A sharpshooter in the winning Chicago Bulls line-up alongside Michael Jordan, Hodges spoke openly of racial oppression and was subsequently ostracised. Three decades later, he shares the travails and turmoils of his time and connects it with the present context in the US.
A sharpshooter, Craig Hodges helped Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to their first two championships in 1991 and 1992. He remains the only other player after Larry Bird to win three successive three-point contests at the All-Star weekend. But Hodges was run out of the league for being politically outspoken, on issues ranging from struggles of Chicago’s black community to the lack of black leadership in the NBA.
After the 1992 championship win, Hodges went to the traditional White House visit clad in a sparkling white ‘dashiki’ and holding an eight-page letter for President George Bush Sr detailing the ordeals of the African-Americans. Bush never replied, and Hodges was released by the Bulls, never to be touched by another NBA team.
In a conversation with The Indian Express, Hodges talks about the ongoing movement in America, NFL’s decision to back Kaepernick’s protest, and why Jordan never took him up on the offer to boycott an NBA final game.
What are your views on the current social unrest in America and do you see any parallels with the Rodney King beatdown in 1991?
Hodges: It’s been a recurring incident, the violence against black people by the police. In 1991, we were in the championship run when Rodney King was beaten. Now we have George Floyd being murdered. This time around, it’s a different energy because young people all over the globe have spoken and are looking at the oppression. It’s a totally different dynamic compared to what’s going on in the past.
It was during that 1991 Championship run when you walked up to the Michael Jordan and Magic Johson with the boycott idea.
Hodges: During the 1963 All-Star game, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor voted to boycott the All-Star weekend (the Lakers players, fighting for a pension plan, were threatened with their careers before the commissioner agreed to a discussion).
I felt like the precedent had been set, as far as being able to have a work stoppage to get some type of solutions in terms of black ownership, black management, coaches. The day before the first game (of the NBA finals), we had our practice session and the Lakers practiced after us.
I approached MJ. ‘Man, what you think about us boycotting the finals?’ And he looked at me almost like, ‘man, that’s crazy’. I understood he looked at it in a cursory way while I looked at it more of a critical opportunity.
I approached Magic the same night and he just looked at me as if I was talking from Mars.
Then there was the White House trip…
Hodges: Before I even had a chance to meet President, I met Bush Jr. I had put on my African garment (dashiki). So when he approached me, he was talking really slow, trying to make sure I understand. ‘That’s an awesome garment. Where are you from?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, thanks man! I’m from Chicago Heights’ (laughs).
My mom marched in 1963, the March on Washington with Dr. (Martin Luther) King. For me to get a chance to go to the White House and meet the President… My mother didn’t get a chance to say what she wanted to say. There, I had a chance to speak on behalf of our disenfranchised people and give the message to the President.
You grew up in an era of John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Kareem, Ali. Coupled with a strong education, how much did that help instill this spirit in you?
Hodges: The foundation of your studies has an impact on how you can carry out the rest of your days. My aunts were educators. I was taught to learn how to read the Bible in school. Reading and writing was really my first love before sport. As I got older, my granddad and my uncles taught me how to play the game properly and they showed the work that Kareem Abdul Jabbar was doing, the work that Muhammad Ali did. I was able to see John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the 1968 Olympics. It was an inspiration to me as a young guy, to see them stand up on something that was bigger than themselves and being part of the movement at that time.
The late 60s had a number of strong, outspoken role models. What transpired in the next two decades that suddenly your stance wasn’t the popular opinion?
Hodges: My voice was drowned out basically through endorsements. As opposed to a player standing up on the principles of justice, we stood up on principles of economics. I can’t really get mad at a player who didn’t (speak up). You only have a certain amount of time earning those dollars. But at the same time, we have a certain platform to speak from while we’re earning that money. When we saw the assassination of our leaders during the 60s and late 60s, it had an impact on us taking a stand. Later, it was the fear factor and their motivation that athletes wouldn’t take a stand.
