Craig Hodges is still shooting his shot
With decades of perspective on athlete activism, the former sharpshooter talks candidly about today’s world
A powerful moment of clarity came over Craig Hodges as he watched protests erupt worldwide following the death of George Floyd. Hodges, one of the greatest sharpshooters in NBA history, was ecstatic. This was the moment he was exiled for.
The protests he witnessed won’t eradicate racism. But he subscribes to the belief that karmic energy of the planet has always bent toward justice. Even if those fighting for it never saw it.
“It’s cool,” he said, smiling, “because I was born into this fight, brother.”
Bitterness could’ve overtaken him. For having his livelihood stripped from him nearly 30 years ago because, as he explains, he chose the liberation of his people over the inflation of his bank account. For his 1991 letter to President George H.W. Bush urging him to have more concern for African Americans. Or for athlete activism being a vital component in sports now when it was neglected in his day.
Hodges should be bitter. But he’s not. So much so that he laughs at the word bitter. His heart aches for the Black men and women such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Real change isn’t on the horizon. For Hodges, it’s already here.
“This is it. Ain’t no more we gotta hope for it. George Floyd’s death put that down,” he said. “You and I have the power to define what it is coming up out of this thing. Where we want to place ourselves. How we want to engage ourselves with allies or colleagues. We got the definitions for that.”
Hodges’ activism was inspired by his family. Growing up, he understood being an agent of change often brought tragic consequences. If he closes his eyes, he can see the TV broadcasts and feel his parents’ grief as they sat in the living room following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The following year, Hodges was 9 when Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by 14 Chicago police officers.
“Hampton and Clark’s murders was one of those things that left a question mark not only in my mind, but in my life as to why this happens,” Hodges said. “And what could I do to foster the solution to it.”
Hodges can still see former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died in January, traipsing into a New York conference room. It was 1997, and weeks earlier the two-time champion filed his lawsuit charging the NBA with blackballing him because of “his outspoken political nature as an African American man.” Stern, he recalled, was informal, taking off his jacket before sitting down and unloosening his tie.
“What are we here for?” Hodges remembers Stern asking. Stern, in separate reports, called the lawsuit “ridiculous.”
Hodges continued: “I didn’t have that type of friendship with [Stern]. I felt like he didn’t really take [our meeting] seriously. I’m not speaking ill of the dead. I’m just speaking facts.”
Released in 1992 following the Chicago Bulls’ second consecutive title, Hodges couldn’t land a tryout, let alone get a team to sign him. Hodges played in 56 of 82 regular-season games and averaged 10 minutes per game.
Hodges’ unemployment even surprised Bulls coach Phil Jackson. “I also found it strange that not a single team called to inquire about him,” Jackson told The New York Times in 1996. “And yes, he couldn’t play much defense, but a lot of guys in the league can’t, but not many can shoot from his range, either.”
Hodges called on eminent members of the Black community to help regain his employment, including civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran. “[Cochran] represented O.J., but he wouldn’t help me,” Hodges told ESPN in 2008. “That’s messed up.”
The New York Times reported in 1996 that Billy McKinney, who is Black, then a director of player personnel for the Seattle SuperSonics, initially gauged interest in Hodges. But he later backtracked, telling Hodges he couldn’t help him because “brothers have families, if you know what I mean.” Buck Williams, a forward for the New York Knicks at the time, said, “I don’t know if Hodges lost his job because of it, but it is a burden when you carry the militant label he has.”
If Hodges laughs at the word bitter, militant still confuses him. Not that there’s anything wrong with the label. He’s just not that guy. “When I see somebody say, ‘Yeah, Hodge was talking about militancy.’ Man, it was nothing like that. That’s what’s so funny about how the media can speculate and twist things in such a way that it becomes palatable,” he said.
Regardless of the label, Hodges was focused on the men and women who looked like him. His family planted the seeds, and at Long Beach State his worldview became more refined.
Hodges has watched the video of Floyd’s final moments only once. That’s all he needed. It reminds him of a ghost from his past. Hodges’ face hardens when he hears the name Ron Settles, a classmate and close friend at Long Beach State. Settles was a star running back and the fifth-leading rusher in school history. The Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks had expressed interest.
Shortly before the school year ended in 1981, Settles stopped by Hodges’ dorm room and said by the next summer he’d be in the NFL. Hodges responded by saying he’d be in the NBA. That was the last time he saw Settles, who was pulled over for speeding in Signal Hill, California, that June. Police officers claimed Settles resisted, attempted to pull a knife and had cocaine in his car. They also admitted Settles was repeatedly hit in the head as he was being booked. Three hours later, he was dead in his jail cell with police saying he hung himself. Neither Settles’ family nor Hodges believed that account.
“To have an up close and personal contact with police brutality at that point in my life really left me with no choice,” Hodges said. “You gotta stand for justice and what’s right regardless how uncomfortable it may be. You have to be the lone voice sometimes and be willing to throw caution to the wind.”
