Like almost all children born around Chicago, Craig Hodges dreamed of playing basketball. But like almost none, he got it. With 22 years, San Diego Clippers gave him a chance after choosing him in the third round of the draft. From San Diego to Milwaukee, and from there to Phoenix. And from the deserts of Arizona and sharing costumes with some very young Jeff Hornacek, Steve Kerr or Kevin Johnson, to heaven. In December of 1988, he was transferred to the Chicago Bulls. The boy from Chicago who dreamed of playing in the NBA was going to play at home. At the Chicago Stadium, on his city. And yes, he would do it with Michael Jordan. What he did not know is that there began the end of his NBA career with only 31 years and a lot of basketball ahead.

The story of Colin Kaepernick and the NFL is known all over the world. A starting quarterback to whom the football league closed the doors for their political opinions. But Colin’s is not the only case in American sport: if we look at the history of the NBA, in the best time of the league, a similar situation happened if not worse. Craig Hodges was banned from the league for, in addition to his ideas, attacking the best player in basketball history. Too much even for him.

“I imagined these Bulls making history outside the tracks. We had a player like Michael Jordan whose popularity was superior to that of the Pope. If the Chicago Bulls had spoken collectively in their golden age, the world would have heard. “

Craig Hodges

A professional shooter, Craig Hodges became one of the biggest threats of the triple in the late 80s, in the first hatch of the line of three. One of the first to dare to shoot more than 200 times in the same season or to cross the 80-annotated barrier, a milestone before the Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. Three times champion of the triple contest of the NBA, from 1990 to 1992, Hodges took to perfection an art, that of throwing a basket from beyond seven meters and will always be remembered for his work on the court. But the real Craig Hodges is a very different one: a social activist who for many years asked the NBA to get involved in the fight that Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started and that until today, in the figure of LeBron nobody took the witness.

“Basketball and black people, nothing else”

Since childhood, at home, he was taught to defend what is his: his origin, his religion, and his skin color. His mother, a fighter for color rights, educated Craig in the culture of effort. The same that takes you to make a series of 21 triples of 25 attempts or score 19 consecutive. And always with the present history. “Every time in school they sent us to write an essay, my subjects were always sports and politics: baseball? Curt Flood; boxing? Ali; football? Jim Brown. ” At that time he already excelled in basketball, and yes, his favorite was Kareem. Probably today he would write about Kaepernick or LeBron James.

Hence, his first decision to enter the league was to join the union: the NBPA. Bill Walton took him as a mentor, “and he made me the representative of the players, who always understood the importance of separating between owners and players.” A league where at that time 80% of the players were Afro American and there was neither an owner nor a black general manager. Today’s NBA, with players showing their voice and a greater plurality, both in colour and gender, is much closer to Hodges’ dream.

His first years, in addition to social activism, had a mission: to make the teams that were allowed in the draft look wrong. In San Diego debuted, in Milwaukee won the title and the reputation of a top shooter and in Phoenix, he enjoyed one summer and 30 games, his show less time and at the same time more successful from the triple in percentage. But by 1989 and after various rounds in the NBA, Craig Hodges was already a bull. Phil Jackson got his shooter, Tex Winter’s special request, Phil’s assistant and Hodges’ trainer the four years of college in Long Beach State.

Always in the right place in attack, the arrival of Craig improved the performance of a bench that needed points. And along with the points, came the titles: first of the triple contest, in 1990 with an anthological exhibition: 25 points (out of 30). For 1991 he left another showcase for the memory with 19 consecutive triples, the firsts. He did not miss until the last ball of the fourth car. A third followed to emulate Larry Bird, who won him in the first three. But being the best shooter in the league was not separate from his social concern. “Basketball and people of color. The rest is not so relevant in my life, “always said Hodges.

Speak up on behalf of the people

On March 3, 1991, four police officers beat Rodney King. An 81-second video showed how, unfairly, the four of them hit the rider more than 50 times. A year later, after the trial, the officers were declared innocent for assault. For six days, the city of Los Angeles fell into absolute chaos: more than 12,000 people arrested, 2383 injured and 63 dead. After being asked about the verdict of the trial, Michael Jordan replied distantly: “I need to know more about it.”

