From WNBA players wearing "Black Lives Matter" shirts to Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protests, 2016 was another year marked by prominent athletes taking a stand. Craig Hodges knows something about that.
The former NBA sharpshooter earned back-to-back championships with the Chicago Bulls and won the three-point competition three years in a row, but he's remembered just as much, if not more, for his political activism. When the Bulls visited the White House after winning the title in 1991, Hodges, dressed in a dashiki, delivered a note for President George H.W. Bush asking for better solutions to racial inequality in the U.S., and he publicly criticized other black athletes, including his teammate Michael Jordan, for not being more outspoken about issues affecting the African-American community. Hodges was waived by the Bulls the next summer and never played in the NBA again. He sued the league in 1996 for $40 million, alleging that team owners blackballed him for his politics, but lost the case.
Now Hodges has written a book about his life on and off the court called Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter. Last week, he spoke to VICE Sports about that famous visit to the White House, what it was like to play with Jordan, and how he feels about today's athletes and their approach to activism.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE Sports: What made you want to write this book? Was there anything that inspired you?
Craig Hodges: The biggest part is when I have sons and young grandbabies. With there being a social-media-type thing now, everything is somebody else writing your history, and I didn't want that to happen. I wanted to write a history as far as what had went on from the time that I went to the White House and the foundation of it, and not to be reactionary. I wanted people to know my story as opposed to getting it off the internet.
Probably one of the more interesting parts of the book is the story of your White House visit and sending a letter to President Bush. While going through that process at that time, did you face any pushback from people around you or from someone in the Bulls organization or the NBA?
No one knew I was sending it until we were at the airport, actually. So it wasn't like anybody had time to prepare. The only one who knew that I was writing the letter was a buddy of mine. Other than that, no one knew.
When I did it, it wasn't a matter of me getting any flack from anybody or any pressure one way or the other. It was just something that I felt was a cultural imperative for me. From where I was raised and from what I had studied, that's my mindset, and my mission is to make sure that I can speak on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves, man, especially my people.
What impact did your family have on you growing up, and how much do you think it affected you later on in your life?
The civil rights movement was going on strong right in the midst of when I was born. In my early years, I saw my mom, who was a secretary of the movement. I saw live leadership. It's one of those things where it was fun at the time when I was a shortie. You could get out of school because they were boycotting. As a child you look at it as being fun, but at the time it's very serious business. I got to study at Long Beach State and see how serious it was, what the movement was doing, and have an active role in it.
Hodges and the 1991 Bulls celebrate the 20th anniversary of their title. Photo by Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
What was it like day-to-day with Michael Jordan as a teammate?
I'm a competitor, man, and my thing is, beat me, beat me, beat me, beat me into submission 'til I can't play no more. Some players had some trouble with dealing with his mindset. If he finds any weakness in you, he's going to gnaw at it just like a competitor should.
Playing with him for almost four seasons, he never lost a wind sprint. He had a different competitive engine, and the drive to be the ultimate best player was always at the forefront. It wasn't so much him saying it, but it was what you saw day to day. You saw how he worked, you saw the improvement, and you saw him studying.
So it was, for me, a blessing to get a chance for him to be a teammate and at the same time I think I helped him get better because I guarded him and defended him on a daily basis most of the time. I feel great about what we were able to do as teammates. I feel like we left a lot on the table in terms of what we could've done off the court as teammates, but that's just to be seen of what we can do as we get older.
Did you ever feel that he struggled with the whole idea of social activism at that time?
Really, I think it's one of those things where Michael at that point, being younger, missed out on some opportunities. Me, during that period of time, I saw opportunities that I felt that we could've—I don't want to use the word "capitalized on," I'm thinking more from a spiritual and moral act, as far as what we may have done to curb the violence that was going on during the time that we played [in Chicago].
I think the pressures that he was feeling from corporate entities provided a lot of his apoliticalness. So it was sculpted more to capitalize on the brand, capitalize on those brands he represented, more so than to capitalize on what he could do as far as job creation and taking away some of the violence and the violent mindset. We could've played a larger role in the images that were given about Chicago during that period of time and years that followed.
Now that time has passed and Jordan has taken steps to make a difference in terms of social activism and racial inequality, what do you think about some of his moves from this past year?
One of the premises I've always stood on is that I've never been Michael's judge. I've never been anybody's judge. I've been very critical on myself. I've been critical about the condition of my people, and speaking truth to that power that has some ability to control the mechanisms of oppression.
So I appreciate him coming into consciousness of the pain and suffering of other people to the point where he feels it's necessary to do what he can do to alleviate some of it. No one is all-powerful to do any one thing. That's why it's considered the unified body of Christ. I love MJ for being who he is and that's part of this beautiful creation, to be honest. I don't hold any grudges and I tried my best to be a facilitator as opposed to a divider on any level.
Often times people tried to make it like I called MJ out. Nah, MJ just happened to be at the top of the food chain, so to speak, and as far as the images that were being promoted and continued to be promoted and that affected my people, so I have to speak that into existence because many of our people can't speak it for themselves. We have to remedy some of these situations that are in our ability to do so. That's been my mindset and that's what I've been educated and taught to do and that's where my spirit leads me. I'm glad to invite MJ anytime and we can sit down and let's do what we can do. It ain't about us. It's about this next generation of humans.
Colin Kaepernick is part of the next generation of athletes taking stands on important issues. Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
How do you feel about athletes today handling social issues?
