by KEVIN GOSZTOLA
Decades before the National Football League blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his activism and political speech, the National Basketball Association (NBA) blackballed Craig Hodges. He was exiled from professional basketball by NBA owners because he believed players should use the platform they have to advance causes of social justice and stand up to oppression.
The Chicago Bulls advanced to the NBA finals in 1991 and faced the Los Angeles Lakers. Hodges was ready for his first championship, but more importantly, he thought of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics with their Black Power fists high in the air. “What would I do on basketball’s biggest stage?” How would he make the most of the moment?
“Long Shot: The Triumphs And Struggles Of An NBA Freedom Fighter,” written by Hodges and Rory Fanning for Haymarket Books, is the story of Hodges and how he seized moments. It recounts Hodges’ development into a championship player, who was especially valued for his skill shooting threes.
Hodges also confronts the point in his career when NBA owners and professional players turned on him, and he became an outcast for his activism and political beliefs.
Appropriately, Hodges sets up his story by recounting the moment in 1991 when the Bulls championship team visited the White House. He wore a dashiki to demonstrate he was not merely an athlete but also a “descendant of slaves, a child of the Black liberation movement, and a man willing to fight to make the world a better place for the African American population.” He wrote a letter to give to President George H.W. Bush.
This moment would be used to “escalate discussions of rising incarceration, reparations for slavery, the cause of street violence, and the plight of Black people in the United States.” The letter made it into the hands of President Bush. Tim Hallam, the Bulls public relations director, shared it with the press. But Hodges’ action caught the eyes of the “overlords” of the NBA, who did not want players to exercise their freedom of expression.
Hodges really loves the game of basketball. He appreciates the triangle offense developed by Coach Tex Winter, who recruited him to play for Long Beach State. He values teams that share the ball and understand midrange basketball, like the San Antonio Spurs, over teams like the Golden State Warriors, which build their offense around individual players and their ability to “dominate the game off the dribble.”
But Hodges was ultimately cut from the Bulls and never convinced another team to sign him.
Hodge played for the Bulls when Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, and Michael Jordan were on the team. He was practically the only player willing to challenge Jordan to be more than a corporate player. But as Hodges recognizes, it was his willingness to take stands that embarrassed Jordan which helped bring his career to an abrupt end.
What is possibly most enlightening about “Long Shot” is the firsthand accounts of the struggle one goes through, particularly as a black athlete, when choosing whether to respond to social issues and current events. It is abundantly clear that players do not stay silent in times of upheaval or crisis because they are ignoring political developments. Rather, they recognize the power owners hold over them. Even someone radical like Hodges has to make calculations and recognize when they can get away with pushing against the grain.
The public sees corporate players, who make sponsorship deals with companies and appear regularly in commercials. Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Grant Hill all graced televisions throughout the latest March Madness tournament. They went through their basketball careers adhering to the demands of their sponsors and obeying the whims of owners, who did not want moneyed interests to ever be offended.
Hodges recognized this dynamic among high-profile players fuels self-censorship. It helps the NBA control the political outspokenness of its players. In 1991, he attempted to convince Jordan and Magic Johnson to follow in the footsteps of players who threatened to boycott the first televised All-Star Game if they weren’t provided a “pension plan, trainers, meal money, and treatment as partners in a business instead of as disposable equipment.” Yet, the call to stand against racism and economic inequality that persisted in Black communities and the NBA was rejected.
“Many players tended to agree with my words and generally supported the idea that more had to be done to structurally change the way Black people were treated in America,” Hodges recalled.
Unlike players like Jordan, Hodges knew Black history. He did not only know the history though. He felt the weight of the history. He drew inspiration while playing the game of basketball from revolutionaries and civil rights activists, who made it possible for him to play in NBA championship games.
When the U.S. bombs Iraq in 1991, Jordan, Pippen, and Grant are for the war. “We should bomb the shit out of that motherfucker,” were Jordan’s words, when Coach Phil Jackson asked who wanted U.S. troops to go into Baghdad and attack Saddam Hussein. Jackson and Hodges saw the invasion as inhumane and unjust. Hodges remembered the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
Presently, the harsh political climate under President Donald Trump suggests dissent among athletes will be stamped out because executives of leagues will not tolerate such action. On the other hand, in the 1990s, one did not read about protests and demonstrations occurring on a weekly or monthly basis. There is far more support for athletes following in the footsteps of Hodges. Public sentiment can turn fiercely against owners who label them traitors to the game.
Knowing one will have support if they stand by their principles and with movements for social justice, there will be more players inspired by Hodges. There will be more players like Kaepernick, who feel the force of not only Black history but movement history and allow that force to drive them.