He was one of the NBA’s finest sharpshooters and a two-time champion alongside Michael Jordan, but was run out of the league for his outspoken views. A quarter of a century on, Craig Hodges is still fighting the good fight
By Donald McRae / The Guardian / Thursday 20 April 2017 05.00 EDT
“I’m sad to say that one of our players was shot on Monday,” Craig Hodgesreveals after he has spoken for an hour about his brave but tumultuous career in the NBA. Hodges fell out with Michael Jordan, confronted George Bush Sr in the White House and won two championships with his hometown team, at a time when the Chicago Bulls were venerated around the world, before he was ostracised and shut out of basketball for being too politically outspoken.
At home in Chicago, where Hodges and one of his sons, Jamaal, now coach basketball at his old high school, Rich East, his urgency is tinged with pathos. “He’s in surgery right now,” the 56-year-old says of his wounded player. “He got shot in the hip. He’s only a freshman so he’s just a 15-year-old. It’s stuff like this we’re battling every day. A few weekends ago in Chicago, five people got killed, so it’s terrible. There is so much injustice, but it’s just a matter of time before we win these battles.”
Hodges has told his compelling life story with fiery passion, looping around a cast of characters stretching from Jordan, Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson back to Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, before returning to the present. Sport and politics are entwined again in a country where Donald Trump is president and Colin Kaepernick remains locked outside football as an unsigned free agent who had the temerity to sink to one knee during the national anthem. And teenage African American boys, just like they were when Hodges was trying to shake up the NBA, are still being gunned down.
Hodges always wanted to voice his opposition to injustice. In June 1991, before the first game of the NBA finals between the Bulls and the LA Lakers, Hodges tried to convince Jordan and Magic Johnson that both teams should stage a boycott. Rodney King, an African American, had been beaten brutally by four white policemen in Los Angeles three months earlier – while 32% of the black population in Illinois lived below the poverty line.
As he writes in his new book Longshot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, Hodges told the sport’s two leading players that the Bulls and Lakers should sit out the opening game, so “we would stand in solidarity with the black community while calling out racism and economic inequality in the NBA, where there were no black owners and almost no black coaches despite the fact that 75% of the players in the league were African American”.
Jordan told Hodges he was “crazy” while Johnson said: “That’s too extreme, man.”
“What’s happening to our people in this country is extreme,” Hodges replied.
The finals were played as normal, and Hodges and the Bulls won the championship, but he regrets the failure to stage a united protest. “Our generation dropped the ball as a lot of us were more concerned with our own economic gain. We were at that point where branding was just beginning and we got caught up in individual branding rather than a unified movement.”
Craig Hodges (14) won the first of his two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls during the 1990-91 season. Photograph: NBA Photos/NBAE/Getty Images
Hodges became a one-man protest movement within the NBA. In October 1991, the Bulls were invited to the White House to meet President Bush. The assault on King remained fresh in his mind, as did the US bombing of Iraq that January, and so Hodges wrote an impassioned eight-page letter to the president – on behalf of “most specifically, the African Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation in which they live”.
He wore a dashiki and George W, the president’s son and a future occupant of the Oval Office, spoke slowly as if Hodges might not understand English. “Where are you from?”
“Chicago Heights, Illinois,” Hodges answered, amused at the way in which W’s excitement at meeting the famous Bulls, which had him “bouncing around like a kid” at his father’s workplace, had disappeared into startled incomprehension.
Phil Jackson, the Bulls’ coach, informed the president that Hodges was the Bulls’ best shooter. On a half-court set up on the South Lawn, Hodges drained three-pointers from 24 feet. He hit nine in a row, his white dashiki swirling gently around him. As they left the court, Hodges told the president he had written him a personal letter.
Did Bush reply to the letter? “He never did,” Hodges says, calmly. “I wonder sometimes if he got past page one. I wonder if he even read it? When I was researching my book I got in touch with the George Bush library to get the original copy. The lady there loved it. She was like: ‘Oh, this is a great letter. You actually gave this to the president?’ I said: ‘Yeah, and I got in lots of trouble for it.’”
Hodges did not mind that his letter was leaked to the media in 1991. But it made him a marked man. He remained with the Bulls and, the following year, emulated Larry Bird by becoming the only other player in NBA history to win three successive three-point contests at the all-star weekend – showcasing his skill in sinking long-range shots.
Hodges won $20,000, and asked his fellow Bulls to join him in each pooling a similar amount from their vast earnings to help local communities. His team-mates avoided the invitation, saying they would need to clear it with their agents. Hodges was disappointed, because “I envisioned the Chicago Bulls making history in the most meaningful way. We also had a basketball player [Jordan] whose popularity exceeded that of the pope. If the Bulls spoke in a collective voice during the golden age of professional basketball, the world would listen.”
Craig Hodges lifts the trophy after winning the first of his three connsecutive Three-Point Contest titles in 1990. Photograph: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
In his absorbing book, Hodges stresses how he tried repeatedly to persuade Jordan to “break with Nike and go into the sneaker business for himself, with the aim of creating jobs in the black communities”. Jordan argued he was not in a position to take control while he was tainted by, allegedly, saying: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”