Every year, the NCAA tournament rolls around and it’s another case of March Madness across the nation. Scouts drool, or not, over the next “crop of prospects.” And every once in awhile, some announcer raves about the prowess of some player who is alleged to be the best thing since sliced bread – or the best shooter since Larry Bird or the best passer since Magic Johnson or the best ball handler since Isiah Thomas or the most prolific scorer since Lew Alcindor.
I’m here to tell you that player who fit that bill best was born in Gulfport, Mississippi on March 9, 1969. He stood only 6 feet and 1 inch tall. He played point guard in the deep south, at LSU. His name at birth: Chris Wayne Jackson. His name today: Mahmoud Abdul Rauf.
I love a good basketball argument, but honestly - in this case, it’s not even close. There simply has not been another collegiate player who was as dominant in all phases of the offensive game as Chris Jackson at LSU.
He was the fastest with and without the ball. He had the most range on his jumper. He had hops…he had a killer crossover and didn’t have to palm the ball like most guards to get separation. He was an awesome free throw shooter (91% as a sophomore). He attacked the lane fearlessly, and was still able to score consistently from deep. He was also an excellent passer.
I suspect that in many respects, he has been erased from the memory of most sports announcers because of his ill-fated professional decision to sit during the singing of the national anthem. There was no way for him to win by taking that position. His home was firebombed as a result of that decision. His NBA career did not end immediately, thanks to consideration from those Vegas gamblers: the Maloof brothers and owners of the Sacramento Kings. But, after his stint with the Kings ended, Abdul Rauf played in Turkey, Russia, Italy and Greece.
He also suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome. He became a Muslim over the course of his career and fasted during Ramadan. Hakeem Olajuwon did the same thing during his playing days, but his frame and stature seemed to handle the weight loss much better.
I’ve thought about many of the offensive superstars and compared their games to LSU’s mighty-mite. Allen Iverson (possibly my favorite NBA small guy of all-time and alum of my favorite Hoya squad): Jackson was a better shooter (by far); a better ball handler, just as fast, and a much better free throw shooter. Chris Paul: please. Bobby Hurley: different universe. Gary Payton: nope; dominant on the box, but he had to work harder for his…offensive game improved tremendously in the pros. Tim Hardaway: much, much slower, not as dominant from the line in late game situations…but awesome. Kevin Johnson: explosive hops, great J, tremendous wheels and great free throw shooter – but can’t compare to Jackson’s quick release. Terrell Brandon: close again – all the tools, but 30 ppg from a frosh in the SEC is tough to match. Sam Cassell: all the old school tools any hooper could ever ask for…one of my favorites – better as a pro; not a speedster, but super-duper clutch. Nash: great player, but not comparable collegiately…apples and oranges. Pearl Washington: hmm. Aside from the speed, free throw shooting and jump shot range, they’re about even. Pearl could get streaky from outside, but that was not a reliable source of points for him. Sherman Douglas: hell no. Stephon Marbury: not from the outside. Kenny Anderson: not from the outside. Mark Price: everything – including the speed (if not the quickness in tight spaces and the hops) and the free throw shooting…gotta think about this kid from Enid, Oklahoma. He put it down back in the day. I’m not going to talk about guys like Chris Corchiani or Rumeal Robinson or others…it’s simply not the right conversation for them.
For me, only Isiah Thomas is comparable because “Zeke” could have scored at will for Bob Knight’s Indiana teams. He was an excellent free throw shooter, though not as good as Jackson. He was a prolific passer. Both players had lightning quick hands and were terrors for opposing point guards to beat off the dribble – but Isiah was a better defensive player.
I’ve been hoping to track down some archival footage of those LSU days - perhaps that amazing battle between LSU and Illinois when “Lou-Do” (Illini coach Lou Henson) put Kendall Gill and Steve Bardo on Jackson. Jackson had just lit Payton and Oregon State up for about Fiddy – and he only hit the Illini for about 28 – but he demonstrated that elite 6’5″ defenders couldn’t touch him. He ran Gill and Bardo ragged for 40 minutes, but the Illini were loaded and won easily. Great game, 127-100.
Great player. Abdul-Rauf, whose records were approached by Texas frosh Kevin Durant, is still the all-time leading NCAA freshman scorer. He was a consensus All-American as a freshman and a sophomore. He is someone who may be forgotten in some quarters, but certainly not by those with broken ankles slow to heal or top-notch defenders with dented pride. If you can find some video, pass it on, and let’s keep this thing going. LSU’s media guide refers to him as the “most celebrated freshman of all time.” It’s been almost 20 years, but I haven’t seen anything like him since then.