Keep Marching

by February 12, 2014


Originally published in SLAM 176

by Rus Bradburd

Any retired NBA player with 10 years of experience can point to a distinctive legacy, but Craig Hodges is unusual—he has two legacies to be proud of. One puts him in the “elite” category of sharpshooters. The other legacy puts him in the “legendary” category of athletes who stood up for something greater than themselves. 

Hodges built his first legacy a step behind the NBA three-point arc. 

He began his NBA career in 1982, just three seasons after the League put down the line. Although he’d never enjoyed the extra point for long shots during his college days at Long Beach State, Hodges soon mastered the art in the League and became one of the most deadly sharpshooters the game has ever seen. 

Hodges learned from a Who’s Who of teachers throughout his career. His grandfather, Bruce Hodges, was a sports icon in Chicago Heights. At Rich East High School, Hodges’ coach was Steve Fisher (of Fab Five fame). At Long Beach State, Tex Winter gave him his first lessons on the Triangle Offense, which came in handy years later. Besides Phil Jackson, Hodges also played for Don Nelson in Milwaukee. 

From 1990-92, Hodges reigned as the League’s champion of the Three-Point Contest held over All-Star Weekend. Only the legendary Larry Bird has matched Hodges three-year reign. Hodges reached the finals on two other occasions, losing to Bird in ’86 and to Dale Ellis in ’89. All in all, Hodges competed in the Three-Point Contest eight different times. He still holds the record for most consecutive threes made in a row with an astounding 19 straight. And nobody has ever topped his 25 points in a single round of the competition. 

In his long career, the 6-2 Hodges dropped in more than 500 shots from beyond the stripe. His 40 percent career mark from long distance puts him in elite company—better than Bird. It also leaves Hodges ahead of noted shooters like Reggie Miller, Dennis Scott, Chauncey Billups, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, Mitch Richmond, Rashard Lewis, Jason Kidd and Hersey Hawkins.

Hodges’ most productive seasons—statistically—were his three years with Milwaukee in the mid to late 1980s, when he averaged in double figures on teams that were winning over 50 games a year. 

In 1988-89, he joined a rapidly improving Chicago Bulls squad mid-season. There was one friendly face waiting for him in Chicago: his college coach from Long Beach State, Tex Winter, was already an assistant on the staff, as was Phil Jackson. That year Hodges averaged over 10 ppg in less than 23 minutes. After that first season in Chicago, the Bulls promoted Jackson to the head coaching spot. As the Bulls improved, Hodges’ minutes declined slightly, but he was still an important part, playing 10 minutes a contest in his final two seasons. 

“Craig was a player that we always enjoyed,” says Jackson. “When we were looking for a guard to help out the Bulls in the late ’80s, Craig was an obvious choice. He was a pro.”

A few years later, when Hodges’ playing days ended, he became the head coach for two years at Chicago State. In 2005, Phil Jackson asked Hodges to join the Lakers staff as an assistant coach, where over six seasons he taught shooting. It was in L.A. that he refined his coaching methods, and today Hodges’ first legacy is kept alive by his remarkable grasp on how to teach his art.  

When he works with shooters (his latest job is as the head coach of the National Basketball League’s Halifax Rainmen), Hodges stresses repetition and efficiency, avoiding frivolous wasted motion. To watch Hodges teach shooting is to observe a master craftsman at work. He has an intricate-yet-accessible system to teach the fundamentals, using what he calls the “Hodges Hop” to make their release timely.

“It all starts with a good foundation,” is Hodges’ mantra. 

Fittingly, the importance of finding a solid foundation was how Hodges’ second legacy began.

“I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here [in Southwest Chicago] today,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said on a visit in August of 1965. 

Any marcher was at risk that day: rocks, firecrackers and threats had rained down on the marchers, and they feared that bullets might be next. 

That didn’t scare off Ada Hodges. “He would always ask me, ‘Where we going, Mom?’” Ms. Hodges recalls. “We were going to march with Dr. King. We marched with him every time he came to Chicago.”

King always scheduled these Chicago protests—which targeted unfair housing practices in the city—on the weekends, so marchers didn’t have to miss work. But Ada Hodges felt a babysitter would be too expensive, so she brought Craig and his older sister along. 

Craig, who was born in 1960, and his sister were two of the few children who marched. “He was already too big for me to carry,” Ada Hodges remembers, “so he had to march on his own. I would tell him that we have to do this so that everybody can be equal. He’d walk right next to me. And he’d sit by my side when I went to meetings for the Movement.”

The questions kept coming. March why? What’s equal? Ada Hodges says, “Always asking questions. And then he’d get quiet. You could see that he was absorbing everything, even when he was 6.”

Hodges kept the foundation he inherited from his mother—social justice and political consciousness. But this second legacy collided with the first at the end of his remarkable run in the NBA—and probably brought his career to a premature end.  

“I always got a nod of approval from Craig when I would address the players on MLK Day, or when I would talk about the differences between Malcolm X and MLK,” recalls Jackson. “He got it.”

On October 1, 1991, in the wake of their first NBA Championship, the Bulls were invited to the White House to meet President George H.W. Bush.

To Craig Hodges, it felt like the shot clock was about to expire: The first Gulf War was under way, and would soon culminate in US troops killing 10,000 retreating Iraqi soldiers a few weeks after Saddam Hussein had ordered his army to leave Kuwait. Hodges fretted: Would he ever again get an audience with the President of the United States? Like many African-Americans, Hodges wondered how the US had the money and energy to attack Iraq, but not the will to address the poverty, police brutality and problems within our cities. It was time to speak up. 

