Craig Hodges’ New Memoir Outlines Experiences as ‘NBA Freedom Fighter’

Craig Hodges was shooting 3-pointers and helping the Chicago Bulls win their first two championships in 1991 and 1992. 

For three of his 10 years in the NBA he led the league in 3-point shooting. He’s also a three-time winner of the All-Star Three-Point Contest. 

But his life changed when he delivered a letter to President George H.W. Bush at the Bulls’ White House ceremony in 1992.

His eight-page letter was meant to bring attention to racism, economic inequality and police brutality in the wake of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police.

But he says his activism cost him dearly. After years of being outspoken, he claims he was blackballed from the NBA.

Hodges has written about his experience in a new memoir “Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter.”

Below, an excerpt from the book.

PROLOGUE

THE LETTER

The letter stared back at me in the days leading up to my visit to the White House. Resting open on my desk at home, it seemed to be saying, "Make sure you get this right because you'll only have one shot."The letter was eight double-spaced pages. Ithad endured dozens of rewrites in my attempts to express the lessons taught to me by my family, teachers, and community. Its first line read:

The purpose of this note is to speak on behalf of the poor peo­ ple, Native Americans, homeless, and most specially the African Americans who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation in which they live.

On October 1, 1991, four months after my basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, won its first NBA championship, we visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to receive the official thumbs-up from President George H. W. Bush. The Bulls would be the first NBA squad to shoot hoops on an outdoor basketball court on the White House grounds.

Determined to make the most of this chance to speak truth to power, I aimed to inform the president of the United States that I was not only an athlete but 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. I would use this visit to help escalate discussions of rising incarceration, rep­ arations for slavery, the causes of street violence, and the plight of Black people in the United States to the highest office in the land, on behalf of the community that raised me.

Nineteen ninety-one had been one hell of a year: no more So­ viet Union; the first US war in Iraq; and, as of March, the tape of Rodney King's beating by four Los Angeles police officers filling television screens across the country. And, for me, in my hometown of Chicago, the place that raised me and the place where I played ball, 922 people were murdered in 1991 alone.1 Thirty-two percent of African Americans in Illinois lived below the poverty line, and America housed more Black prisoners than South Africa did under apartheid.2 The conditions of my people were deteriorating rapidly. I knew that I would hardly have the chance to debate President Bush in the Rose Garden-and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to say everything I wanted to.

But I did have my letter. On the bus, on the way to the White House, I told Tim Hallam, the public relations director for the Bulls, that I'd written something to give to the president. He looked at me like I was out of my damn mind. Then he said it would be best if he handed the letter to Bush's press secretary. I had planned to give the president the letter myself, but I wanted to ensure it was read, so I followed protocol and gave my letter to Tim.

I also told some of my Bulls teammates on the bus. By this point they were used to my political outspokenness, and, as usual, the response was something like, "Man, you're crazy, Hodge." In the NBA-even though 75 percent of the players were Black-you  still couldn't be upfront that helping Black people was part of your per­ sonal mission. Race-based charity or political action had to happen in secret. Subtle and not-so-subtle pressures from management and media prevented many of us from upsetting the corporate order of the league. A whole lot of players knew more should be done for the communities most of us came from, yet the fear of losing our spot always knocked out the urgent need to fight racism and structural poverty. But not for me.

And that's why, as we got to the White House, all my team­ mates, out of respect, were wearing suits. I also wore an outfit out of respect. I was wearing my precious dashiki.

My teammates were well-acquainted with this dashiki, a special white and flowing African ancestral garment. I wore it to games before getting into uniform, and I was a bug in the ear of the Bulls' young stars Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen to wear one also. They'd laugh-not unkindly-and say, "That's your  thing,  man." But as long as I was in the NBA, I was set on representing my Afri­ can heritage. I was raised to know that my history was unwritten, so if the books weren't going to represent it, I would. I felt that ifl was going to be in the White House, I had to communicate my Black history even without speaking. There was no question I would be showing up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a dashiki.

When we got to the White House, one of the first people to greet us was a hyper, overcaffeinated sports fan, who we quickly learned was the president's son, George W. Bush. He was bounc­ ing around like a kid, but when he saw me in my dashiki he froze and did a double-take. (This was a look I would recognize years later, when, as president, he dodged a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist .)