I love it. I love it. I think it's a continuation all the way from the Paul Robeson era—Paul Robeson through Curt Flood, through Muhammad Ali, through Jim Brown, through Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. It's a manifestation of the link and the chain of athletes who have an affinity and love for where they come from and how they grew up and the people who surrounded them in the communities.
And they have a love for that, which they should because I think now, with social media being what it is, you have more of a support base than you did when the people in earlier generations stood up to speak. What really comes to mind is when our brothers John Carlos and Tommie Smith and the rest of the 1968 Olympic community that fought against human rights—to see what they had to withstand coming back from the Olympics, not having much of a support base. I think had they been in the same social media climate, it would've been different; people would have been able to hear their stories. I'm happy for the brothers who are able to stand up now and have a support base. And that that support base is also their salaries. The salaries are such now that you could somewhat insulate your future and stand up for the truth.
I thank 'em, I thank 'em. I can't thank them enough because my grandbabies will certainly benefit from whatever strides are made now. Anything I can do to help and support them, I would do that. Even if it's just lending my word as support, it can do what it can do.
When you became a free agent after the 1992 championship and no teams responded to you reaching out, what was going through your head at that time?
When I look back, in hindsight, I was probably clinically depressed, but I kept moving forward because I had sons who were in their teen years and it was time for me to somewhat gird up my loins and be ready to deal with whatever it was. But I couldn't play the game I loved to play, that I'd been playing since eight years old without any time or disconnect from it. Now the only connection I have with it is going to the gym with my sons and teaching them the game, playing whenever I get a chance against worthy competition and unworthy competition to just play the game.
It gave me a real worthy life lesson of what's important. It gave me a real worthy life lesson of who's important. It gave me a worthy life lesson about who's in your corner when you're on top and who's there when you're not.
To be able to talk to you now, some 20-odd years removed, I am so blessed and humbled to be in a position where I could tell my story. Where I could write the book in a clear mind and bring up some memories that weren't always cool, but were a part of my life. I was not always able to deal with it in the best way, but I got through it because that's one of the biggest lessons. I hope my children get something from it.
You could be taken away from something that you love to do. Your funds could be taken away from you, but where are you as a human being—what have you laid your foundation on? My foundation wasn't laid upon money. My foundation wasn't laid upon a claim. My foundation was laid upon people and I never forgot that during those times when things were tough. I gave more to young people and I think that was able to bolster me. The creator gave me the opportunity to continue to move forward and to be able to tell my story in the way that I have.
Did you have any regrets or anything that you wish you could've done over from that time?
The biggest regret that I have is that my son, who I think was an NBA-quality player, had to go overseas. I think my politics hurt his opportunity and I feel bad about that. But at the same time he doesn't harbor any ill will about my politics hurting his career. In fact, he doesn't even consider it.
So he's over in Germany coaching. He had a great nine-year career over there [as a player] and now he's moving more over towards coaching and facilitating the game from that level, so I feel honored. My sons, they never questioned times when we didn't have. They just kept moving forward with me and now they're stable young men.
That's the biggest part of this story that hasn't got out. More of it is the politics, the "militancy"—they don't talk about how it was just me and my sons.... My sons were scholars. They both graduated from college and both are honorable citizens. I'm blessed and humbled to be their dad. I think that's the story that I really wanted this book to give them, the foundation that they think, I'm glad I was with my Dad at that period of time because he has a great story to tell and his story is our story and we're for that.
Was there a teammate, a coach, or anybody in the league who was open to having those honest discussions about racial inequality, activism? Was there anyone that you might not have expected would be interested in talking about it, who surprised you?
Man, John Paxson, Phil Jackson, Johnny Bach. You feel me? Because our plane, our buses, our practice sessions, after practice, before practice, in the training room were live in discussion. That was always going to be—I'm not going to say the backburner or frontburner, but it was going to be present if I was around.
If something came up on a black or white issue, or a right or wrong issue, someone would holler, "Yo Hodge, what you think?" That was the cool part of why we succeeded the way we did, that we had so many different characters that were able to respect one another's opinion, and then we had a leader in Phil, who was very open-minded and a facilitator for those types of discussions. It was a lively group and a group that wasn't afraid to put it on the table. We had all the discussions that supposedly you're never supposed to have.
The league has shifted to a lot of three-point shooting in recent years. As one of the best three-point shooters of all time, do you ever feel like you were born two decades ahead of this evolution?
I don't really like to look at it like "Man, I should've been." Nah. I look at it that I was a trailblazer. That I was one of the cats that a lot of these dudes that are shooting now had to look to. And just to have been the best at anything on this planet at any point in your life is a great thing.
So I can say that at one point in time I was the best shooter on the planet and arguably one of the best ever. That's something not many people can accomplish in their careers or in their lives. I feel blessed to be a part of the link and the chain, but I also feel like... I look at the way the game is played today and the analytics part of it has taken away some parts of the game.
So when you say there's more three-point field goals attempted, they're not made. A lot of these cats that are shooting them don't need to be shooting, but the game is what it is. They feel like, I'd rather have either a dunk or a three, and I can relate.
Do you think you could win a three-point competition today?
Well, I think the biggest part is that it depends on how my knees feel on that morning. It depends on if I can get up. If I can practice in an NBA facility for probably three or four weeks... I'm not even going to say weeks. Give me 20 hours. I could probably be competitive.
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