How Former NBA Player Craig Hodges Helped Create the Activist Athlete

"The ramifications had other athletes say, ‘Look what happened to Hodges. I don't want that to happen to me," says three-time 3-Point Shootout Champ

Craig Hodges captured three NBA All-Star Three Point championships during his career. Credit: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty

Basketball, maybe more than any other sport, inspires plenty of contentious, arbitrary debates. Yet when the topic of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history comes up, it's a little more cut and dried than talking about whether LeBron has earned GOAT status along with Michael Jordan or who the best center of the Nineties was. You get the normal names like Larry Bird, Ray Allen and Steph Curry when discussing the greatest to shoot from downtown; that's almost always a given.

Another thing you can count on when talking about guys who could drain 3-pointers is that hardly anybody brings up Craig Hodges. You don't know Hodges or maybe faintly recall his name? The three-time NBA 3-Point Shootout champion thinks there could be a good reason for that.

Talent-wise, Hodges was one of the best long-range shooters of his generation, but he wasn't a starter. Instead of being announced along with Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and Jordan, Hodges was a reliable choice off the bench after John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong for the first half of the Chicago Bulls' dynasty in the early 1990s after stints with three other teams. 

But that doesn't mean he didn't have the special talent to help a team win. 

In an era when the NBA was dominated by big men like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, along with Jordan almost always leading the league in scoring, Hodges stood out for his shooting. He especially shined at the NBA All-Star weekend's 3-point shooting contest in 1991, he became the record holder for most made shots in a round (21) and most consecutive shots made (19), certainly proving he had a knack for shooting the long ball.

Hodges maybe wasn't necessary when you had as many weapons as the Bulls did during those years, but plenty of teams would want a guy whose specialty is draining shots from the three-point line. So why then, when the Bulls waived the shooter in 1992 after their second NBA Championship, did no single team bother to pick up his contract? Why aren't we talking more about Hodges today?

If you ask Hodges, it's because he was blackballed by the league for speaking out; on a visit the team made to President George H.W. Bush at the White House in 1991, which culminated in the 1996 Craig Hodges vs. the National Basketball Association lawsuit. Hodges, who wore a dashiki on the team's visit, handed a letter to President Bush's press secretary pleading with him to come up with a comprehensive plan to end the injustices toward the black community. Hodges, the NBA's reigning All-Star 3-point shooting contest champion, knew he had to make the best of his opportunity to meet the leader of the free world.

"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," Hodges writes in his new memoir, Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter. "I would use this visit to help escalate discussions of rising incarceration, reparations 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."

So how did Hodges go from being a player on one of the NBA's greatest dynasties to becoming a precautionary tale for professional athletes who speak out on polarizing issues?

"Systematic racism has gone on for years and people don’t want to speak on it. The issue is ugly. People didn't want to deal with it and I happened to be the one who did," Hodges tells Rolling Stone. "The ramifications had other athletes say, ‘Look what happened to Hodges. I don't want that to happen to me. I don't want to lose ways to earn money for me and my family.' I can't be mad at them for that. Self-preservation is first in our nature."

In the book, Hodges talks about conversations he had with teammates Jordan and Pippen about their lack of knowledge regarding Black history.

"I don't bring this up to shame Scottie, Michael, and the other players who aren't educated in our history," Hodges writes. "I bring it up because we can't solve a problem if we don't recognize the sickness."

Hodges says that he was trying to get his teammates, along with other players in the NBA, to understand the responsibility they had to the communities they came from, and that's why nobody signed him. A Bulls team official, speaking anonymously to The New York Times in 1996, saw it differently. He believed nobody picked up the 32-year-old player's contract "because he was on his last legs as a player."

"The biggest thing I was trying to get out there was that the league had no business telling guys what to do with their time and their money," Hodges says. "I wasn't trying to get guys to do something out of the ordinary. I was trying to tell guys to take a look at the world around them. I wanted to change the condition of our people. To whom much is given, much is required."

Even though it has been 25 years since he last played in the NBA, Hodges is more steadfast than ever in his belief that the NBA ostracized him due to his association with the Nation of Islam, and the Chicago Heights native believes that the league still holds a grudge against him that has impacted his son, Jibril, who was a standout guard at Long Beach State like his father and wasn't invited to any pre-draft camps despite averaging 15 points per game.

"He's earned the right to play on the highest level," Hodges writes in the book. "Jibril was never invited to the pre-draft camps, like many of the sons of my former colleagues were."

Hodges also believes the NBA changed the rules regarding the 3-point shootout during All-Star weekend to take his name out of the record books. In 2014, the league added the "moneyball" rack, in which Warriors guard Stephen Curry scored 27 points, which broke Hodges' record for most points scored in a round (25). Hodges still holds the record most consecutive shots made (19). The 2016 winner Klay Thompson, Curry’s backcourt mate, tied the record for most points in any round. Thompson’s performance in Toronto that day put Hodges into a three-way tie for second with Jason Kapono and the 2017 winner Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who tied Hodges’ record of the most points scored in the first round (25).

"Your political beliefs shouldn't be taken into consideration. What I did during that All-Star weekend stood the test of time and it continues to," Hodges says. "You put a whole rack of moneyballs so somebody might be able to break my record. I look at what Steph Curry did and all that stuff is with an asterisk. It's like when brothers were hitting home runs but couldn't play in the Major Leagues. When players speak out, it has to happen that way."

Today, Hodges, who coaches basketball at his high school alma mater, Rich East High School in Park Forest, Illinois, says that he is inspired by the current group of activist athletes who don't have the trepidation many of his colleagues had when he played.

"Social media allows these guys to spin their stories the way they want without having to go through the mainstream media to do it,” he says. “I'm glad for that. When you look at Colin Kaepernick's situation, he has support through social media. Timing is critical. Poverty, homelessness... that doesn't wait for someone to say, ‘Well, let me take my time.’ When these moments come up during our careers, they need to be addressed at that moment. Don't wait until your career is over and your visibility is diminished."

When Hodges sees athletes from different walks of life speaking out on social issues, he says that he feels validated. He loves that today's generation doesn't "stick to sports," like many fans and pundits have suggested.

"We're more than one-dimensional people, and politics affects everyone. Right now, you have a group of athletes who have been educated to a lot of things. They've studied and that has brought them to speak up on a lot of things," Hodges says. "They know this is a thankless job and no one is going to give them accolades. They know that they are fighting a historic battle."