Craig Hodges in Chicago. ‘There is so much injustice, but it’s just a matter of time before we win these battles.’ Photograph: Max Herman for the Guardian
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“I’m sad to say that one of our players was shot on Monday,” Craig Hodges reveals 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.”
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.”
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.”
The veracity of that quote might be hazy, but Jordan, unlike Hodges, clearly avoided political engagement. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, such a force in the NBA in the 1970s and 80s, said Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.”
On 29 April 1992, with the Bulls cruising through the play-offs, the Los Angeles riots broke out after the four LAPD officers were cleared of all charges resulting from their savage assault on King. That same day, Jordan scored 56 points against the Miami Heat. Asked to comment on the King verdict, Jordan said: “I need to know more about it.”
Rioting spread across LA for six days and Hodges followed the televised news – noticing how often, amid play-off fever, a ‘Be Like Mike’ commercial in homage to Jordan was repeated. After game two of the 1992 championship final against Portland, Hodges was asked about the NBA’s lack of black owners. He spoke out against racism in the NBA, and across America, and criticised Jordan for failing to address the judicial injustice towards King.
The New York Times ran the story; and Hodges’ career was effectively over. Twenty-five days after Chicago became champions again, Hodges was told he would not be offered a new deal. He had just turned 32 – but Hodges had been part of successive title-winning campaigns and remained king of the three-pointers.
Hodges’ knowledge of the game and enduring shooting skills could not compensate for his political conviction. His belief that Jordan and his agent Dave Falk were, in tandem with others, “going to run me out of the league” came true. Not one NBA team would offer a contract to a free agent of huge experience.
His precarious situation deteriorated when his own agent, Bob Woolf, said he could no longer represent him. Hodges could not even find a new agent. “No one would return my calls,” he remembers. While he waited forlornly for an offer from the NBA, which never came, Hodges played in Italy.
Unlike when Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith made powerful gestures of political defiance in the civil rights-enflamed 1960s, Hodges was an outcast. “It was a different climate. A brother facing oppression in the 1960s felt it the same, whether he was a bus driver or Ali. Look what the brothers did in Mexico City [when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in black power salutes during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner on the Olympic podium in 1968]. They faced unemployment and disenfranchisement.
“I had that too but, in my era, not many people stood up. The climate was very conservative – and it was got worse because athletes were afraid to speak because of the ramifications I faced.”
In his foreword to Hodges’ book, the sportswriter Dave Zirin recalls that, when he started covering the NBA in 2003, he asked players why they did not speak out politically. The stock answer, fed to the players by their agents, was stark: “You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”
That troubling quote is echoed by Kaepernick’s failure to win a new contract now he is no longer a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Hodges is sympathetic. “The cruel part about it, man, is he’s speaking on behalf of people who can’t speak for themselves. Now he’s spoken, it seems his platform has been removed. It’s like [the NFL] are saying: ‘We’re going to take him away because we don’t want his views to catch fire. We don’t want him in a locker room spreading this truth.
“I applaud Colin. I’m trying to reach out to the brother so I can let him know personally: ‘I respect you. If there’s anything I can do please don’t hesitate to call me. I’ve got your back.’ I know he loves to play the game. So not getting a contract is hurtful to his essence. The fact he’s not even getting offers right now is depressing for me, for him. I know these feelings.”
But Hodges believes the outpouring of support for Kaepernick, especially on social media, “has to be heartening for him. He must know that, ‘Hey man, I’m doing the right thing.’”
Hodges, in contrast, received no support. “None at all. Today, on social media, people can vibe with you even if they can’t do anything about your opportunity to play. So I feel good he knows people support him. Now, if the NFL doesn’t stump up and he doesn’t get an opportunity, fans who are supportive of Colin should show their displeasure and stage a boycott. Don’t buy jerseys or don’t go to the game to show appreciation for his stance.”
The way in which social media has publicised campaigns such as Black Lives Matter has meant sportsmen can no longer plead ignorance as Jordan and Scottie Pippen once did. When Hodges tried to get his team-mates to read more about black history, Pippen supposedly said: “What do I need education for? I make six figures.”
Hodges harbors no animosity towards Pippen or even Jordan. “Michael didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say – not because he was a bad person.”