He organized protests at Long Beach State, USC and UCLA. Settles’ death was one of Cochran’s first big cases and his parents’ lawsuit against the city was settled in 1983 for $1 million. Hodges could never bring Settles back, but he could make sure his friend’s death wasn’t in vain.
Hodges was drafted in 1982 by the San Diego Clippers, owned then by Donald Sterling. In his 10-year NBA career, he never registered a technical foul. He was the Players Association rep for every team he played for. He was the NBA leader in 3-point percentage in 1985-86 and 1987-88, the latter of which he connected on nearly 50% of his attempts. By the time he joined the Bulls in 1988, the team, led by Michael Jordan, looked like it would be the league’s next great dynasty. But it would take three straight years of disappointment at the hands, elbows and the occasional fists of the Detroit Pistons before the Bulls and Hodges broke through to the Finals in 1991.
It was also in 1991 when the two defining moments of activism during his playing career took place. After the Bulls dispatched the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, Hodges understood the power behind an NBA Finals headlined by the sport’s biggest names in Jordan and Magic Johnson. In his memoir and soon-to-be documentary, Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, he detailed the proposal: He wanted both teams to boycott Game 1 to bring attention to racial and economic inequalities months after Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers. Jordan told him he was crazy, and Johnson dubbed the measure “too extreme.”
“What’s happening to our people in this country is extreme,” Hodges replied.
Later that year, the Bulls, sans Jordan, visited then-President Bush at the White House. The night before, Hodges was playing pingpong with a friend when the thought hit him. Hodges wrote the letter that would alter the trajectory of his life. He had to speak for those whose voices were otherwise drowned out. The King beating was still fresh, as was the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a grocery store clerk who wrongly accused her of stealing a bottle of orange juice. In Chicago, where Hodges lived and worked, there had been 849 murders in 1990.
Hodges donned a white dashiki the day of the visit, drained nine consecutive 3-pointers at a hoop set up on the South Lawn and, before leaving, handed the letter to press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
“The purpose of this notice is to speak for poor people, Native Americans, homeless and most specifically, African Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice,” the note read. “This letter is not begging the government for anything … but 300 years of free labor has left the African American community destroyed.”
Bush never responded to the letter. It’s unclear whether he even read it. But the gesture meant Hodges was working on borrowed time in the NBA. The 1991-92 season would be his final campaign. Jim Cleamons, the Bulls’ then-assistant coach, told Hodges the team was not pleased with his comments on Black players’ community obligations because they could be taken as disrespect toward Jordan, according to the lawsuit.
“I feel like we as the Bulls could’ve had more of an impact on the social fabric of Chicago. So many people looked up to us across the board — I’m talking Black, white, brown, yellow. Everybody loved the Bulls,” Hodges recalled. “We had something different because we had [Michael Jordan]. His presence alone could change things.”
Hodges held Jordan to a high standard because he was the face of the league. So it came as no surprise he held Jordan publicly accountable during the 1992 NBA Finals for saying he needed to know more about the Los Angeles riots before speaking about them, even though they had occurred more than a month earlier. Nevertheless, the Bulls went on to capture their second consecutive title and Jordan never spoke publicly about the riots.
Hodges’ last game in the NBA was Game 5 of the 1992 Finals. In the fall of ’92, he played in Cantù, Italy, because the Phoenix Suns wanted to see if he could still play at an NBA level. In the best shape of his life, Hodges averaged north of 30 points in Europe.
“It was a good experience,” Hodges said. “But when I got back, I saw no one had any intention on letting me play again.”
In one of the more bizarre occurrences in the NBA, Hodges participated in the 1993 3-point shootout as an unsigned free agent. Hodges was the reigning 3-point king, having won the previous three contents. He and Larry Bird are the only players to three-peat in the All-Star festivity. “Why won’t a team pick him up? There are several theories,” The New York Times pondered that weekend. “Many in the league consider his frankness something of a threat.”
Hodges, despite not playing a minute in the NBA that season, placed third behind Mark Price and Terry Porter. Following the contest, he lamented, “When you have games under your belt and game rhythm, as opposed to working out by yourself like I did, it makes a big difference.”
The names ring off his lips: LeBron James, Serena Williams, Maya Moore, Colin Kaepernick. Athletes today, Hodges said, understand the three Ps: Power, platform and purpose. Today, athletes are revered for the activism that led to his exile.
“They’re courageous, man. They’re realizing that even if you play for an extended time, it’s just a small portion of your life when you’re 90,” he said, smiling. He recalled a recent conversation with activist athlete John Carlos. “He told me what they planted in us were the seeds, and now it’s coming to these brothers and sisters where they’re actually the tree limbs and branches. The African tree is blossoming in a way that has the world on notice.”
His praise extends to Jordan, who recently pledged $100 million to social justice organizations. “To whom much is given, much is required. Those who have much more than us, we can’t tell them when to do it or when to pull the trigger,” he said. “But it’s a level of consciousness that will hopefully come, and when it does, we’ll applaud it.”