"Where are you from?" George W. asked me, slowly and loudly, as ifl might not speak his language.

"Chicago Heights, Illinois," I answered.

He looked amazed. "Well, that's an awesome garment!" Bush Jr. replied. I smiled, thanked him in English, and walked with the rest of the team to the South Lawn of the White House, where Bush Sr. and his wife, Barbara, waited for us.

There was one notable absence from the team on the visit that day. During the finals against the Lakers, when it was all but assured that we had the championship sewn up, Michael Jordan-who ev­ eryone thought did not have a political bone in his body-said, in the locker room, "I'm not going to the White House. Fuck Bush. I didn't vote for him."True to his word, Jordan didn't join us that day. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times wrote mildly critical articles about Jordan's decision to snub the president, but most of the media ignored the move.

Why? Jordan raked in $15 million  a year in endorsements, was a popular guest on Saturday Night Live, and had highways in North Carolina named in his honor. Jordan had transformed the game of basketball to the point that people would pay thousands of dollars a ticket to sit courtside and watch a bunch of brothers run up and down a painted court and put a ball through a hoop. It was best not to draw too much attention to such things as hav­ ing the league's cash cow boycott a visit to the White House. The "Jordan Rules" weren't just the Detroit Pistons' secret formula for stopping MJ. They were also the rules of the game that didn't apply to Jordan.

The team set up on the green half court on the southwestern corner of the South Lawn. President Bush had  dedicated the half court the previous April, after attending a midnight basketball league game in Maryland. He was so impressed that he designated the midnight basketball league, with its aim of drawing young Black kids off the streets during peak crime hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., as one of his national "thousand points oflight." (Midnight basketball leagues are great, but believe me, they don't represent a serious ap­ proach to curbing gang violence.)

B. J. Armstrong was the first to pick up a basketball. He made twelve straight bank shots from about ten feet, set on breaking Grant Hill's record of ten straight bank shots when he'd helped inaugurate Duke University's court a few months earlier. (You can't have a Dukie with the record. That's just  the truth.)

"He can really  shoot," said Bush Sr. to our coach, "The Zen Master," Phil Jackson.

"Yes, he can, but he isn't our best shooter," Phil said, as he pointed to me.

"I'm too clean, Coach," I said with a smile, nodding to my white dashiki. B.J. tossed me the ball anyway. I began draining shots from about twenty-four feet; I think I hit nine in a row.

The president was impressed. "Bar, did you see these guys?" Bush Sr. said to the First Lady. I had never felt more joy shooting a jump shot than I did on that White House court. Having delivered a letter to the US president on behalf of my people, after winning the first NBA championship for my hometown, I felt I was repping all that I held sacred and dear-in that moment I was the fullest, realest expression of Craig Hodges.

As we left the court, I noticed the ball sitting alone. I picked it up and asked, "Mr. President, would you sign this?"

"Of course," he said.

I decided to seize the moment."Iwrote a letter for you.Your press secretary has it. I hope you have a chance to look at it."

"Thank you. I look forward to reading it, Craig," said the presi­ dent, in his New England-Texas hybrid accent, as we walked off the court together.

Getting the message to him mattered to me. I wanted to put the president on notice and show him how desperate things were getting in the poorest, Blackest neighborhoods in America. These issues wouldn't be ignored by me while I stood on the grounds of one of the most powerful buildings in the world.

Here's an excerpt of what I wrote, as an opener:

Dear Mr. President:

. ...This letter is not begging the government for anything. . . . but 300 years of free slave labor has left the African American com­ munity 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 fore­ front of the domestic agenda.

Tim Hallam, the Bulls' PR director, for reasons that I still don't understand, shared my letter with the press. He certainly didn't have to do that, but I was glad he did. Why not? If I'm going to do it, let the world know! The Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, and other outlets reported on what I'd written.

As I was raised to believe that writing political representatives was a normal and healthy part of living in a democracy, I left the White House feeling like I'd just aced Civics 101. I was more than just an athlete. I was a young  man eager to  continue to use the platform I'd earned as a professional athlete to draw attention to those who couldn't play in the NBA. I'd soon learn, however, that the overlords of the league had other plans for me and that my freedom of expression had  serious  limits-limits  that  would  cost me my livelihood.

This is my story.


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