It should also be pointed out that Jordan chose to snub President Bush’s invitation when the Bulls visited him in 1991. “I’m not going to the White House,” Hodges remembers Jordan saying. “Fuck Bush. I didn’t vote for him.”
How does he regard Jordan, 25 years on? “He’s a savvy businessman. I applaud him for that, I don’t hate on that. But he’s gained knowledge through life experience and he has been getting into decent projects. I’m sure he is more conscious now.”
Phil Jackson was the only man in the Chicago locker room to share Hodges’ unhappiness at America’s bombing of Iraq in 1991. “We get stuck in one idea of patriotism,” Hodges says, “and if I don’t march to the beat of that soundbite I’m unpatriotic. Me and Phil were different. When the Gulf war broke out in 1991, on Dr King Day, actually, everybody said: ‘We need to bomb the shit out of them.’ Phil let them finish and he said: ‘If we do that, then remember that’s going to leave an orphan who will feel the pain as he grows up with the idea of revenge. Don’t be too quick to cheer – because retaliation is in his hands now.”
Jackson ended Hodges’ 13-year isolation from the NBA when he offered him a coaching role at the LA Lakers. Hodges won two more championships with Jackson and the Lakers. The old wounds have healed but surely he despairs when, apart from the continuing loss of young black lives, Trump is in the White House?
“You would love to think we’ve come a long way, and that’s saddening to me at times. The imagery portrays that black people have come a long way. We had a black president so we now can’t talk about race any more? But we’re still the least represented people in this nation.”
Hodges dismisses Barack Obama’s presidency. “He did some good things, I’m sure,” Hodges snorts, “but I don’t know what they are. Maybe he tried to get healthcare for everybody, but they’re still running it the way they want.”
Yet replacing Obama with Trump must dishearten Hodges? “No. It’s not disheartening because there are natural cycles of life. We have been so mis-educated we don’t understand there is a supreme answer. You know that old song – Age of Aquarius? It’s about the dawning of a new age. It’s coming, even if Trump says we’re going to make America great again. For me, as a black man, when was America great? What’s so great about the founding fathers, the civil war, the killing of Martin Luther King, the killing of Malcolm X? The blackballing of athletes during that period? What period are you talking about when America was great?’
“But we are going to win, eventually, because poor people will rise, the disenfranchised will be franchised, and that franchisement ain’t coming by no political act. It’s coming from time and energy where people are getting tired of the bullshit. It will happen naturally. Social media shows us many people have the same feeling as Colin Kaepernick. They’re just not as visible. But there’s a grassroots thing going on. It’s a feeling in America right now, especially among young people, that something has to be done. Everyday life matters. Not just Black Lives Matter. We all matter.”
Far from stressing over Trump, or lamenting the millions he lost when shut out of the NBA, Hodges sounds cheerful. “My son Jamaal loves to tell me: ‘You’re the Forrest Gump of basketball because of all the people you met. You’ve crossed paths with people that have been so illuminating.’ He’s right. Take this conversation between you and me.”
Hodges and I have swapped notes about him growing up in Chicago while I was a small boy living under apartheid in South Africa – where Arthur Ashe was banned from playing tennis because he was black. “You can’t tell me that there ain’t some creator in all of this. That’s why I say there are cycles of time and natural rhythms of law which change things and bring us together. The fact you and I are having this conversation is cool. We have a young brother that was in South Africa when they wouldn’t allow Arthur Ashe, and a brother that was in Chicago watching Arthur Ashe trying to go to South Africa. Now you and me are talking.
“All the boundaries and divisions between us are man-made. And the human family is starting to cast that shit off. It was a South African, Nelson Mandela, who gave me hope at my lowest point, when I was out the NBA. He had been freed a few months earlier [after 27 years in prison] and he came to Chicago. There was a dinner in his honor and Mandela asked to sit next to me. I grew up in the projects, man. So that’s a power bigger than me. I was in awe. I kept asking him: ‘What was it like to be away from your people for so long?’ He was amazing. Truth gave him power. He didn’t need to be anyone other than himself. That’s freedom.”
Hodges has also found freedom. He will keep teaching basketball and speaking out – amid his belief that, finally, justice will prevail despite the political system and bleak shootings. “We’ll win all our battles in the end. Until then I’m just doing what I can to keep children out of harm’s way as much as possible. It’s the right way.”
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