Craig Hodges won two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s, was crowned champion of the NBA All-Star Three-Point Contest three different times and was considered one of the greatest sharpshooters in the league when he played. However, after 12 years in the league, at age 31, his career was cut short. By his own account, it wasn’t due to injuries or his shooting skills diminishing, although when the Bulls released him after the 1991-92 season, general manager Jerry Krause told him it was because they wanted to get younger players.
Hodges says his career ended because of his activism and politics. He pushed for Michael Jordan to publicly talk about social justice issues, to no avail. He also wanted to protest Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Lakers, in response to Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers. But when he went to Jordan and Magic Johnson for support, they didn’t think it was a good idea. Months later, after the Bulls won their first of three consecutive championships, Hodges and his teammates took a visit to the White House to be honored by president George H.W. Bush, where he wore a dashiki and wrote a letter to the president that detailed the racism facing Black Americans in the country.
After he was released by the Bulls, he thought other teams would come calling for his sharpshooting skills, but the phone never rang. Hodges has committed his life to activism, but unlike the unity that the NBA players demonstrated on Wednesday in protest of the recent shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police in Wisconsin, he wasn’t supported in his choices during his time in the league.
Hodges spoke to CBS Sports about the activism taking place in the league today, and his own activism while playing the NBA.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: I want to first talk about how you got involved in activism and what made you want to fight for Black people in this country.
Craig Hodges: My family was part of the civil rights movement, so it was always a community-minded spirit in my family. My aunts were educators, so I was always reading and writing — which was really my first love before sports — it was always put in my mind. Then, as an eight-year-old I can recall walking into the house and Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] had been murdered, and I’ve never seen my granny and my mom cry like that. That put a lot on my mind of who was this man. Later on in life, I got a chance to go to Long Beach State and study who Dr. King was and the principles he lived and died on. That was always a motivating factor in my life, and to see my mom be the secretary of civil rights organizations, and then to be able to go to the White House and stand by what she taught me — I was taught about community, love one another more than you love thyself and that’s why things were accomplished in the ’60s.
CBS: And I imagine growing up during the height of the civil rights movement, seeing athletes like John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Muhammad Ali use their platform to speak out on racial injustices really had an impact on you as well.
Hodges: Absolutely, recently in the last few months I’ve been able to befriend Dr. [John] Carlos, and just him teaching me about what they were thinking during that time with the civil rights and the Olympic boycott. It’s been pretty key for me that a lot of my heroes I had growing up I had a chance to meet, and Dr. Carlos is one of them. To see him and Tommie Smith do what they did, and the meaning behind it, because my family taught me what the meaning was. So the next day we all went to school and all had our fists in the air. It was one of those things that inspired us.
CBS: Coming up through college and into the NBA, what were things you were doing at that time to help the Black community and how were you using your platform?
Hodges: Coming from Chicago Heights, we had an opportunity to come back in the summer and do community service work. That was one of the big things that myself, and some other brothers who were in college at the time, we started an organization called the Brotherhood of Education. We’d come back every summer and mentor young brothers and sisters at the park and things like that.
When I was at Long Beach, one of my great college friends was murdered by Signal Hill police, Ryan Settles. We did what we had to do as far as boycotting at Long Beach, marches and the like. It’s always been in me, and it’s one of the things that as you get older you learn more and you study more, and your responses should be more mature. That’s what I’ve been working on, how can I galvanize what we need to do in order for our people to be free and whole and secure at the same time, because us picking up weapons ain’t going to work.
CBS: When you were doing these things in the community, did you ever look to teammates and say “hey do you want to help out with this, or get involved in this?”
Hodges: Oh yeah, I could recall one All-Star weekend after I won [the 3-Point Shootout]. We get our checks in the mail, so there’s probably four, five of us sitting around. I tell the brothers “man, that’s $20,000, let’s get something started together.” They said “all right Hodges, come back with something to us.” So the next day everybody got a packet on what we’re working on, which is developing manufacturing so we could hire people, and they said “let me check with my people,” and it wound up being what it always is, lip service. You can’t expect everybody to be about it.
