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The average length of an NBA career is 4.8 years.
Craig Hodges — who began his pro career with the San Diego Clippers in 1982 and was released by the Chicago Bulls 10 years later — more than doubled that span. So, he should be grateful, right?
Nope. He figures he got a bum deal in 1992.
"Man, at that point in time, man, nobody on Earth shot the ball better than Craig Hodges," he says. "Nobody."
Maybe "nobody on Earth" is an overstatement. But maybe not by much. Hodges twice led the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage. He won consecutive 3-point shooting contests during NBA All-Star Weekend over the last three years of his career. He was a significant contributor to the Bulls’ first two championships. And when he was released, he was only 32.
Craig Hodges acknowledges that he wasn’t a dependable defender, and Bulls head coach Phil Jackson was aware of it.
"He said, 'Hey, yeah, a lot of people in this league don’t play defense. And none of them shoot as well as Craig,'" Hodges says.
It wasn’t Coach Jackson who wanted Hodges gone. Hodges says it was Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause who told him the team was going with younger players.
He was disappointed, and though some former players have said he’d slowed down, Hodges figured lots of other teams could use a shooter.
The phone never rang.
"And everybody in the league knew it wasn’t about my game," Hodges says. "And so, it’s funny. At the same time, for me, it was a matter of $40 to $50 million that we could have made to change the condition of poor people."
Activist From An Early Age
Money for poor people? What does money for poor people have to do with the story of a shooter who feels he was blackballed by the NBA 25 years ago for reasons that had nothing to do with his talent?
Hodges thinks we should look for the answer in his childhood.
"Well, you know, for me, it all goes back to my mom," he says. "She’s a — to me, when we think about Angela Davis, I had Angela Davis in my household."
Angela Davis is an activist who was associated with the Black Panthers in the '60s.
"My mom was a freedom fighter early," Hodges says. "And we were youngsters and we had so many doors that we had to go knock on, and get rid of your stack of petitions, and you were good. Because at that point in time, redlining was one of the main things that were going on in our community, as well as voters' rights."
"He said, 'Hey, yeah, a lot of people in this league don’t play defense. And none of them shoot as well as Craig.'"Craig Hodges
As he grew a little older, Craig Hodges began to understand that by sending him out to knock on doors, his mother was educating him. And as he began to excel at sports and identify himself as an athlete, he remembered her lessons.
"When a teacher would give you the freedom to write about a topic, all the time my topics had a slant of somewhat — politics and sport always interacted in some ways," Hodges says. "So, if it was a baseball topic, I could talk about Curt Flood. If it was boxing, I could talk about Ali. If it was football, Jim Brown. If it was basketball, I could talk about Kareem."
Because Hodges identified with those activist athletes, it was not surprising that after he made it to the NBA with the Clippers in 1982, he became active in the players’ union — with a helpful shove from above.
"Bill Walton, who’s a Hall of Famer, took me under his wing, probably our second day of meeting each other," Hodges says, "and he told me, he said, 'I’m gonna make you the player rep, so that you’ll always understand the importance of separating players from management. And that as long as you’re in this game, man, make sure that you side with the players.'"
Fighting For Social Justice Beyond The Players' Union
Hodges didn’t limit his activism to the players’ union. Various accounts characterize him as sensitive to the needs of his community when he was in the NBA. He’s said to have preferred to do his charity work when the cameras weren’t present.
In 1988, having joined the Bulls, he says he tried to discuss black history and social action with Michael Jordan.
"He’s a great businessman, and he understood that him taking a political stance could hamper his economics," Hodges says of Jordan. "And I’m not one to judge anybody on that, but I understand the importance of the economic tie to Nike, to the black community, to young men, to death, to murder of people who are killing people over your gym shoe and the like. So, to me, when we’re talking on issues concerning our history, you weren’t astute."
Hodges wanted Jordan to leave Nike and create a company that would provide jobs in sneaker production and sales to folks in Chicago. Before Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Bulls and Lakers, he suggested that the teams might just slightly change the world by refusing to take the floor. He says Michael Jordan told him he was crazy, and Magic Johnson said, "That’s too extreme, man."
He felt like a minority of one.
After the Bulls won the 1992 NBA title, they visited George H.W. Bush at the White House. Craig Hodges was the only Bull in a dashiki. He brought a letter for President Bush, urging him to address the concerns of poor and minority communities.
"You know, I’m not coming with my hat in my hand," Hodges says. "I’m just saying, 'Man, take a serious, critical look because you the man. And you being the man, I think I need to share this is what I had to say at this point in my life. So here it is, brother, and I hope you get a chance to read it.'"
Shortly after he visited the White House as a champion, Craig Hodges was released. He feels being blackballed was the price he paid for his politics, and perhaps for needling the superstars.
After The NBA
Life after the NBA was grim. For a time, Hodges battled what he believed was an organized effort to keep him out of basketball. He filed a lawsuit that was dismissed by a judge who said he’d waited too long to file it. He struggled to provide for his children. He sold his rings and trophies. He doubted his own worth, and he starred in a cautionary tale. Etan Thomas, a former center for the Washington Wizards, says that when he spoke out against the second war with Iraq, other players told him, “You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”
Eventually, Hodges found his way back to basketball. He worked with the Lakers as one of Phil Jackson’s assistants from 2005 until 2011. Today he’s coaching at his alma mater, Rich East High School in Park Forest, Illinois, urging his players to accept some of the ideas that his teammates in the NBA ignored.
"There’s a song that — I think it’s Ice Cube, he has, and it says, 'The road to freedom is seldom traveled by the multitude.' And that’s real, man," Hodges says. "That, when we look at the mission that we’re on, and we speak truth to power, we speak for the ills of those who can’t speak for themselves — that’s not a whole lot of folks. Because it’s not profitable. The money side of things is what people scrambling to get to. People not scrambling on this side."
The most fortunate athletes have a say in when their careers end. Craig Hodges didn’t, and that still bothers him. He feels as if he was forced to leave on the table money with which he could have done a lot of good. That’s evident when he talks about his most recent project, a book about his career and its premature end. Though his income has declined, his focus hasn’t changed.
"All the models that we need and the examples that we need have been set for us," Hodges says. "Dr. King set the examples. Malcolm set the examples. So we have to pick up the legacy of those leaders that — and mentors — that have put great lessons in front of us that work."
Learn more about Craig Hodges' story in his new book, "Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter."
This segment aired on May 13, 2017.