Craig Hodges: Fighting Against Racism as an NBA Player

To go, or not to go? That could be the question the NBA champion Golden State Warriors will have to grapple with if they are invited to Donald Trump's White House. More than two decades ago, Craig Hodges, a member of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, delivered a letter protesting the mistreatment of poor people and people of color to President George H.W. Bush during the team's 1991 visit to the White House. Vilified for being so bold, Hodges was recently asked by Dave Zirin, on his Edge of Sports podcast, for his thoughts on a possible visit by the Warriors. Hodges suggested that the Warriors should consider going, and take the opportunity to deliver a message about inequality and social justice. If they don't go, Hodges said, they should be clear about why they decided not to go.

As an NBA player, the outspoken Hodges initiated a boycott against Nike, and spoke out against police brutality. After ten productive seasons, which included leading the league in three-point shooting percentage three times, winning two NBA championships, and winning the three-point shooting contest at the NBA's All-Star weekend three times, he was out of the league.  

In the Foreword to Long Shot: The Triumphs And Struggles Of An NBA Freedom Fighter, written by Craig Hodges, with Rory Fanning (Haymarket Books, 2017), Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, author of numerous books about sports and politics, and the host of the Edge of Sports podcast, points out that while athletic activism flourished in the 1960s and 1970s with protests and consciousness raising by Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and others, it cooled precipitously in the 1990s and in the early part of the twenty-first century.

However, in the face of rampant police murders of black men, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a re-birth of activism amongst athletes. The most prominent athlete to take a stand is former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before National Football League games last season to protest police brutality and social inequality. A free agent, Kaepernick has yet to be signed by an NFL team.    

Some athletes that did speak out about injustices inside and outside the world of sports during the 1990s, paid the ultimate price; exile from their sport and, in some cases, a vigorous backlash. Craig Hodges was one of those athletes.

Political activism did not come out of the blue for Hodges. He grew up in segregated Chicago Heights, where redlining was the coin of the real estate industry's realm. As an elementary school kid, he was highly influenced by Dr. Charles Gavin, one of the first African American orthopedic surgeons in the United States, and a neighborhood icon, living and practicing in Hodges neighborhood, often providing free medical care for those who couldn't afford health care.

In 1971, after Dr. Gavin's death at the age of forty-four, the kids at the school successfully campaigned to have the school name changed from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School to Dr. Charles Gavin Elementary School.

Hodges writes that his mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents provided an "open-minded atmosphere," where such figures as Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were celebrated.

In August 1965, at the age of five, his mom took him to his first protest: "Martin Luther King Jr. was in town helping organize the Chicago Freedom Movement to challenge unfair housing and job practices, as well as unequal education for blacks."

Although he spent "countless hours" in his youth playing baseball, tennis, and basketball, his family's political activism "rubbed off" on him: "Conversations about voter registration laws, the war in Vietnam, the 'poverty draft' – the unequal impact of the draft on African Americans and the poor – public housing, school segregation in Chicago, women's rights in the workplace, and many other topics flowed during and after dinner most nights."

Delivering a Letter of Protest to the White House

Hodges writes that he wore a traditional African dashiki to the White House, and that as "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 was seizing the opportunity to take his letter directly to the Commander in Chief. Hodges had told several teammates who thought he was "crazy." Tim Hallam, the public relations director for the Bulls, suggested Hodges give the letter to him, and he would see that it was given to Bush's press secretary.

After a shoot-around on a half-court set up on the southwestern corner of the South Lawn – during which Hodges drained nine shots in a row from 24 feet -- all the players shook hands with Bush, and Hodges mentioned his letter to the president, who said he would look forward to reading it.

(Interestingly enough, Michael Jordan was Hodges' only teammate that didn't make that White House visit, saying in the locker room after a finals game with the Los Angeles Lakers: "Fuck Bush. I didn't vote for him.")

Hodges eight-page hand-written letter read in part:

"The purpose of this notice is to speak on behalf of 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."

Guardian reporter Donald McRae recently asked Hodges whether he ever heard from Bush. "He never did [respond]," Hodges said. "I wonder sometimes if he got past page one. I wonder if he even read it? When I was researching my book I got in touch with the George Bush library to get the original copy. The lady there loved it. She was like: 'Oh, this is a great letter. You actually gave this to the president?' I said: 'Yeah, and I got in lots of trouble for it.'"

Blackballed by the NBA

Although Hodges remained with the Bulls for the following season's championship run, the team waived him in 1992. Despite being only 32 years old at the time. he did not receive a single offer for a tryout from any other NBA team. Bulls' head coach Phil Jackson said, "I also found it strange that not a single team called to inquire about him. Usually, I get at least one call about a player we've decided not to sign. And yes, he couldn't play much defense, but a lot of guys in the league can't, but not many can shoot from his range, either."

When no NBA offers came, he was exiled to basketball's hinterland; playing a season Italy. "It was a different climate," Hodges said. "A brother facing oppression in the 1960s felt it the same, whether he was a bus driver or Ali. Look what the brothers did in Mexico City [when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in black power salutes during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner on the Olympic podium in 1968]. They faced unemployment and disenfranchisement.

"I had that too but, in my era, not many people stood up. The climate was very conservative – and it got worse because athletes were afraid to speak because of the ramifications I faced."

Hodges received little to no support.

After bouts of depression and economic difficulties -- forced to sell his championship rings, and numerous trophies – Hodges was asked to return to the NBA by his former coach Phil Jackson, at the behest of Tex Winter, a brilliant longtime coach and a Hodges supporter. The Jackson-led Lakers hired Hodges as an assistant coach, where he won two more championships.

Hodges recalls that Jackson was the only other man in the Bulls locker room to speak out against Bush's 1991 bombing of Iraq.

Hodges remains committed to social justice and is calmly philosophical about the Trump era, telling the Guardian: "It's not disheartening because there are natural cycles of life. We have been so mis-educated we don't understand there is a supreme answer. You know that old song – Age of Aquarius? It's about the dawning of a new age. It's coming, even if Trump says we're going to make America great again. For me, as a black man, when was America great? What's so great about the founding fathers, the civil war, the killing of Martin Luther King, the killing of Malcolm X? The blackballing of athletes during that period? What period are you talking about when America was great?'

"But we are going to win, eventually, because poor people will rise, the disenfranchised will be franchised … It's coming from time and energy where people are getting tired of the bullshit. It will happen naturally. Social media shows us many people have the same feeling as Colin Kaepernick. They're just not as visible. But there's a grassroots thing going on. It's a feeling in America right now, especially among young people, that something has to be done. Everyday life matters. Not just Black Lives Matter. We all matter."

In Dave Zirin's foreword to the book, he points out that, when he first started covering the NBA in 2003, he asked players "why more of them did not use their cultural capital to speak out of social causes." For many, it was a simple answer: "You don't want to be like Craig Hodges."

In Long Shot, Hodges tells of being inspired by Nelson Mandela. After being released after spending twenty-seven years in a South African prison, Mandela's tour of the US took him to Chicago. Mandela, a big basketball fan who "loved" the Chicago Bulls, made a point of asking event organizers to arrange for Hodges attend a luncheon.

Hodges was the only athlete amongst the twenty-five or so politicians and religious leaders in attendance. The place cards had him sitting next to Mandela: "He hugged me and we sat down – he actually knew who I was."    

So, if the Warriors are invited to the White House and they decide not to go, that will send one kind of message. If they decide that they will go, then they need to make sure that President Trump knows who they are.


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