The urge, near-unquenchable, is to be perfect. He can't help it.
Sitting at his arena locker in Washington, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf suddenly has to tap the silver end of his belt against the silver metal buckle once, twice, three times before sliding it into place. When he bends to tie his tennis shoes, he is apt to tap both palms against his shin until five minutes pass . . . then 10 minutes. Whatever it takes, he must start over until the knot of his laces, the tuck of his game jersey, the sound of his shot snapping the net seems just right. Just perfect.
The compulsion spills into everything he tries to do.
Earlier in the day, when a shooting game with teammate Mark Randall ended in defeat, Abdul-Rauf said, "Let's go again." Again Randall won. "Again," Abdul-Rauf said, hissing, "I'm getting maaad now" under his breath, through clenched teeth.
Hours later, considering a question about the same game, he will cut loose a sudden whoop, ride out two shrugs of his shoulder and a snap of his left arm before he is stuck repeating the first few words of his answer until "it sounds just right coming off my lips."
Until everything feels just right--which is to say, nothing short of perfect--Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf must keep trying. Come exhaustion. Come frustration. Come pain. Come what may.
Tourette's syndrome, an oft-misunderstood neurological disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, goads him along like this. "Sometimes I want to quit doing something but it just won't let me," he says. Sometimes, his face knit with concentration, he is liable to blurt "Stop it, stop, stop! " Or, "Please, Allah. Allah, please "--a plea for just a moment's respite.
Next to the wonder of his rise this high--Nuggets assistant coach Mike Evans says, "Mahmoud is one of those amazing individuals who made it on sheer will"--there is the unfathomable mystery of how all of Abdul-Rauf's uncontrollable tics, his abrupt convulsions, his momentarily logjammed freedom of expression disappears in those milliseconds when he must execute a basketball play with precision or translate thought into action instantaneously.
Though Tourette's symptoms can be controlled by medication such as Prozac or Haldol, the symptoms never totally disappear for Abdul-Rauf, who has a fairly moderate case. Abdul-Rauf concedes there's even parallel between his Tourette-driven quest for perfection and the instant appeal he found in Islam, which he converted to in 1991 when he was still known as Chris Jackson, the scoring phenom from Louisiana State. As he notes: "Islam is a quest for perfection in life too."
As a child, having the disorder was harder. "People would ask, 'Boy, are you crazy? Are you schizo or something?' " he says. Now on days when his twitches are particularly bad he's liable to joke, 'Ooh, I'm going to throw some awesome head fakes today."
After four NBA seasons--his first two flops, the last two marked by his ascent toward stardom--Abdul-Rauf also smiles more now about the referees who mistook his whoops for complaints and slapped him with technicals, and the rivals who still get startled by his explosive "Uh-HUHS!" and the sudden flights of fancy that send him speed dribbling around his ankles, snapping off crossover dribbles and rising for a jump shot--all with a quickness that's mind-bending.
"I make 'em when I want and I miss 'em when I want!" Abdul-Rauf crowed at Randall during their shooting game.
Later, reminded of the boast, Abdul-Rauf wistfully jokes, "I wish."
"People don't know what having this is like sometimes," he says.
It is a constant battle--the impulse to be perfect, the tug-of-war within him. And when something finally works out? "It's a relief," Abdul-Rauf says.
Not a pleasure?
"Well . . . a 'pleasurable' relief," he agrees with a laugh.
Tourette's typically becomes apparent in children between the ages of 5 and 8. But Abdul-Rauf was 17--already a basketball wunderkind in Gulfport, Miss.--before he was diagnosed. Before that he was just thought to be a bit peculiar.
He remembers often crying himself to sleep as a child, fearing something might be seriously wrong because his twitching, the urges that gripped him, couldn't be helped. "By junior high, though, I figured it probably wasn't life-threatening because I'd had it so long and hadn't died yet," he says now, almost matter-of-factly.
He was raised a devout Baptist. Even by high school, he still prayed to God to make whatever possessed him stop.
One doctor who examined Abdul-Rauf as a child wrongly concluded he was epileptic and prescribed medication. Another simply decided Abdul-Rauf had odd "habits" and sent him home. For a time, Abdul-Rauf suspected he'd been altered by childhood falls on his head. Family members mentioned a distant uncle who also acted "crazy" and committed suicide, shooting himself in the head.