But he still has questions for the six-time Finals MVP. “When I look at MJ and being with him back then, Black people was not his thought process. You wasn’t thinking about, ‘Well, I got 40 tonight, but s—, we had 10 killings in the city last night.’ One of the things in his statement that made me say, ‘Did you write this or did you say that in Chicago you were gonna wait?’ ” Hodges said of Jordan’s response to Floyd’s death. “Because your statement said you’re tired of ingrained racism. Ingrained racism is a fabric of America. This ain’t something that’s new. Ingrained racism was when you were at North Carolina.”
Hodges has had thousands of conversations with players about the state of society. Even if players during his playing days never spoke out, they always had opinions and they appreciated his viewpoint. That continued long after his playing career. In 2005, at the behest of Tex Winter, Jackson brought Hodges out of NBA exile when he hired him as the Lakers’ shooting coach. That allowed Hodges to spend time with Kobe Bryant.
Bryant’s tragic death in January still pains Hodges. He smiles at the memory of their 5 a.m. gym sessions. But what he really misses are the debates that Bryant refused to have unless Hodges joined in.
“I’ll be out on the court and Kobe’s in the training room. It’ll be a discussion that pops up about a social issue, Black issue, whatever,” Hodges said. “Then [Kobe would] yell, ‘Nah, hold on. C’mon in here, Hodgie!’ He’d call me in to be the arbitrator or pick my brain. That brother was well read. He studied a lot. I think he was one of the brothers who had the ability to build some international and intercultural bridges. I really miss him.”
Hodges and Bryant would capture two titles together in 2009 and 2010 before Hodges left the Lakers in 2011. A year later, the Miami Heat posted the landmark Instagram photo of the team donning hoodies in tribute of Trayvon Martin. Martin’s murder is widely considered the turning point in modern-day activism in the NBA.
The NBA has taken on the mantle as the most socially progressive league in the U.S., especially compared with the other major sports leagues. But can the NBA completely embrace that role without acknowledging its past with guys such as Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf?
“I’m not sure it’s the NBA’s responsibility to remind the world about those earlier forms of activism. That’s really for independent voices to draw attention to those athletes in this current kind of embrace,” said Damion Thomas, sports curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “One of the challenges of asking the NBA to go back and right its wrongs – full stop, that’s a great idea — but what you’ll also get happening is the fact that companies won’t want to engage if they have to go back and be self-reflective.”
“That’s a really tricky question. The NBA can absolutely embrace it, and they have. But logically, no, they can’t without acknowledging its past,” says Tiffany Packer, a history professor at Florida A&M University. “The NBA still tends to have this characteristic like, ‘We’re inclusive. We care. We do have tolerance.’ But we’ve seen from examples like Hodges and Abdul-Rauf what can happen.”
For former NBA player and activist Etan Thomas, there is hope. “I asked Adam Silver specifically if Craig Hodges happened under his watch, would he have punished him,” Thomas said. “He told me that he didn’t see anything wrong with what Hodges did. He added that [Hodges] was respectful in his objections, which is all he asks players to be.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since Hodges played in a professional game. If the apology comes, it comes. He’s not bitter, but there is unresolved tension. He lost out on money to provide for his family. He never got the chance to end his career on his own terms. He was outcast for, in his words, standing on the promise the Constitution said he was supposed to have.
“When we talk about the NBA being the ‘woke’ league, if they’re so woke why haven’t they brought Mahmoud and myself in for truth and reconciliation?” he asked. “It’s one thing to talk about racial justice and another thing when it hits your pocket and all you did was stand on principle. I was never fired, never late, always a good teammate and went out and played the roles they wanted me to play. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The thing about freedom is it comes slow.
“With freedom fighting, you might not see everything in your lifetime. You might not even feel like it’s going to change,” Packer said. “Freedom doesn’t just fall out of the sky.”
In the first 60 years of his life, Hodges has seen countless men and women come and go. Many of those ghosts are the reason for his dedication. The condition of “his people” is never an afterthought for Hodges.
That’s why he’s so energetic. He doesn’t have all the answers in a world that is in desperate search of clarity. But for him, emancipation is at hand. And it’s his people, he says, who will reap the rewards they’ve been seeking ever since his ancestors arrived in America 400 years ago.
“You can only oppress people but for so long. There’s no other people who could’ve gone through what we’ve gone through. No one could’ve survived that,” Hodges said. “It’s deliverance and I think white Americans have been more miseducated than us.”
When he hears that this time in history feels familiar, Hodges bucks back the notion. The cycle of injustice feels familiar, but, “This is a change in the heartbeat of the planet.”
The systems in place now aren’t broken, he said. From professional and collegiate sports to police departments and criminal justice, they work exactly in the manner they were always intended to. They need to be replanted, in a manner that’s structurally sound but humanistic. How will the world look moving forward? Hodges doesn’t know, but he knows how it should look.
“We’ll leave all the righteous tenants that are left in the building,” he said. “But we gotta reinforce that with some Black, some more African in the inner workings of organizations.
“Within the freedom of us is the freedom of that system also.”
Hodges is still shooting his shot. He doesn’t know any other way.