CBS: A lot of people talk about how you wanted to boycott Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, and how you approached Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and asked for their support and didn’t get it. What was your feeling in that moment when you went to two of the biggest dudes in the league, and asked for their support and just didn’t get it?
Hodges: I knew the answer before I went to them. What’s funny to me, is how quick they dismissed it. Both conversations lasted less than two minutes. Magic was coming on the court the day before the first game, and I asked him about it and he tells me “it’s too extreme.” I already discussed it with Mike in the locker room, and he tells me, “man, that’s wild, man.” So it’s not anything I haven’t faced before.
There was a point when I was in college, some of my teammates asked me why I was studying Black studies, and I’m like why are you studying this? It’s what I enjoy doing, and I think that’s one of the things is that we go into these schools and we become trained instead of becoming educated. The education portion is something that we need to be more on this next generation of like, your education is attached to your passion, and when you can find something and study the basic fundamentals of it you can go out and be successful at it.
CBS: So then you guys win a championship, you go to the White House and you write a letter detailing all the issues facing Black people in America to deliver to the president. What was your thought process through all of that?
Hodges: The night before we went, a buddy of mine and I were playing ping pong and I thought about it like, “man, I wrote letters to everybody growing up and now I’m getting ready to go to the White House, I gotta sit and write a letter.” He was like, “man, you sure you want to do that?” My mom always told me when you get opportunities like this, you can’t be afraid to face them and that’s what that was. It turned out to be something that to me was the most important day of my life from the standpoint of representing my people.
CBS: Going back to Magic and Jordan for a second, fast forward to today and you see Jordan donating money to Black communities, and Magic is funding loans for Black, minority and women-owned businesses. What’s it like to see that now for them to be getting involved?
Hodges: Quite honestly that’s a business move, and I get that. But I think visible support to human rights, let’s speak to that. We need you to speak to those issues in front of the camera, with families who have suffered through this. With Black women who have suffered the consequences of all the Black violence, whether it be police or self-inflicted. I haven’t seen them speak on it. I’ve seen soundbites, but at the level that they’re at, you can have a “Last Dance” that’s the all-time selling documentary in sports history. Now what about that same concern to the suffering of your people? I don’t get that, I don’t get how we feel like we shouldn’t ask these questions, and then when we ask them it becomes a thing of we’re wrong for even asking a question.
Like, with Magic and Michael, OK, I’m in the 3-point contest and Magic says before the contest, “I’m putting my money on Craig Hodges,” OK, I get that. But now what about when I’m being ex-communicated from the league, where are the voices then? We stand with Colin Kaepernick now, and I’m with that, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been in this since I came from my momma’s womb. It wasn’t a fight I came into as a 30-year-old with millions of dollars in the bank, and I’m not dismissing his passion for it. But we’re born in this, we have to live in this Black skin. Myself and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf have been ex-communicated, have lost — between he and I — over $100 million that could’ve been for the good of our people. I don’t understand how Magic can have a billion, Michael can have a billion and our condition — why is our condition what it is? You are a media magnate, the most iconic endorsement in the world and Magic, you just told me about his business acumen, that’s a trifecta.
We have a choice, we had a choice not to go to the bubble. Now when we go to the bubble, it continues. Now we’re going to go back and play and they’re going to kill more Black people.
CBS: In regards to Wednesday then, when the Bucks decided to sit out in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and it led to the whole league stopping as well as other sports across the country. What was your initial reaction to that?
Hodges: It was beautiful, I felt like all of the ancestors were smiling, and I said “man, our young brothers got some backbone.” We already know the women have backbone, because they’ve been doing this and the’ll walk away from it, no issue. But it’s for the brothers that cling to the trinkets of white supremacy and racism and the things that come with it: a nice house in a gated community next to my billion-dollar owner. That’s what success has been modeled at for young African-American men. So now we talk about wanting to get out of the community as opposed to building it up. As opposed to how can I make my community reflective of my culture or heritage and still be appreciated.
