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Tuesday, February 7th, 2023  

Basketball Legend Craig Hodges on Phil Jackson, Kyrie Irving, and Life After the NBA

Long Range

Feb 02, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Today, it’s widely acknowledged that the National Basketball Association (the NBA) is the most star-studded sports league in America, if not the world. From Julius “Dr. J” Erving to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry, the league is a veritable hotbed for big names.

But one name many NBA fans—especially those now under, say, 30-years-old—who may not be as widely known is Craig Hodges. The former sharp-shooter won three three-point competitions during consecutive NBA All-Star games. He was also a teammate of Jordan’s and helped the team win the 1991 NBA championship.

Hodges, though, was not resigned to his contract after it expired in 1991. That might seem odd given his prowess as a shooter. But the answer is simple. It’s because he was an outspoken person who argued for big social change. He famously tried to get Jordan and Magic to boycott Game One of the 1991 Finals in the wake of Rodney King’s brutal beating by L.A. police. He tried to get Jordan to leave Nike and start his own Black-owned shoe company. And in 1991 when the Bulls went to the White House, Hodges gave a letter of grievances to then-President George Bush Sr. All of this is documented in his recent memoir, Long Shot.

Below, we caught up with the 62-year-old Hodges to ask the Chicago-native about his time in the league, what comes to mind when he thinks of these actions, and what he hopes the future may bring. All of this is made especially poignant given the recent death of Tyre Nichols, who was recently and sadly brutally killed at the hands of Memphis police.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first fall in love with basketball and how did you get so good at shooting the ball?

Craig Hodges: Well, I was—my uncles and my granddad, they were all athletes. And I was at least 10 years younger than [my uncles], so watching them and their movements [helped]. My oldest uncle Bruce was the top scorer in junior college basketball. So, he actually taught me how to shoot. It was one of those things where my initial passion was baseball. But baseball was real boring, but I was decent at it. For me, though, basketball fit my personality a lot more, because it was interactive. And I’m a talkative-type person. So, it was one of those things—it was more of a fit and it seemed to be more fun for me, as well.

What position did you play in baseball?

Catcher was my main position but actually I played all the positions on the infield, and I could pitch the ball, too.

You famously won three NBA three-point contests during three consecutive NBA All-Star games from 1990 to 1992. Do you have a favorite memory or moment from any of these competitions?

You know, I would probably say that it’s hard to pick any one. The first one I would say was probably the most fulfilling from the standpoint of having lost to Larry Bird three times and everybody else I lost to prior to winning. You know, being able to cross that barrier. But then the 19 [makes] in a row is memorable and, you know, the last one in winning with my sons on the court with me—it’s all tied together, man. I don’t think there’s really any one part of the contest other than knowing I could have won a lot earlier hadn’t I gotten in my own way.

After finishing your book, Long Shot, how did you feel—at peace, drained, angry, relieved?

It was a sense of both relief and excitement. Excited that I’d got done with it. Excited that it was going to be something that would be in the libraries and Barnes & Noble, which was my goal more than anything. And to leave a legacy that my sons could read about, as well as my grandchildren.

Do you have grandchildren?

Yes.

Are they athletes?

Yeah, my oldest grandson, he’s a baseball player up in Sacramento. Jaylen.

When you think about your biggest, most impactful attempts at political and social change in the NBA, from asking Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to boycott the 1991 NBA Finals game to giving the letter to George Bush Sr. to asking Jordan to start his own Black-owned shoe company, what emotions or thoughts come to you today?

Yeah, you know, I look at what we—the opportunities that we missed [when I played] that this generation is somewhat taking the reins of. And as far as with social media, it’s a great help in that. In ’91 when I was asking Michael and Magic to actually boycott a game, had I did that in a social media time, I think there would have been a lot of support for it.

Even like right now with what we’re experiencing today with the whole releasing of the Tyre video, I think that’s something—every time it continues to raise its head, and this is what the NBA was not going to “The Bubble” about.

Can you explain what you mean there?

Well, the whole George Floyd incident that went down and guys [NBA players] were saying that they shouldn’t go down to the Bubble to play because, you know, there continues to be issues that they could have a voice in. And right now, I think it’s the same. Do we have to somehow draw a line in the sand, man, to be able to say, “Enough is enough.”

After your career as a player in the NBA, you were hired by the Los Angeles Lakers as a coach because you knew “The Triangle” offense well from your days with the Bulls. Did you talk with Kobe Bryant or coach Phil Jackson about any social and political issues that were important to you?

Oh yeah. That was a cool part about being with the Lakers. It was an atmosphere of I guess you would say “liberalism,” where everybody’s ideas could be voiced. It could be a good back-and-forth conversation. And we had a lot of them. One of the things that I loved about Kobe was his consciousness and his knowledge and he’s well-read. You know, we would have some great conversations. Not just he, but the whole team. Sometimes film sessions would turn into dialogues about what may be a social issue or current event.

Are there actions around the league that you noticed or appreciated since your playing days? LeBron and friends at the ESPYs? Jaylen Brown speaking out? The Milwaukee Bucks boycotting a game in the Bubble after the Jacob Blake shooting?

No doubt. Like you said, I look at 1991—if you look at the timeline of sports activism in America, as far as our people are concerned, it would be ’68 and then a drought from ’68 until ’91 when I took the letter to the President. Then, you know, Colin Kaepernick. That leads into what the NBA has been doing. And like I said, I applaud the young brothers for taking the stands that they can take because it’s a thin line that you have to balance to be able to continue working on your game as well as trying to do some work on behalf of your people and you have to balance, you know, that commercial part of it, as well.

