Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the quintessential basketball lifer, is looking forward to the 2010-11 bj-league season with the same contagious enthusiasm that reminds one of a child waiting to visit Disney World for the first time.
Despite beginning his professional career when George H.W. Bush was U.S. president, Abdul-Rauf’s commitment to excellence hasn’t changed.
He admitted as much without hesitation.
“Right now I feel good,” said Abdul-Rauf, the Kyoto Hannaryz’s 41-year-old floor leader. “I’ve still got passion. I’m competitive. I don’t want to lose. I still feel there’s room for improvement that I can make, even at 41.
“I don’t think you ever stop getting to the point where you can’t improve, and when you do that you stop growing, you stop getting better.”
Speaking at the bj-league’s preseason media day last week in Tokyo, Abdul-Rauf was asked what areas of his game he’d like to improve.
He responded by saying, “I’d like to improve my shot. I’d like to improve my ball handling. I’d like to improve every aspect of the game.”
There are a number of aging athletes who are comfortable collecting a paycheck and not devoting serious time to make improvements in the latter stages of their career.
This has never been Abdul-Rauf’s approach.
“When you think that you’ve conquered one aspect, you stop growing in that area,” he said bluntly.
He paused. Then he smiled.
“I’d never consider myself as being perfect, and I never will,” said Abdul-Rauf, who scored 17.9 points in 38 games last season.
“I’m striving for perfection, so if I miss it, if I can get excellence, that’s the next best thing. . .”
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The bj-league has only been around since 2005. By then, Abdul-Rauf’s professional career had already been in the books for 15 years. He was, after all, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets.
His NBA career included 586 regular-season games (14.6 points per game) and a jaw-dropping 90.5 free-throw shooting percentage. He played his final NBA game in 2001 for the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Since then, he’s played overseas in several countries.
Now, beginning his second season in Japan, Abdul-Rauf is working hard to help the team become a winning club under Kazuto Aono, who replaced David Benoit as coach last spring.
Aono plans to play Abdul-Rauf in both backcourt positions, giving him ample opportunities to showcase his playmaking skills at the point.
“We’re going to mix it up,” Aono said.
The Hannaryz went 17-35 in their first season, but Abdul-Rauf is hopeful the team can turn things around in 2010-11.
“The key is to keep the same kind of intensity and attitude on a consistent basis,” he said. “This is the goal this year, no matter how great we are doing or if we hit a rough road or patch, and still be able to keep that chemistry and that love for one another and for the game and that passion to get better and win.”
The above words of wisdom were spoken by a true hoop sage, and really that’s what Abdul-Rauf is in this league.
Consider: Abdul-Rauf, known as Chris Jackson during his younger days as an All-American star at LSU, is older than nine of the bj-league’s 16 head coaches.
Abdul-Rauf, however, doesn’t detest aging. Instead, he accepts it and maintains a youthful zest for life and basketball.
“(Regarding) aging, I embrace it,” he said. “Everyone’s getting older, even the youngest. Every second you breathe you are getting older. And for me, I just try to take care of my body.”
He added: “It’s a part of life. Everything has a birth and everything has a death and I am just trying to take advantage of it and utilize what God has given me to the best of my ability.”
Abdul-Rauf missed 14 games last season due to injuries, but he was productive and sometimes dominant while he was on the court. Indeed, he was a tone-setter for the first-year team.
The recent signings of veteran forward Reggie Warren, previously a standout in Takamatsu and Saitama, and Wendell White, the 2009-10 bj-league MVP who helped lead the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to a championship, give the team a strong nucleus along with capable Japanese veterans in Taizo Kawabe and Kyosuke Setoyama to vie for one of the Western Conference’s six playoff spots.
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The entire landscape of the bj-league has changed dramatically in the past several months. The addition of three expansion teams — the Akita Northern Happinets, Miyazaki Shining Suns and Shimane Susanoo Magic — and the influx of new coaches, including former NBA bench boss Bob Hill, as well as a pair of former NBA players in Tokyo Apache center Robert Swift and Saitama Broncos guard Kenny Satterfield have created greater interest in the league.
But this much is clear: Abdul-Rauf remains one of the league’s most intriguing figures.
“Mahmoud obviously has worked very hard to stay in shape and keep his body in good condition in order to play at age 41,” said Akita coach Bob Pierce, a former NBA scout who previously coached the Western Conference rival Lakestars. “He has a quick release on his shot, and he’s a master of reading his defender to find the right moment to pull up and shoot.
“As players get older, they simplify their game, focusing on the things they do really well. Mahmoud is a great example. He doesn’t try to do too much. What he does with his fakes, the quick change of direction, and the quick pull-up jumper he does really, really well.”
While leading the Happinets this season, Pierce knows his team will face a formidable task in slowing down the Hannaryz offense.
“Adding Wendell White will probably help (them a lot),” Pierce noted. “Wendell White is such a talented player that he will constantly draw double teams, allowing Mahmoud to contend with only single coverage. If players like Setoyama and Kawabe can consistently hit open shots, then Abdul-Rauf will be an extremely dangerous player.”
That’s always been the case.