Black History Month: Craig Hodges and Sacrifices That Benefit Today's Athletes

It’s Black History Month. Therefore, there will be an abundance of coverage on websites, television, podcasts, and more involving African-Americans. Naturally, we’ll hear about known stories, but I would like to focus on unsung narratives involving African-Americans in sports. I will give perspective on how they impacted sports today, whether it's an individual, team or particular moment. After reading Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, it's only right to begin our weekly series with Craig Hodges.

Growing up in the 1990’s, I was a huge Chicago Bulls fan. Of course, I wanted to “Be Like Mike," but my metabolism had other ideas. It was easy to root for Jordan and Pippen, but Craig Hodges was someone who fans adored on a lesser scale. In large part, it was because of his shooting abilities.

I remember watching games with my family. They'd praise Hodges for being the ideal role player. He shot the ball well, was a team player, and didn't complain about his role. Being a third round draft pick out of Long Beach State in 1982, he was grateful to be in the NBA. In fact, you could see it in his play. I gravitated towards him. NBA All-Star weekend was a holiday in my house, and I remember Hodges winning the three-point contest year after year.

Suddenly, the guy who was arguably the best shooter in the NBA was no longer in the league.

In 1992, Craig Hodges was on top of the basketball world as he was an important piece of a Chicago Bulls team that won back-to-back NBA titles. In addition, he was a three-time three-point champion. At the end of his 10th season, he became a free agent.

Chi-town legends Isiah Thomas and Craig Hodges go toe-to-toe.

For Hodges, coming off winning two titles and being a knockdown three-point shooter, it was a given that he would cash in on free agency. In his case, it wasn’t about money but about going back to Chicago Bulls to close out his career in his hometown. He was so attached to the community and the Bulls had a tight-knit team, it was a no-brainer to want to stay. Playing in Chicago was bigger than basketball for "Hodge." It was a lifelong dream for him, and he could continue his activism in the community. His celebrity was so large that after winning his second championship, he nixed partying with his teammates. Instead of popping bottles in the club, he went to a midnight basketball league in the now-demolished Cabrini Green Projects to pass out championship t-shirts.

As the free agency period approached, his phone didn’t ring. The silence grew as time inched closer to the start of the 1993 season. Hodges remained without a team and eventually took his talents to Italy, where he averaged 30 points per game. Even after dominating overseas, the call from an NBA team—any NBA team—never came.

Obviously, perturbed about what transpired, Hodges wondered why. Given his history he had an inkling, yet he didn’t fully understand. The Milwaukee Bucks traded Hodges in 1988 to the Phoenix Suns after he was linked to Minister Louis Farrakhan. Hodges wasn’t a member of the Nation of Islam, but the Bucks didn’t like his “dealings” with Farrakhan.

Could this ordeal resurface? Let’s just say it got progressively worse for him.

As "Hodge" waited, rumors circulated about the league blackballing the three-point marksman.

Was his stance on social justice issues too bold for the NBA at that time? Was it because he challenged Michael Jordan publicly about not being involved in social issues? Was it because he attempted to start a boycott during the 1991 NBA Finals? Was it because he wore a dashiki and penned a letter to President George H.W. Bush about the oppression of black people?

Perhaps it’s all of the above, but we will never know the real reason of why Hodges never played another NBA game after 1992.

Hodges was an activist like the NBA had never seen before. Yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and others made political stances, but Hodges pushed boundaries like nobody before him. The aforementioned letter to President Bush stated:

“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. . . . Being a descendant of African slaves, I feel it is very important our plight be put on the list of priorities. It must be clear. . . . that the African-American community is unlike any other. We have a sector of our population that is being described as an endangered species, that is the young black man, and the inner cities are in a state of emergency because of the violence we inflict on one another. In studying this condition, we must look at low self-esteem, which is often due to lack of jobs and not understanding who we are. This letter is not begging the government for anything. . . . but 300 years of free labor has left the African-American community destroyed. It is time for a comprehensive plan for change. Hopefully this letter will help become a boost in the unification of inner-city youth and these issues will be brought to the forefront of the domestic agenda.”

Dressed in African garb, Hodges delivered a powerful letter to the then-leader of the free world. Could you imagine if that happened today? Who in the hell is that bold to do that? Craig Hodges was.

After what transpired at the White House, the NBA was aware that they were dealing with a forthright activist, one who wasn't afraid to stand up for what some believed was wrong. Although the NBA had mostly African-American players, the majority of the people who made the decisions in the league did not resemble them.

As forward thinking as the Association is today, there was once a time when it wasn’t. It seemed as once Hodges made his voice heard in the community, the league tried to slowly distance itself from him.

In 1993, he showed up to the NBA All-Star weekend festivities set to defend his three-point crown. Being a free agent at the time, it was obvious that he wouldn’t be in a Bulls jersey. With that, Hodges attempted to wear a black jersey with “UNITE” emblazoned on it.

Photo Credit: www.chicagoreader.com

To no surprise, the NBA wasn’t having it. Operation Unite Save the Youth was a program that Hodges founded. The program was to help youth deal with problems such as teen pregnancy, drugs, depression, and suicide. Although the program had a positive influence, the NBA didn’t want him to use them as a platform. After that weekend, Hodges didn't return for two decades to the league that banished him.

Craig Hodge was a master of the triangle offense. He educated the Lakers players about Tex Winter's infamous system.

Hodges played for Tex Winter at Long Beach State and the Chicago Bulls. His relationships with Winter and Phil Jackson led him to become an assistant coach for the Lakers in 2005. There, he won two more championships and ended his coaching career with them in 2011. The return to the NBA wasn't quite like the one he clamored for over 20 years ago, but he received a second chance—sort of.

It’s been 25 years since Craig Hodges made a shot in the NBA—well, technically 24 if you count the three-point contest in 1993. Since then, the landscape of the sport has changed, but for society, a lot is still the same. The stars of today are making an insane amount of money, the league is more globalized and players are more likely to publicly address social issues.

To see the athletes and coaches of today come so far as activists and pillars in the community is refreshing.

One time to the banana boat brothers for standing up for social change.

Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Serena Williams, Maya Moore and a host of others are outwardly “woke” when it comes to social issues. The courageous sports figures today are able to lead the call to action among their peers because of those before them. Thanks to Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and of course, Craig Hodges, they are able to speak on social issues without much regret.

Although all attention for addressing social issues isn’t positive, it brings notice to those that are fighting for change. With that, Craig Hodges can smile incessantly, because his sacrifices have paid off mightily for the athletes of today.

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