That seems very hard.

You know, you look at it, and to me, LeBron is doing it in a way. And then Kyrie is doing it in a way. I think there’s no one set way of standing on your principles or protesting. And that’s another wild part about America. When we stand up in any measure, it’s always frowned upon. So, the question becomes, what is the manner of protest that would be palatable to the greater society?

How much do you examine the past when you think about instituting change? Especially when considering the world of professional basketball—do you look to the late, great Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and what they did?

No question about it, man. It’s all part of a fabric. It’s a thread that’s woven between all of us and no generation is without the generation prior giving them lessons. And some accept the lessons for what they are and take their own creative, imaginative way of using it and utilizing it to become part of who they are. And Bill Russell, he’s the man as far as I’m concerned when we talk about what we’re able to do as athletes at a time when it was totally uncomfortable. You know, I look at this generation of athlete, those who do speak out, there’s a certain uncomfortableness.

But at the same time, you’re sitting on millions of dollars. So, there’s a certain insulation that you can have for you and your families where, during [Russell’s] period of time, there was a sacrifice that was being made in order that you could just keep it going, man, and keep the flame alive that our ancestors got. So we could accept these privileges that we get because of their sacrifice.

Your talk with fellow former NBA players Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Etan Thomas about Kyrie and the league was quite valuable. What did you hear from people after that 100-minute video came out?

Well, a lot of people—everything, all of the answers and all of the questions. Well, not really questions, people were commenting. And most of the texts and emails I received were very appreciative. That we all sat down and we basically let people know that he wasn’t by himself, man. That’s one of the biggest things—when you’re standing on the principles for a liberation of a people who’ve been oppressed—and when we use the term “liberation,” it drums up thoughts of guns and all of that. But what we’re talking about, we’re non-violent. We’re on a non-violent social construct that was given to us by Dr. King, man. We’re able to stand on the principles that are in the Constitution. We look at—we ain’t picking up no guns, man. We’re talking about “Let’s talk about this thing.” How can we utilize this great talent that I’ve been given to not only wake people up but to let people know what I’m feeling and how I can help.

I think it was Toni Morrison who said something along the lines that whenever a book in America is written, the reader of it is assumed to be white. But in that conversation with Mahmoud, you and Etan, the viewer, it felt, was assumed to be Black. And that’s a rare thing.

Exactly. And I think that’s the part that America misses. We’ve been so, you know, when I look at just the whole classified documentation of things. We look at elite, wealthy white men. You know what I’m saying? That they have power and privileges. And then you look at the people who are on the bottom who give them their opportunities, man. It’s so convoluted. But it’s so clear to see, the disparity between the two.

You mentioned social media before. How does social media help the causes you care about today and do you wish you had it when you were playing in the NBA in the ’80s and ’90s?

I think that everything is for its time, man. I appreciate where it is now. I don’t really utilize it. I think that’s for my sons. [Laughs] I let them, you know, help me along with learning it. I’m studying it. But I’m old school, man. I’m researching and writing things down and that kind of thing. But I think it’s—you know, it’s a double-edged sword. You have that portion that can be censored then you have that portion that’s freedom of speech, which I totally applaud. And I applaud the open sourcing, man. That it doesn’t have to be coming from necessarily within the government all the time. It doesn’t have to be coming from propaganda media. It comes from natural people who are out here at ground level seeing what’s happening and telling us. And I think that’s good for society and the world.

How can other people who wish to educate themselves about the work you do and who wish to aid in the general liberation of people inside and outside of sports learn and do more?

Well, I think the biggest thing is that we’ve been so taught to look outside of ourselves for what we need and what we want. I think right now the biggest thing is to go inside and look inward for those answers that you seek outside in society. So many times, if we sit still, we can find the answers that we need to help us move for whatever our next plan will be. It will give us the blueprint. But this society is so instantaneous gratification-type mode that you’re not given a thought a chance to marinate in the universe to go to work for you.

And I think that’s the biggest part—to understand why it’s called our “temples.” Why they’re positioned where they’re positioned on our bodies. That’s the part that we have to go and think about—how can we rebuild the temples and think in terms of that’s going inside of ourselves and being able to, you know, see who we are and not be so much forced on a role by what the world is considering popular. This whole TikTok thing, it can be damaging, man, to a lot of stuff.

If you sat down to talk with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, what would you want to say?

It would be two things: what happened to my career in 1991 and what happened to Mahmoud’s in 1995-96? And then once that conversation starts from there, then it will open up the conversation, man. Because when we talk about racism in America and the effects of racism, oftentimes those who have been victimized by it aren’t able to get a chance to tell their side of it to those who have done it. So, I feel like the NBA as well as the NBA Players Association, we all need to sit down at some point in time. I’m looking forward to it. It will happen in due course because we’re putting it into the universe right now, as well as before this.

Lastly, what do you love most about who you are and your legacy?

Well, I just appreciate the fact that, you know, my mom was, Lord rest her soul—you know, she had a vision for what she wanted her life to be. And that was who I came from the womb being. When I think about legacy, it’s that. Me being able to know that the things she was able to instill in me as far as what’s important for the community and people—you know, your nuclear family is one thing. But what are you going to do for the greater? And I think that’s what she instilled in me and being able to see that and being able to try to—and like I say, try. Because the sacrifices they did, regardless of what we’re doing, would never sum up to what they were doing in that day and time with the oppression and the forces that were against them man. So, as we sit here today and are able to talk freely about things and are able to hopefully go about making things happen, man, it’s that legacy of what she gave to me.

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