Close to 30 years ago, Craig Hodges had a radical idea. The then-30 year-old shooting guard was coming off the bench for a loaded Chicago Bulls team headed into a storied match-up in the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Facing off against an aging but still dominant Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan was presented with a near pitch-perfect opportunity to dispel the myth that, for all his otherworldly gifts, he couldn’t lead a team to the title. If he prevailed, Jordan could stake his claim to be included in the pantheon of NBA greats.
Hodges saw a different kind of opportunity altogether. Inspired by Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, and Jerry West, whose threat to shut down the 1964 NBA All-Star Game forced the league to fund a pension plan and recognize the union, he proposed a wildcat strike of game one. By bringing the Finals to a shuddering halt, the NBA and the entire basketball-loving world would have to pay heed to the systemic racism that existed both in the country as a whole and the league itself. Enlisting Jordan was key to the entire endeavor, Hodges determined. If he were willing to lock arms in solidarity, the rest of the Bulls would follow suit.
Jordan declined, as did Johnson. “That’s too extreme, man,” Hodges says Johnson told him during warmups, as detailed in Hodges’s 2017 memoir, Longshot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter.
"The only time we have any power against ownership is during All-Star weekend and the playoffs." he said when reached by phone at his home in Illinois. “I felt like if MJ and Magic had both just raised their voices about the possibility of it, even, things could change."
The rejection didn’t dampen his desire to drag his fellow athletes towards collective action. He tried to convince Jordan to dump his partnership with Nike and create a new Chicago-based sneaker brand. When the Bulls were crowned champions for the first time in 1991, Hodges wore a dashiki when the team visited the White House and delivered a letter outlining the racism plaguing America to President George H. W. Bush. By Hodges’s account, his relentless drive to shine a light on injustice—even to the point of publicly criticizing Jordan—came at a significant cost. That same year, he was released and then blackballed by the NBA.
With the league now unveiling its plan to reboot the 2019-20 season, some NBA players are following in Hodges’s footsteps. Amidst the sweeping Black Lives Matter movement decrying state-sanctioned violence and systemic racism, a number of players, many of whom have been protesting in the streets, lending their voices to the cause, and taking concrete actions, over the last few weeks, have begun to question whether it’s right to return to the court. Not when, as soon as the games commence, the public’s attention will necessarily be diverted.
Hodges, as always, is encouraging labor not to back down. Not when the players have far more leverage than they may realize.
“My opinion is they shouldn’t play,” he said. The opportunity exists to affect real change, according to Hodges, if only because the league is desperate to return and petrified at the thought of risking billions in revenue. While NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may swear that social justice and basketball in Disney World can go hand-in-hand, Hodges sees the two as irreconcilable.
“Protests and demonstrations are cool,” with those in positions of authority, he said. Right up to the moment “they affect the bottom line of corporate, white America and the corporate interests of white privilege and power.”
And while sitting out en masse would cost players a percentage of their guaranteed salaries, Hodges asked: ”At what point are we going to choose morality over money?
Craig Hodges was born in 1960 and grew up in Chicago Heights, a segregated suburb south of the city. Both his mother and aunt were active in the civil rights movement, where they fought to end redlining, and demanded equal pay for equal work for teachers. Evening meals were spent hashing out questions of women’s rights, the ongoing Vietnam War, segregation, and the failures of the Chicago public housing system.
Starting at an early age, Hodges picked up their mantle. At age 11, he went door-to-door, gathering signatures to rename his elementary school after Dr. Charles Gavin, a local doctor whose home was burned to the ground in what many in the community suspected had been a hate crime. The petition succeeded, and Hodges realized “change was something that happened only if we made it happen,” he wrote in Longshot. His athletic gifts were evident early on, and certainly encouraged. But his family made it clear that, “Speaking tough truths is what made you a hero.”
In 1978, he secured a scholarship at Long Beach State University, where he was named an Academic All-American his final two years, majoring in Black studies. After being drafted by the then-San Diego Clippers in 1982, he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks after two seasons. In 1989, after a brief pit stop with the Phoenix Suns, Hodges finally landed in Chicago, where his former Long Beach head coach, Tex Winter, was in the process of installing the famed triangle offense. There, Hodges flourished, hitting 42.5 percent from three, and winning the three point shooting contest from 1990 to 1992.
That skill set would certainly be valued a great deal more in the current NBA, with teams now hoisting up over 30 treys per game as a matter of course. Of course, if Steph Curry were transported back in time, the rough-and-tumble nature of 80s and 90s defenses would have put a quick stop to his flights of shooting fancy. "If someone like Steph Curry started to get on a roll from three,” Hodges promised, “no way was he going to get up the next one, you know what I'm saying?”
The 90s Bulls, and specifically, Michael Jordan, were brought back into the national spotlight thanks to the 10-hour ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which premiered just as the country was locking down. Hodges was excised from the documentary entirely. But ultimately that omission ended up having a bit of a Streisand Effect—with multiple outlets contacting Hodges and asking why, as a key contributor during the Bulls’ first three-peat, his contributions to the team were never mentioned.
