“I like Nike but wait a minute
The neighborhood supports, so put some money in it
All corporations owe, they gotta give up the dough
To my town or else we gotta shut ’em down” – Chuck D , 1991
Chicago, June 1990. The Bulls were licking their collective wounds after a game seven blow out loss to the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons in the eastern conference finals. Scottie Pippen had wandered zombie like through proceedings, scoring just two points thanks to an untimley migraine. Later that summer Michael Jordan and his powerful agent David Falk had their own unexpected headache to deal with.
Chicago resident Jesse Jackson and his Operation PUSH movement were calling for a boycott of Nike, a source of much embarrassment for Jordan & his advisors. Team mate Craig Hodges had been encouraging Jordan to split with Nike and form his own sneaker company with the aim of giving something back to the Black communities that were buying his products in large quantities. Falk was furious.
In his recent book, Hodges, then the Bulls players union rep says he was approached by Jordan & Falk later that Summer and asked if he would like to be president of the players’ union. Seemingly suspicious of their motives, Hodges declined. Against this backdrop Hodges and the rest of the league were fighting the owners for an amendment to the pension plan that would see their benefits kick it as soon as they retired, not at the age of 45. The amendment passed and as a result teams salary caps were reduced by $1.5 million, a further smite to Falk and his fellow agents. Hodges recalls “Walking out of the vote, i said to myself, Falk and Jordan are going to run me out of the league.”
Craig Anthony Hodges was born in 1960 and grew up just outside Chicago during a time of social and political turmoil in the United States. Racial tension, anti-war protests and social revolution were hot topics in his household and a young Craig was always encouraged by family members to speak his mind on such issues. As a youngster he attended civil rights marches with his mother and aunts and wrote countless letters to politicians on perceived injustices and problems in the community. When not penning letters, he was in the park with his uncle Bruce, honing his jump shot. Highly recruited out of high school by the likes of Indiana and Syracuse, it was a chance meeting during his junior year with then Northwestern coach Tex Winter that would alter his career path for good. When the time came for Hodges to commit to a school, Winter had switched to Long Beach State and he convinced Craig that if he came out to California and played for him for 4 years, he’d be guaranteed a try out with an NBA team.
Hodges arrived in California, started as a Freshman, learnt Winter’s famous Triple Post Offence (The Triangle) and was a two time Academic All-American. Despite averaging over 17 points per game his senior year and attending the NBA’s pre draft camp in his hometown, getting drafted was still not a lock. After watching the first two rounds of the draft go by without hearing his name called, he received a phone call from then San Diego Clippers coach Paul Silas to say they had selected him with the 2nd pick of the third round. Hodges was going back to Cali.
Donald Sterling had just bought the Clippers and was lobbying the league to allow him to move the team to his native Los Angeles. The NBA didn’t approve, Sterling did it anyway. Despite falling attendances and unsigned pay cheques, Hodges made the team, adapted to the pro life and started 48 games in his debut season. On a team that featured Rookie of the Year Terry Cummings, Hall Of Famer Bill Walton and Tom Chambers, Hodges averaged nearly ten points a game and quickly earned the veterans respect, becoming the teams player rep as a Rookie. After another season with the struggling Clippers he was traded with Cummings and Ricky Pierce to Don Nelson’s Milwaukee Bucks, who were coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference finals. Close to home and playing for a contender, things were looking bright and he started to make a name for himself, gaining a reputation as a lethal three point shooter next to backcourt mate Sidney Moncrief. Hodges mastery of the long ball making him somewhat of a unique talent in a league that had yet to fully embrace the shot. Not until Rick Pitinos Knicks teams of the late 1980’s started launching triples in high volume did the rest of the league seem to catch on to basic mathematics. Hodges was already launching almost three a game, shooting the deep ball at a .491 clip during the 1987/88 season. This wasn’t going unnoticed.
Also noticed, by the league and Bucks management was his friendship with Louis Farrakhan of The Nation Of Islam. A week after attending a speech given by the religious leader and despite never identifying or aligning with any particular faith, Hodges was surprisingly traded to the Phoenix Suns along with a second round pick for Jay Humphries. Milwaukee sports write Tom Enlund would later claim the dealings with Farrakhan were a factor in the decision. Were the league and it’s owners sending a message ?
The Suns put Hodges on injured reserve for a couple of weeks, before inserting him into the rotation. He played out the rest of the year and started the 1988/89 season with the Suns before an early Christmas present and another homecoming, this time to MJ’s Chicago Bulls. Reunited with assistant coach Tex Winter, Hodges was recruited to spread the floor around the Bulls superstar and provide knock down three point shooting from the bench. He was an instant success, averaging 10 points in just 22 minutes per game as the Bulls attempted to bring Jordan his first title. After another heartbreaking play off exit to the Pistons, coach Doug Collins was fired, paving the way for Jerry Kraus protege Phil Jackson. Tex Winters triangle offense was about to be fully unleashed.
