Genius, John Lennon once said, was pain.
For an LSU basketball player, that may never have been more true than for Chris Jackson, now Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
He was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at 17 shortly before arriving at LSU, a neurological disorder that manifests itself in uncontrolled verbal and physical tics. Abdul-Rauf’s condition fueled an obsessive-compulsive desire for perfection, one that manifested itself on the basketball court.
His shooting touch was legendary. There’s a famous story about his coach at Gulfport High School offering to shave minutes off practice if his players could hit consecutive free throws.
One day it was Abdul-Rauf’s turn to shoot. He made 283 straight. Practice was canceled.
The retired numbers club of LSU men’s basketball just added another member.
Once at LSU, Abdul-Rauf shot his way to an NCAA freshman record 30.2 points per game, and consecutive consensus All-American and Southeastern Conference player of the year honors. Not surprising then that LSU athletic director Scott Woodward announced Monday that by a unanimous decision of the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame Election Board, Abdul-Rauf’s No. 35 jersey will be retired in a game-day ceremony during the 2019-20 basketball season.
“Mahmoud now joins one of the most elite groups in college basketball — the five men’s basketball players whose jerseys LSU has retired,” Woodward said in a university news release. “He’s one of the greatest of all time at LSU and incredibly deserving of this honor.”
The other four are the greatest legends LSU basketball has to offer: Bob Pettit, Shaquille O’Neal, Durand “Rudy” Macklin and of course, Pete Maravich, the man for whom LSU’s Assembly Center is named.
It is with Maravich that Jackson is most synonymous. Both were prolific scorers — Maravich holds the NCAA records for most points per game by a sophomore, junior and senior and in a career — and brilliant passers. Their ball-handling skills were also the stuff of in-game clinics.
“I was fortunate to play with Mahmoud when he was a freshman at LSU,” said Ricky Blanton, another Tigers great. “He took college basketball by storm. Mahmoud was a great scorer with a lightning-quick cross over and could shoot from anywhere on the floor. He was a tremendous player in transition.”
At times, Abdul-Rauf was ahead of his time. And his teammates. I remember him hustling the ball upcourt once and threading a skip pass from the top of the key through a sea of legs belonging to players of both teams, aimed for a teammate on the baseline. The player couldn’t handle the pass, probably not expecting such a feat was possible.
Most of all, though, Abdul-Rauf was remembered for his scoring. He failed to reach double figures in only one of his 64 games at LSU, 28 times scoring over 30 points, 11 times over 40 and four times over 50.
His most legendary game was simply the greatest scoring duel in SEC history.
On March 4, 1989, Abdul-Rauf poured in 55 points in a game at Ole Miss. The Rebels’ Gerald Glass scored 53, but his team won 113-112 in overtime, as he hit the game-winning free throw with nine seconds left.
“If you don’t appreciate Glass and Jackson from a basketball standpoint,” then Ole Miss coach Ed Murphy said, “you are legally dead.”
“Mahmoud is one of the greatest players in college basketball history and he is one of the nicest young men I have coached in my 44-year career,” former LSU coach Dale Brown said. “He won accolades throughout the country while being inflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a truly remarkable accomplishment.”
At the end of his collegiate career, Abdul-Rauf held the LSU all-time record for most 3-point field goals made (172), and he still holds the school single-season mark for highest free-throw percentage (91 percent).
“Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was truly a phenomenal and extremely talented athlete who I enjoyed playing with,” said O’Neal, Abdul-Rauf’s teammate for the 1989-90 season. “And because of his sacrifice and dedication to the game, it paid off. Congratulations to a great player.”
The question is not whether Jackson/Abdul-Rauf’s name and jersey number deserve to be enshrined in the PMAC, but which last name will go on the banner. Chris Jackson was of course his name when he played at LSU; he changed it to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf during his NBA playing days in 1993 after he converted to Islam.
According to LSU, the decision regarding which name to accompany the No. 35 on the banner will be left up to Mahmoud-Rauf. Some LSU fans will no doubt grumble, remembering his decision not to stand during the national anthem before games in the 1995-96 season (eventually earning him a one-game suspension from them NBA commissioner David Stern) because of his religious beliefs.
But take religion and politics out of it. It is a just honor for an exceptional basketball player, and the naming rights for his banner should belong to him. People have the right to be called by the name of their choosing, be they Tiger Woods or Babe Ruth or Frank William Wade, the full name of LSU’s current basketball coach.
I suspect Abdul-Rauf will choose his current appellation. Whatever name he picks, it will be a memorable night in the PMAC when his banner goes up. A night to recall that shooting star from three decades ago, burying jump shots and flashing breathtaking passes like few have ever done before or since.