Hodges had a few other criticisms of the film. Jordan’s allegation that the Bulls during his rookie year were a “cocaine circus,” didn’t sit right with Hodges, if only because none of those players were afforded the opportunity to defend themselves.
What’s more, the notion Jordan ruled over the team “like he was the sheriff in town" was a disservice to head coach Phil Jackson and the coaching staff, Hodges said. Inside the locker room, “We knew who the head dog was and that was Phil Jackson,” he said. “Everybody took their cues from him.” The bullying, too, was overblown. "MJ would go at people the way he went at people. It depended if they had the type of personality to come back at him,” Hodges insisted. “It wasn’t combative, it was competitive." (Hodges is far from the only ex-Bull of that era to question whether Jordan’s preferred narrative represents the whole truth)
Hodges was able to enjoy the documentary for what it was: entertainment. “Society and the world needed something at this time to settle down and forget about the madness that's going on,” he said.
Also unmentioned by the documentary: His three-and-a-half year stint in Chicago came to an abrupt and surprising end for reasons that, according to Hodges, had little to do with basketball.
As the Bulls were racking up rings, Hodges, who made sure he talked about Black history with his teammates—in his book, Hodges writes: “[Jordan] didn’t know shit about Black history”—took on a more public activist role.
The planned Game One boycott was his first attempt, coming three months after Los Angeles police officers were caught beating Rodney King. A year later, and again, right before the Finals, the four officers were acquitted, and mass protests and riots broke out. Eventually the National Guard was employed. Game One of the 1992 Finals went as expected, with Jordan dropping 39 points against the Phoenix Suns in a home win. The following day, Hodges was cornered by a reporter with The New York Times, and unloaded on Jordan.
"When they came to Michael after the L.A. deal went down and asked him what he thought, his reply was that he wasn't really up on what was going on," Hodges told the paper, referring to King. "I can understand that, but at the same time, that's a bailout situation because you are bailing out when some heat is coming on you. We can't bail anymore.”
(In the ensuing years, Jordan has become far more vocal about his beliefs, even if, as his former Washington Wizards teammate Etan Thomas told The Daily Beast, some of the criticism was unwarranted and unfair. Jordan recently pledged to donate $100 million over the next 10 years towards civil rights causes, and organizations fighting for racial equality. “We have been beaten down [as African Americans] for so many years,” he told the Charlotte Observer. It sucks your soul. You can’t accept it anymore.”)
The previous October, Hodges had addressed his complaints to a higher authority. The Bulls were being fêted during the traditional visit to the White House, but Hodges had other plans. Wearing a flowing, white dashiki, he playfully launched a few jumpers surrounded by aides and the assembled press. But his main purpose in attending was to get his message directly in the hands of President Bush.
“The purpose of this note is to speak on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless and, most specifically, the African Americans, who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation where they live,” he wrote. “This letter is not begging for anything, but 300 years of free slave labor has left the African American community destroyed. It is time for a comprehensive plan for change.”
At the time, most NBA stars—or athletes in other sports—weren’t ready to match his fervor. On more than one occasion, Hodges said he suggested to Jordan that no matter how much Nike paid him, those dollars still served to maintain the pernicious status quo, both locally and the sweatshops abroad. "Michael had the resources and the power to bring those jobs to the crib, but that wasn't in their sights,” said Hodges. (Jordan did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.)
Meanwhile, Hodges had been unjustly painted as a militant, partly because of his words and actions, and, Hodges believes, partly because of the garb he wore at the White House, all of which made him persona non grata in NBA circles. “Those who consider it extreme, that’s what it is, man," he said. After four years spent waiting for a call from a general manager or even the opportunity to try out, Hodges finally took the league to court in 1996, but the case was dismissed.
In the following years, he ran basketball clinics for at-risk kids and continued organizing, before finally returning to the NBA as an assistant on Phil Jackson’s coaching staff with the Lakers from 2005 to 2011. He’s been a head coach himself, too, both at the high-school level and abroad. But these days, Hodges has been using the downtime he’s been afforded during lockdown to keep researching and writing. There are plans afoot to turn his memoirs into a documentary, he said, and hopefully, he’ll soon be able to restart the work he’s been doing over the last four years in the greater Chicago area: helping student-athletes get through high school and preparing them for the rigors of college.
“I've been blessed in my life to play for a living,” said Hodges, but that gift has given him the opportunity to "speak truth to power" and to advocate for “human rights” whenever and wherever possible.
Some of his four sons, ages 36, 34, 21, and 8, have been participating in the protests. And though Hodges himself hasn’t joined, he’s deeply encouraged by the mass movement that’s taking shape. Black Lives Matter, he said, has the potential to reconfigure not just America, but the world.
“You now have the slaves who built America now being asked to save America again and rebuild it,” he said, referring not just to the return of pro basketball but the larger Black population, one that has been particularly hard hit by the novel coronavirus.
“The extent of being able to live a lifestyle of wealth and privilege and white power is at the expense of my ancestors, and the young brothers that's been hung, and all the people who have died so the American experience can continue unabated,” he said.
“That time is up, man. That time is up.”