The following season brought the first of three straight All-Star Weekend long distance shoot out titles, a decline in minutes, but an increase in political activeness. Hodges aligned himself with Jesse Jackson and Operation Push (People United To Save Humanity), to pursue social justice , civil rights and fairness in the media, sports and criminal justice system and founded an organisation called Operation Unite with Queen Latifah and Chuck D. Shortly after the US started bombing Iraq in 1991 he defended his three point shooting title, hitting a (still) record 19 shots in a row. Unlike most of his Bulls team mates, Hodges was against the war and found an ally in Phil Jackson who correctly predicted that the repercussions would affect the lives of people worldwide for decades to come. The Bulls went on to win 61 games and finally vanquish the Pistons to set up a date with Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the NBA Finals. Before game one, Hodges approached Johnson and Jordan with the idea of boycotting the game in protest of the beating suffered by Rodney King at the hands of the L.A.P.D. and what he perceived as a racist and economic inequality throughout the country. Arguably the leagues biggest stars at the time, the duo both dismissed Hodges idea as “Crazy” & “Extreme”. Less than two weeks later he was celebrating becoming an NBA champion, but off the court his family life and professional career were starting to fall apart.
His playing time now dwindling to under 10 minutes a game, opportunities to have an impact off the court were still a strong part of his make up and the Bulls invitation to the White House as champions was one Hodges was not going to miss. He donned a traditional Dashiki outfit and headed to the nations capitol only to be approached by George Bush Jr. who asked slowly “Where Are you From? , Hodges replied “Chicago Heights” before putting on a shooting display for the Presidents family. Hodges wasn’t going to waste the opportunity of a lifetime and came armed with an 8 page letter addressed to George Bush “on behalf of the Poor People , Native Americans, homeless and most specifically African Americans” that he presented to the Presidents press secretary. Jordan was a no show, presumably golfing.
Orlando , 1992. All-Star weekend was dominated by a returning Magic Johnson, who had suddenly retired before the season after finding out he had H.I.V. After winning his third straight three point crown Hodges attempted to grab his own share of the spotlight by wearing his “UNITE” jacket and cap as he accepted the trophy. A two fingered salute to the league and their uniform protocol. The Bulls steam rolled their way to a record 67 wins and were on their way to knocking The Miami Heat out of the play offs when the L.A. riots began. The dismissal of charges against four cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp understandably a step too far for an angry African American community. Asked for his thoughts on the verdict, Jordan replied “I need to know more about it”. After a tough series with Pat Rileys New York Knicks, the Bulls knocked off Cleveland to set up a finals match up with Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers.
After game two of the finals a New York Times reporter asked Hodges what he thought about the lack of Black owners in the league. Hodges gave him chapter and verse about the state of the league, the country and even called out Jordan and others for their lack of social conscience. Asked the same question, Portland’s Clyde Drexler appeared to back him up. The Bulls would go on to repeat as champs, 16 days later on July 1st 1992 Hodges became a free agent.The Bulls didn’t want him back, he was released.
Jordan wanted him gone. His Agent left him. No other agent would take his calls. Was this the Work of Falk ?. He wrote to every team in the League, nothing. Follow up letters, nothing. Out of the League at 32. He’d refused to play the corporate game and was dealing with the consequences. Asked about Hodges plight, Phil Jackson said it was strange , adding “he couldn’t play much defence, but a lot of guys in the league can’t. Not many can shoot from his range either”.
As the All Star break approached with Hodges still not signed, reporters started to question the NBA on whether he would be invited to defend his shootout crown. The league relented despite the protests of professional whiner Mark Price. The irony of having to wear a generic NBA uniform suggesting the was shooting for the owners not lost on Hodges. This would be the last we’d ever see of him as an NBA player. His off court work was clearly not going unnoticed, Nelson Mandela personally requested his presence at a Jesse Jackson fundraiser during a visit to Chicago, insisting Hodges be seated next to him.
Winter 1994, still silence. He accepted a one year contract to play in Italy. A job at Chicago State as head coach combined with the odd gig overseas kept food on the table but his career was essentially over.After trying and failing to sue the NBA for racial discrimination, tough times hit and he was forced to sell his rings and trophies just to stay afloat. After ten years spent hosting basketball clinics and working with underprivileged kids, an old friend offered a lifeline of sorts.In 2005 Phil Jackson was back for a second stint with the Lakers and when he asked Tex Winter to join him, the 83 year old Texan insisted he take Hodges on as a shooting coach. The Triangle was once again complete.Hodges knowledge of the offence and shooting tips won praise from Kobe Bryant and he instantly bonded with Lamar Odom and fellow assistant coach Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. He ended up coaching with the Lakers for six years, winning two rings, before again linking with Jackson, coaching the Knicks D-League team for a season during the Zen Masters short but stormy reign in New York. Hodges is now back where it all started, in Chicago coaching at his old school Rich East High.
Whether or not you believe David Stern and The NBA conspired to keep Hodges out of the league, what cannot be denied is that a quarter of a century later, athletes such Colin Kaepernick are risking their livelehood if they chose to express their political or religious beliefs in a country where the majority of sports franchises are owned by rich elderly white males.Some owners do not want these men of integrity encouraging their players to speak up for what they believe in and therefore react in a way that’s as prehistoric as their attitudes. That it’s taken 25 years for Hodges name to come back into the public conversation is a shame, but hopefully it gives a new generation a chance to hear his story and appreciate the sacrifices he made trying to help others.
Craig Hodges “Long Shot” was released in 2017 by Haymarket Books.
He was a career 40% 3 point shooter.