A year earlier, after the brutal assault on King, Hodges tried to get Jordan and Magic to start a boycott of the league in the first game of the 1991 NBA Finals. “You’re crazy, Craig.” answered Jordan. It was not crazy when in 1964, half of the all-stars refused to play the game until the owners agreed to a series of economic benefits for the players. The owners gave in, and the game was played. Magic and Jordan were not so brave. Craig Hodges was.

“Our generation was more worried about making money and gave up. The individual benefit was more important than the movement of all

The Chicago Bulls won those finals by 4-1, the first for Jordan, Phil Jackson and Craig Hodges. It was the boom of brands: marketing had just begun, and players started to become brands by themselves. No Hodges, who was still working for a collective. The visit to the White House was another highlight. Hodges, proud of his story, appeared in Washington DC with a dashiki and an eight-page letter written for the president, George H.W. Bush. The objective was to hand it in, but it was Tim Hallam who delivered it to the staff of the White House. Coincidentally, the letter was leaked to the press a few months later.

“The purpose of this letter is to speak on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless and, especially, African-Americans who do not have the opportunity to come to this great building to meet the leader of the nation in which we live. This letter is not a plea, but 300 years of slavery has left the community torn apart: it is time for a comprehensive plan to change things.”

The NBA felt embarrassed by Hodges, for his clothes and the controversial message given to Bush Sr. His relationship with the Islamic leader Farrakhan – a friend of Muhammad Ali – was criticized by several top brasses of the league and for the first time, a player was appointed. But Hodges remained true to himself. With the dashiki, he scored nine triples in a row in the courtyard of the White House under the watchful eye of Bush, Phil Jackson and the champion Bulls. That was the true Hodges, the one who united his two passions. 

Hodges throwing in the White House with the dashiki before the eyes of Bush Sr. (Courtesy of the Presidential Library George Bush)

Third strike, Hodges out

The threat of a strike in the NBA Finals of 1991 or the break-in in the White House were only two warnings. Hodges was still playing the best basketball of his career, already 31 years old and the Chicago Bulls brought him back one more year after winning the ring.

After the first game of the NBA Finals against the Blazers, 1992, the NY Times published what was to be the final blow to the career of Hodges. In the article, published by Willian Rhoden, the guard criticized Michael Jordan’s silence on social issues, public pressure and political problems that plagued the country, or even for not commenting on the absence of black owners or black coaches. The statements, made after training the previous day, were once Jordan had left the sports complex, so Jordan discovered it through the press.

In the next game of the NBA Finals, he did not play for a minute. Until the fourth game, where he played five, he did not return to the track [between the first round and the conference finals only missed a game]. Never again scored a triple for the Bulls. But it was not Jordan who told him, not even Phil Jackson. It was Jerry Krause, general manager of Chicago Bulls who called him to inform him that for next year, they would look for someone younger. “Thanks for taking care of the young people,” Krause told him, “but we’re going to have to let you go.” That was Hodges’ last job in the NBA. In his place came Trent Tucker, better defender and less problematic with the press.

“No one called me to ask about Craig. I usually receive at least one call for players who do not sign. And yes, it is true that he does not defend as the best, but many defend the same as him, and none shoot like Hodges“

 The damn coincidence, at that time his life-long agent Bob Woolf was in the process of retreating, so Hodges had, in summer, to look for an agent and a team. Nobody accepted his proposal in the league and ended up with Crawford Richmond, a lifelong friend, and business adviser as a representative. Crawford called all 29 teams in the league. “I asked Tex Winter if he could do me the favor of helping me, ask the rest of the teams but he told me that if he wanted to continue playing, he would better look out of the country.” Nobody gave a yes to Phil Jackson’s best assistant. No one in the NBA even called Phil to ask about Hodges.

A ‘sporting’ decision

In 1993, still as a free agent, Craig Hodges had to defend the title of the three-point contest he had won on the last three occasions, but the NBA saw it differently. According to the rules of the league, a player can not participate in an All-Star if it is not part of a roster. The journalist Sam Smith published a critical column with the NBA and putting the famous example of Rimas Kurtinaitis, who never played in the league but did participate in the contest of triples in 1989. What was the goal of not inviting Hodges? “The NBA silenced me.”

“A lot of messages to young people about studying, not using drugs, but they are not able to behave as they should,” the article recounted. The NBA, of course, changed its mind and Hodges participated in the contest. “They did not invite me because it would be weird if I had won. Who is this guy? Why can he win a triple contest but does not have an NBA contract? People would have asked questions. ” Unfortunately, he could not beat Mark Price in the semifinal and keep the record of the most contests won alone. Once again, destiny closed a door for him.