He wrote an eight-page letter and handed it to one of George H.W. Bush’s aides, asking him to deliver it to the President. 

“I was concerned about that letter,” Ada Hodges says, “but I knew where he got his outlook. It was from me.”   

Her son won’t reveal the contents of his White House letter yet, despite hundreds of requests over the years. He says he’s saving it to use in his autobiography. 

But he does add this: “That letter was respectful. First, I thanked the President for taking time to read it, and that I knew that the only reason I had the opportunity to visit the White House was because I was on a Championship team. But the point was that I asked the President to spend the same time and money helping the poor and disadvantaged of our urban areas as he did on foreign policy.”

Hodges insists that he wrote the letter in the right spirit. “I didn’t mean any malice,” he says. “I’ve been writing letters to politicians since I was in first grade.”

Hodges never balked at expressing his opinion, and being a Bull gave him a platform. An outspoken player on the world’s best team was going to have a large audience. In April of ’92, an all-white jury acquitted the Los Angeles police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King the previous year. Riots erupted in L.A. Fifty-three people were killed, thousands were injured and millions of dollars of damage was done. The riots lasted nearly a week and were among the worst in the history of this country. The Lakers and Clippers moved Playoff games that coincided with the rioting.

On June 2, 1992, Hodges was quoted in The New York Times calling out Bulls star Michael Jordan for being silent on recent political and social issues, specifically on what had went down in Los Angeles. Jordan, who’d scored 39 in a Playoff game the night before, didn’t comment, but the story spread in the heart of the NBA postseason.  

“When they came to Michael after the L.A. deal went down,” Hodges told The Times, “…his reply was that he wasn’t really up on what was going on. I can understand that, but at the same time, that’s a bailout situation…We can’t bail anymore.”

But soon Hodges turned his comments away from basketball. “This is a war,” he said. “We’re in war when you look at what happened in Los Angeles, what’s getting ready to happen in Chicago, Newark. The poverty in the city is so hellish, just look across the street. Then you have us playing in here—how much money did we make here last night? How many lives will it change? That’s why I feel I have to start speaking out.”

He also called out his fellow players for their selfishness in the face of poverty.  

“On one hand, being in this League, you have a right to make as much as you can make, but you have a responsibility. A lot of us don’t look at the responsibility end of it as much as we do our right to ask for as much as we can get.” 

Hodges also challenged the entire NBA for their lack of black NBA head coaches. At the time, the NBA had just two black head coaches, and the previous dozen job openings had been filled by white coaches. Hodges went so far as to suggest that the players boycott a Playoff game to bring attention to the situation. 

“The problem,” he said, “is that we are apolitical and we are not unified.”

The Jordan-led Bulls went on to defeat the Trail Blazers in six games (Hodges appeared in two of them) to take the ’92 Finals.

But Hodges—at age 32, the most accurate shooter on the two-time defending NBA Champs—never played another minute in the NBA.

Over the years, athletes like Muhammad Ali, David Meggyesy, Tommie Smith and John Carlos have cut short their own careers by taking a political stand, and this would become Craig Hodges’ legacy as well.

A few years later, certain there had been a conspiracy by NBA owners to blackball him for his outspoken views, Hodges sued the NBA but lost. Today, Hodges puts the entire episode in historical perspective. “I saw injustice and believed I had a duty and responsibility,” he says. “I was being patriotic toward a cause, to the Civil Rights movement of my ancestors and elders.” 

For his part, Jackson, who visited the White House with Hodges, doesn’t believe the letter was what delivered the death knell to the guard’s career. 

“I don’t think he hurt his chances by speaking up,” says Jackson. According to the Hall of Fame coach, Chicago’s need for bigger guards led to them giving Hodges’ roster spot to Trent Tucker and Darrell Walker. “But one of my assistants—a WWII vet—was miffed at his dress at the White House.” [Hodges wore a dashiki.—Ed.]

Does Hodges regret the White House letter? It all goes back to being Ada Hodges’ son and what he had witnessed in the Civil Rights Movement. “I was an 8-year-old when I watched Martin Luther King Jr die,” he says. “I lived through what colleges today call ‘Black Studies.’ I thought about not giving President Bush that letter, but it was a fleeting thought. I had to be myself and not play a role just because I was being paid. I feel that not enough people who have made it in sports or entertainment have come home to help. I wasn’t motivated by the money; it’s not always about money for me, it’s about giving your time to the community.”

Hodges says that his views have always been voiced with compassion. “I’ve never owned a gun. I have no deep-seated anger, but saying what you believe can be a radical notion.” Besides coaching, Hodges is helping to direct a group today called Basketball Schools of America, who are working to provide opportunities for youth, using hoops as a tool to educate and unite communities.

By the spring of 2012, 14 of the 30 NBA head coaches were black. While stats like that have made him more optimistic, Hodges is a realist who worries about the fate of urban black American men. And he refuses to turn his head simply because he has an NBA pension coming. “We have far too many black men incarcerated, huge rates of unwarranted violence. And if we’re not careful we’ll be extinct as a species. I’ve heard the warning cries and I believe we are an endangered species. That’s just reality, in my experience. Look what’s happened to our people.”

Ada Hodges says, “Not everyone got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But I did, and I’m proud to say that every time Martin Luther King came to Chicago, I marched with him, along with my children.”

They were marching, she told her kids, so the world could be a better place. Still, her son’s questions kept coming.

“How long will it take?” Craig asked one day.

“A long time,” Ada Hodges said. “Keep marching.”