust was instantly there, and I don’t take that for granted, because it’s not always like that with storytelling and projects. But I also know that when that synergy is present in a project, you have a force behind you that’s bigger,” Lyons adds. “It’s the story asking to be told, and it’s telling us how to tell it.”
With more than a decade of experience directing music videos and short films under her belt, Lyons makes her feature directorial debut with “Stand.”
“I’m honored to have directed this film for Showtime, a network that has been a pillar of inspiration in my filmmaking journey,” she says. “I’m grateful to have worked with an amazing creative team – especially my editor Dan Schulman-Means, who spent countless hours with me finding the structure of this complex story, and my music composer Matthew Head – whose brilliant score was the rhythm that gave my vision a heartbeat.”
Much of Lyons’ work has existed at the intersection of hip-hop culture, social justice and sports, with the filmmaker serving as a producer on the NAACP Image Award-winning documentary “Speaking Truth to Power” and a directing music content featuring artists like Common, RZA, Wu-Tang Clan, Robert Glasper, Mahershala Ali, E-40, Talib Kweli and Vince Staples, in addition to her lengthy filmography of award-winning short films.
“The storytelling techniques of music and hip hop and activism, there’s an edge there, and my creative process has always been to find the edges and go beyond,” Lyons says. “Because when you find the edges and you pass them, that’s where the medicine is of a story. That’s where we step out of our comfort zone, our excellence zone, and we find that genius zone where there’s something magical happening. So, I do feel connected to my roots in that way.”
In the case of “Stand,” Lyons was hired to helm the documentary with production already underway. The team of producers — led by Colleen Dominguez and Tom Friend, as well as executive producers Sarah Allen, Mike Tollin and Mason Gordon of Mandalay Sports Media — had spent a considerable amount of time in the field with Abdul-Rauf, who sat down for lengthy and candid interviews about his experiences.
The documentary also features exclusive interviews with Abdul-Rauf’s family; several basketball stars — including his former teammates and contemporaries, Steve Kerr, Shaquille O’Neal and Jalen Rose; and entertainment figures like Ice Cube, who founded the BIG3 basketball league where Abdul-Rauf now plays.
While mainly focused on the cinéma vérité elements of production, like a shoot with Rose and Abdul-Rauf, Lyons directed the interviews with O’Neal and Ali, the latter who she’s worked with for more than 20 years, partnering for music videos (“Honor Code,” “The Majors”) and a short film (2008’s “Umi’s Heart”). She also directed a remote shoot with Abdul-Rauf in Gulfport, as he met his paternal family for the first time.
“Before I came on board, our producers spent extensive time researching his life,” Lyons explains. “Something that really struck me [was] about his father. That everything that he did, was through the lens of hoping to gain the attention of his father, so that maybe his father would want to meet him. And that was very powerful.”
As Lyons reviewed the footage, the topic of Abdul-Rauf not knowing his father came up multiple times, including one interview in which he confirmed that it was a driving force for him.
“[That interview] crystallized for me a bit more how I could string some of these disconnected story beats together,” she says. “Because Tourette syndrome, basketball, his stand with the NBA and a spiritual conversion, all these different things, the connecting thread comes from something deep within him, of wanting to find, I suppose, peace. So, I leaned into that.”
Lyons could, again, relate, after learning how to navigate a relationship with her father.
“I made my first documentary “Soundz of Spirit,” when I was about 22 years old,” Lyons explains. “My dad never really could show up for birthdays and whatnot, but he showed up at that premiere, and was like, ‘That’s my daughter.’ I understood Mahmoud’s need for that.”
Lyons recognized that desire to be seen, which had turned into a motivating factor in Abdul-Rauf’s life, much as it did in her own.
“Through our pain, we often find our purpose,” she explains. “Mahmoud’s pain was potentially like a compass for him. And it maybe propelled him — like often it does in our lives — to pursue greatness, to do great things. Like they say, ‘Where the cracks are, that’s where the rose grows.’ I think Mahmoud is a testimony to that.”
That idea of a long-lost love, is something all audiences can relate to, she acknowledges.
“There is that for everyone — whether it’s a dream deferred, whether it’s a parent who never showed up, or it’s literally a long-lost love, it’s through those heartbreaks, and those struggles that we do find our strengths,” Lyons shares. “Oftentimes, those things that are missing are the very things that help us strive to, to become who we’re meant to be.”
One motif that Lyons used to capture Abdul-Rauf’s inner journey was shadowboxing, an exercise that, fortuitously, he had begun practicing years prior. It’s a visual metaphor, Lyons explains, “So that we could see visually how he faced these shadows and found his light.”
It was one of the first things filmmaker and subject discussed. “We talked about how [he] was a fighter in his life,” she recalls. “And I had been in the trenches studying shadowboxing for my first narrative scripted feature, ‘Shadowbox.’ I couldn’t help but think about Mahmoud’s journey through that lens because he walked through literal fires — his home was burned to the ground by the KKK — he walked through spiritual fires, emotional fires and he still rose like a phoenix. He still overcame. He was an alchemist.”
From there, Lyons began conceptualizing the shoot, creating a look book of the visuals, aiming to capture Abdul-Rauf’s “warrior spirit” on camera.
“Sometimes the armor that we have to put on to have the strength and the courage and the fearlessness to face those battles, we don’t always also have the ability to shine our light at the same time,” she says. “He never stopped shining, and that just makes him a very, very profound human being. I really wanted to show that the humanity of his story.”
In addition to the shadowboxing motif, Lyons also conceptualized a sequence featuring Abdul-Rauf at the NBA Finals, in which he stays seated during the National Anthem. The powerful sequence ends the film.
Now that the project is complete and accessible to audiences across the globe, Abdul-Rauf shared what he hopes viewers will take away from the finished film.
“Whatever someone is going through in their life, we all have similar issues in our lives as human beings,” he said. “Some people are dealing with faith, family, finances, not feeling adequate enough because of their upbringing, how to navigate through all of that and develop yourself and stand up to be able to face anything that comes your way.”
Likewise, Lyons hopes audiences will be inspired by Abdul-Rauf’s story.
“I do hope that that his stand will be a pillar, a beacon of light, kind of a North Star to some degree for other people in our world to take their stand,” she says. “I want to believe that Mahmoud’s story is an example, that you can be fearless in the face of anything and overcome it. Because he was.”
Though we often equate vulnerability to weakness, she explains, it was Abdul-Rauf’s courage to be vulnerable in his interviews for the film, as well as throughout his career as a basketball player and as a man on a spiritual journey that were the key to finding his strength.
“I also would hope this film and Mahmoud’s story are a reminder for people that being vulnerable is actually part of being a warrior,” she adds. “It’s never too late to stand up for what you believe in.”