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The NBA finals have begun, pitting the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors—or, to put it another way, LeBron versus Curry. Sure, the mania is exciting, but nothing will compare to the electricity permeating Chicago when the Bulls began the first of their championship runs in 1991. The team remains a legend: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, and coach Phil Jackson. There was much dunking.
Far beyond the paint stood Craig Hodges, a guard boasting an impressive number of three-pointers; he sunk 19 shots at the league’s annual three-point shootout in 1991. Despite his uncanny long range accuracy, Hodges found himself canned by the Bulls in 1992 for unknown reasons.
In a 2016 profile of Hodges, Hodges reveals what may have happened: he was blacklisted for his outspoken political beliefs. Ben Joravsky sets the scene.
Among his teammates, Hodges earned a reputation for having informed opinions on virtually any subject. He frequently disarmed coaches and teammates by initiating conversations about religion and politics—topics rarely tackled in the locker room. In 1991, he was one of the few Bulls players to publicly oppose the gulf war (on that issue, he saw eye to eye with Phil Jackson). And he urged his teammates to invest their millions in businesses that would create jobs in poor black communities.
During the 1991 NBA finals against the Lakers, Hodges approached Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to suggest a walkout. “I wanted to stand in solidarity with the black community and call out racism and inequity,” Hodges told Joravsky. “It would be a united front with the whole world watching.”
Jordan and Johnson quickly brushed him off. This did not deter Hodges:
The Bulls went on to win the series and capture their first championship. In October, they were invited to the White House to be congratulated by President George H.W. Bush. Hodges showed up to the ceremony wearing a full-length dashiki and bearing an eight-page letter that he intended to hand to Bush. “The purpose of this note is to speak on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless and, most specifically, the African Americans, who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation where they live,” his letter began. “This letter is not begging for anything, but 300 years of free slave 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.”
Shortly after the 1992 season wrapped—another trophy for the Bulls—Hodges was unceremoniously let go by general manager Jerry Krause. The timing was suspicious. When the finals had just begun, Hodges spoke with the New York Times and scolded Jordan for not doing more to call out racial injustice. “The poverty in the city is so hellish, just look across the street [from Chicago Stadium],” Hodges told the columnist. “Then you have us playing in here—how much money did we make here last night? How many lives will it change?”
The blackball began, and included a ban from the three-point championship Hodges had dominated three years running:
When the 1992-’93 season began, Hodges was still without a team. In December ’92, league officials told him they wouldn’t allow him to defend his three-point championship at the All-Star Game in February. “They said they have a policy where you can’t participate in an all-star event unless you’re on a roster,” Hodges says.
But that’s not true. In 1989, the NBA allowed Rimas Kurtinaitis, a player for the Soviet national team, to participate in the three-point contest—and he never played in the NBA. Sam Smith wrote a column in the Tribune about the matter, blasting league officials for their hypocrisy. “The NBA sends out a lot of messages: Stay in School. Don’t Use Drugs,” Smith wrote. “Perhaps it’s time for one that goes something like this: ‘Keep your mouth shut and behave like people feel you should unless you can make them a lot of money or are too famous for them to silence.’ ”
After Smith’s column was published, the NBA reversed its position and invited Hodges to participate. He finished third.
The writing on the wall flashed neon; Hodges became suspicious that there was far more to his unemployment than diminishing skill:
The list of his infractions is long. It wasn’t just the dashiki at the White House or the letter to Bush or his admiration for Farrakhan or his criticism of Jordan or his position on the players’ pension—it was all of those things together that made Hodges untouchable. “The biggest way to blacklist someone is to make him invisible,” Hodges says. “Why do you think they didn’t want to invite me to that three-point contest? Think about it. How would it look if I won? Someone might ask, ‘Why’s this guy, who’s good enough to win the three-point championship, not good enough to play in the league?’ So they pretend like I don’t exist.”
All’s well that ends well. Today Hodges coaches basketball at Rich East High School in Park Forest, and reflects on his time in the NBA with zero regrets.
There’s a difference between me as a competitor on the court and me as an educated black man speaking my mind. I won’t take one if it means giving up the other.”