Now, we have social media, even though most of the comments for athletes are still ‘stick to sports’, ‘shut up and dribble’, how do you think life would have been if you had the ability to send out unadulterated views and messages back in those days?
Hodges: I think that’s the biggest part of why the modern movement is moving as quickly and rapidly as it. This millennial generation has the wherewithal, to be able to negotiate through the garbage, through the false paradigms that have kept us enslaved to the dollar. The mental incarceration that has been punished upon us by white supremacy, racism.
It’s not just coming from the people, but it’s actually coming from the force of the universe. Justice comes slowly, but it definitely is coming. We’re losing a lot of people as far as the African-American community, to COVID, and to violence against both one another and from the police. I feel like now there’s an energy that’s coming to people of colour and people who have been disenfranchised and oppressed.
NFL today has come out and said that they were wrong in how they didn’t back Kaepernick.
Hodges: It’s rather interesting. People are carrying so much weight today. The NFL, they understand that the sleeping giant is waking up, the black people in America… Now you see the NFL starting to see the swell of support for black lives and the reality of injustices.
This might be a cynical point of view. But when Nike has the campaign (with Colin Kaepernick), their shares reached an all-time high. The NFL could have done this two years back, but maybe they now see how the scales are tilting?
Hodges: No doubt. All of the things that have been bubbling under the surface, like the volcano, are exploding right in the faces of those who have wielded power and now they have to make a change in course.
Do you wish NBA had done something like that back in the day to acknowledge your mistreatment?
Hodges: I think it’s coming and they don’t have a choice. It’s one of those things where I will continue to raise my voice. Hopefully, the NBA can follow suit and we get a chance to tell our story and tell how we were discriminated against. How our ability to earn a living for our family was taken away from us.
Michael Jordan’s ‘The Last Dance’ has brought a lot of ill-intent to the surface. A lot of things in the past have been, you know, private spoken about that no one ever brought it to the public forefront. You can’t hide it anymore, man, because young people have had a chance to take a closer look.
Speaking of ‘The Last Dance’, did you expect the makers to give you a call and share stories about Michael?
Hodges: The crazy thing is, I didn’t even know it they were doing a documentary until a week before it came out. And my son told me about it. When they interview 106 people, and you didn’t take the time to interview your teammate that was in the backcourt with you when we fought against Cleveland and Detroit… For me, it’s funny, it’s childish.
It’s great entertainment during this time of quarantine. It’s Mike’s opinion and point of view to put himself on a pedestal and to knock other people down… I’m doing a documentary based on my book. I’m definitely going to interview him if he would like to, I’m reaching out (laughs).
One defence is that Jordan was ‘apolitical’. But he boycotted the 1991 White House trip and then there’s the ‘Republicans buy sneakers too’ remark. There have been hints that he might not be as ‘apolitical’ as people think.
Hodges: We can find these labels, we can frame it as ‘apolitical. I don’t care. When you become a billionaire, you are political. And for right now, he’s come out the last couple days, he said he’s going to give $100 million dollars. It’s one of those things, where it’s coming into his mind to see the hurt and pain of others now and it’s good. I feel like, we lost a great opportunity during those shift years here in Chicago to galvanise, to change the condition of people in Chicago.
Jordan has said that he had to have that tunnel vision to be one of the greats. Do you feel that an athlete necessarily needs to speak up?
Hodges: If you don’t have something to say that’s gonna be positive, shut up. Don’t be a cinderblock in the way. During the 90s, I think the NBA had somewhat of an unspoken agreement with the superstars that they weren’t going to be socially conscious. A lot of our African-American athletes and entertainers have taken tradition that before I speak out and hurt my earning position, I’m going to make my money.
Michael has become a billionaire. Maybe he didn’t even feel like he was mature enough to speak to the issue, where now he’s mature on both levels of comfort and on courage, to be able to speak to the issues and throw caution to the wind