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Director Joslyn Rose Lyons on ‘Stand’ and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s long journey back

Showtime’s basketball documentary ‘Stand’ chronicles the life of the former Denver Nuggets guard, the NBA, and his fight against social injustices.

Courtesy of Showtime

In speaking with director Joslyn Rose Lyons about Stand, a documentary chronicling the life of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the word light came up frequently. Justifiably, we think of light positively. Lights show us the way and bring us warmth. However, light also offers things to the forefront that we might not be ready to see. Light often attracts some darkness. Mahmoud has never allowed limitations and impediments to hold him back.

Born Chris Jackson, he grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Despite poverty and battling Tourette syndrome, he funneled all of that to become one of the top high school players in the country. His journey led him to LSU, where he would later become the third pick in the 1990 NBA draft going to the Denver Nuggets.

But as equally as Abdul-Rauf was committed to basketball, as he was on the quest for personal fulfillment and knowledge. As he traveled the country and read more literature, Abdul-Rauf felt he needed a change. He converted to Islam in 1991 and officially changed his name in 1993. However, in 1992, his silent protest sitting during the national anthem to draw attention to injustice started to draw more attention than his tremendous game on the court.

On March 12, 1996, Abdul-Rauf was suspended and fined for his protest. He later worked out a compromise with the League stating he would stand, but be locked in prayer during the anthem. However, the damage was already done, and the League and its fans began to sour on him – which sadly led to his NBA career being cut short.

However, Abdul-Rauf exhibits a certain graciousness throughout the documentary. Even given that his house was burned down in 2001, he speaks with profound confidence in the causes he still champions today. There are many things one can take away from watching Stand – even more now with the push to exclude some of America’s ugly history away from libraries and schools. Even with that, you can’t take away strong voices – a tool Abdul-Rauf decides to use to speak despite losing the career he loved.

DK Nation: An immediate thing that struck me through watching Stand is the graciousness and poise Mahmoud exudes, even with all the tragedy he’s experienced. From growing up in an impoverished background, trying to find his father, his battle with Tourettes, and converting to Islam and the backlash with that – he exhibits such a calmness that I’m not sure people would have.

Joslyn: I’ll preface it by saying that I came on board after some of his interviews had already been shot. I was brought on board almost toward the wrap of production. It was an interesting creative process. I got to sift through all these interviews and talk with him about many of the story beats you see in the final cut. We did some more interviews together, of course, once I was on board.

Mahmoud was extremely patient, gracious, and sensitive. To me, that’s what makes him extraordinarily authentic. Throughout his journey, he displayed that vulnerability in the face of tragedy and backlash. Despite so many difficult times, he continued to stay courageous. Mahmoud’s journey and his courage inspire me.

There are many other moments with Mahmoud in the film that I have seen, or that you saw where his vulnerability is, is forward. And I think that’s what makes this story so relatable. I think the more personal something is, the more universal it becomes. He was able to get deep into the story beats into this journey. It was healing to some degree for him as well.

When it comes to the intersection of civil rights and sports, we rightfully think about figures such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, more recently, Colin Kaepernick. Mahmoud’s fight pre-dates social media, so it seems like it’s got lost in the shuffle. However, there are parallels between this documentary, protests, and how certain people feel about the national anthem.

We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been. I think that a lot of Mahmoud’s story was left untold because social media didn’t exist. If Mahmoud had made the stand today that he made in 1996, indeed, he would have had a movement behind it. His voice would have been heard in a lot of different ways.

I feel very honored to have helped usher that in as the director to the times we’re in now because the message for equality is evergreen. Standing up for what you believe in will never go out of style. Sometimes, choosing to lose everything willingly is what it means to be an activist. You stand for what you believe in at all costs.

The timing of the release of this documentary, I feel, is very poignant. There is a huge movement where the concept of knowledge is being paired down to one singular viewpoint. Books are being banned, and history lessons are getting restricted. As crucial as Mahmoud’s basketball journey is to Stand, there is an equal emphasis on this intellectual journey.

I think we often look at genius in a very narrow way. We will see somebody, want to box them in, and say, “well, this person is a prolific athlete,” and place a period there. The truth is that genius is, to me, it’s the language of someone’s spirit. It’s the thread on the fabric of who they are. [Mahmoud]’s genius runs through every facet of who he is – his intellectual pursuit for knowledge of self and peace is just as inspiring and prolific as his ability to shoot the way he shot – being the Steph Curry before Steph Curry.

The footprint of someone who is a hero is not just walking in one particular lane. There’s always more to someone’s story than just what you see – that greatness is usually the tip of the iceberg. It was essential for me to dig into his spiritual quest. His stand is one part of his message and his journey.

During the height of the controversy surrounding Mahmoud’s protest, it was a different NBA headed by late commissioner David Stern. We all know the dress codes that would eventually come to counter the hip-hop culture. As we saw with the George Floyd protests, corporations might say they support social justice movements, but only in a certain way or style. The NBA has changed with Adam Silver, but obviously, corporate America needs to reckon better with how to support speaking out about injustices.

I think we’re still in a time where corporate America’s infrastructure still needs to be rehabbed. There is rehabilitation that needs to happen for us to have the freedom to speak out and not fear that we will lose a brand sponsorship deal or become villainized. So, there is still that.

To your point, yes, I think that Mahmoud's stand and every stand that people take creates more of a pathway for us to see that there is a way out. That freedom is a journey. Mahmoud’s stand is undoubtedly part of what carves out that road ahead. I see Mahmoud as a light, and his light illuminates that road ahead for other activists, athletes, and others who want to stand for what they believe in. So yes,

In this documentary, people will see the full scope of Mahmoud’s life and his story for the first time. What were some of the new things you took away from this experience?

I learned a lot about what it means to be fearless in the face of resistance. Storytelling is so important – it’s how we pass down medicine for generations to come. I learned from watching Stand that you can be fearless in the face of resistance and opposition in every direction and still shine your light.

I want to believe we can generate light and radiate that light. When light is shined, it shows everything it shows that’s hidden in the dark. It’s uncomfortable for people to look at certain things, so it’s easier to silence the light. But Mahmoud is light. Courage is not just what you show up with when you are playing and going into battle. Courage is what you show up in your most alone moments.

Mahmoud had a lonely journey, and I talked about the invisible opponents he was shadowboxing in the film. His courage showed up when he was alone, and no one was there to help him. That makes him the hero I believe we all would want to strive to become more like.

You can watch Stand over on Showtime across the network’s on-demand and streaming platforms.