Chicago Bulls season 1991/92, before winning the second ring | NBA Photos (CC

Hodges insists that it was Jordan and his agent, Dave Falk, who wanted him out of the league. The relationship between Hodges and Mike was initially respectful; some considered Craig as one of the few players who dared to challenge Jordan. With time, he got tired. The end of 1991 or the NY Times article was only the tip of the iceberg, but Hodges always criticized and demanded a lot from Jordan. He tried to persuade him to break his contract with Nike and create his own brand, creating jobs in the community of color. From that conversation comes the famous “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” which was never confirmed if it is true or not.

Similar is his story with Pippen. Hodges tried to get Scottie to read about black history, but the answer was clear: “Why do I need to read? I earn six figures. ” The era of Hodges was different. Bill Russell and Kareem were key to the development of the color player in the NBA, but in the eighties, most players were African-American and charged sky-high salaries. They were the face of the league and played without the pressure of having to respond to an oppressed society. Without going any further, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed to Jordan for choosing “commerce over conscience”.

Life after the NBA

The exit was not easy. In November of 1996, Hodges filed a lawsuit against 29 NBA franchises for rejection. In the lawsuit, he argues that having been publicly pro-African American [outspoken Afrocentrism in English] closed the door of the league and noted that Bulls assistant Jim Cleamons told him that “teams do not like the comments you’ve made about the obligations of black players and are afraid of being interpreted as anti-Jordan.”

David Stern in an interview with Phil Kent | Wikipedia Commons © Kevin Maloney

The lawsuit, for 40 million dollars, opened a series of closed wounds. Again, the NY Times echoed the statements of a responsible Chicago Bulls who wanted to remain anonymous: “I could not defend a club. He was in his last years as a player, and everyone knew it. ” Also Stern, commissioner of the NBA throughout the process, was positioned against any boycott: “It is absurd to think of a conspiracy. I was in the White House when he wore the dashiki, and I think it was great, I even told him.”

Another critical name appeared in the legal document: Billy McKinney, the personnel director of the Sonics in 1992. McKinney was initially interested in taking over the services of Hodges but turned back. “Brothers have families if you know what I mean,” he told Hodges privately. The boycott hypothesis never left the head of Hodges and Buck Williams, president of the NBPA, fanned it even more: “It is known in the league that if you talk too much about some sensitive issues, there may be repercussions.” Hodges was an impact.

Phil Jackson was the only one always to support the Hodges crusade. In 1991, during Operation Desert in the middle of the Gulf War, it was made clear: “If we bomb, we will leave an orphan who will grow up with a vengeance. Do not celebrate because there will be reprisals. ” Neither Jordan, nor Pippen, nor even Kerr, famous for his involvement at present, or Toni Kukoc, originally from Yugoslavia, spoke out against the systematic bombing of Iraq. Only Phil and, of course, Hodges.

So after 13 years without stepping on the league, and travelling through Turkey, Sweden, Canada and the extinct CBA, Phil was the one who offered him a position as an assistant in the Kobe’s Lakers. Six seasons and two more rings, along with the ones still wearing the Chicago Bulls jersey. From Los Angeles, Phil took him to the Knicks, where he ended up as assistant and interim of the Westchester Knicks, in the D-League.

Craig Hodges en 2017, in a Chicago high-school | Max Herman (edited by Alejandro Gaitán)

With time, he returned home. To Chicago, but not to the Bulls: to Rich East High School, where he trains boys from 14 to 17 years old. He remains an activist, now educating the younger ones. The trial was left aside, in the past. He sold the rings and three-point titles to support his family. One of the best shooters of the era that went down in history to be silenced in the best league in the world pretends to be the example of many students who dream of reaching the NBA.

“Dr. King was an example. Malcolm X was an example. We have to choose if we want to continue with his legacy, that of those leaders who gave us lessons “. That is why sometimes he looks at Colin Kaepernick with admiration and melancholy, memories of a past time. “At least Colin has social networks, where a lot of people have shown him support.” The worst for Hodges? Not being able to have the last NBA contract to have continued to do well for the community.

Bibliography: Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, The Guardian, NY Times, Rolling Stone Magazine, Basketball-Reference.

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