CBS: So after all the players met to hash out what the next steps are, on Friday they announced they’re going to resume play. The union and the league came out with a joint statement about things they’re going to put into action like turning arenas into voting stations, they’re going to have a social justice coalition that talks about specific things they want to see happen —
Hodges: Talk? That talks about things? We’ve been talking about things for 400 years. Let them talk, and once again it’s so funny to me because are the people who created the problems going to solve it? See, the players don’t realize that sitting at the negotiating table you’re negotiating the freedom of Black people, brown people poor people and disenfranchised people. So if you’re not negotiating for ownership, what are we talking about? It’s talk, and talk is cheap. As cheap as those $100 million contracts they’re giving out to sell out to freedom, justice, equality and liberty.
CBS: So do you think it was the right decision for the players to go back to play right now?
Hodges: No, they should’ve never went down there in the first place. Soon as this outbreak happened, we should’ve shut it down, period. But no, you can’t shut it down because the lifeline for so many billionaires are connected to some of the stuff they’re doing. So we gotta get the economy going again, because who controls the economy, white supremacists and racists. That’s who controls the economy. Y’all want to tell me voting, back in the day when they were beating us with dogs and all of that, it was just about the vote? Or was it about the Black economic Wall Street that you bombed? We need to pull our energy away from them, come to ourselves and negotiate from a position of power, not a position of divide and conquer.
It’s clear to me why Michael Jordan is being propped up and put in front of everybody, both in “The Last Dance” and now this. Come on, it’s a plan, and I’m not going for their plan any more because they owe me. They owe me and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. That’s why they won’t talk to me. How are you going to have a program like this when racism hasn’t affected Michael Jordan? How is he going to speak on racism, him of all people? I’d rather go get John Paxson to be a bridge.
CBS: What would you like for the league and players to do, what would be a step in the right direction?
Hodges: First thing, all public disclosure. We ain’t sitting behind any more damn closed doors with my people not knowing what’s going on, and here you are going to come out with a deal. Like Jay-Z and Roger Goodell. Those closed-door sessions, those cigar-smoke-filled rooms that you have to be a billionaire to be a part of, that’s over with. Be clear with it, come tell the people what you’re talking about. Come tell the people how you’re going to exploit them, how you’re going to make a deal so that you’re going to be able to be garnered, but our people still going to be out here hopeless, challenged by the police force and the economy that’s propped up against them.
CBS: Are you in contact with any active players in the league today to discuss some of these issues?
Hodges: No, once again, when I was in the league I was happy to share all information. Like I said, reading and writing is fun for me, so when I would find some new information, I would share it with my teammates and coaches in a loving manner, not in a manner of I’m better than you. That’s me, and like I tell people, I was blessed to play a game for a living, play basketball for a living. But I didn’t get to retire like my boys, so I’m still in a competitive mindset. So when I watch that garbage, that bubble stuff, that is nothing but a video game and that’s what they’re promoting. They don’t know how long this COVID-19 thing is going to last before people can come back to arenas, so it’s like how can we market our product?
It’s the same energy [in society] now as when we were getting ready to win a championship. It’s so sad that police are in a position where we pay taxes and they continue to kill us. They teach us in government, that we have to be great citizens but they don’t play by that rule.
CBS: When you do see athletes like LeBron James and Chris Paul use their platform to speak on these issues, though, what is it like for you to see them speak up coming from where you came from to now?
Hodges: I love it. I love the fact that they’re dealing with the information that they have, and they’re working with the information that they have. You don’t have to be a historical scholar, but you have to have empathy. You have to try to see the world not from your millionaire eyesight, but from the poorest person sitting on the corner with a can in their hand asking you for a dollar. That’s the way I see some of these young brothers, they’re feeling that, because they’re not too far removed from that.