In the last year, Craig Hodges, former NBA guard, wrote an engaging book his NBA career in the 1980s and early 1990s called “Long Shot,” describing his attempts to build a career and how his social activism may have ended career early. I caught an excerpt of Long Shot and Hodges set a picture where asserted that, as a player on the original Bull Threepeat, he felt that there was collusion to end his career prematurely based upon the social activism.
In the book, Hodges wrote that, after the 1991-92 season, he couldn’t get an agent (his agent dropped him) and no one was returning his calls: “I personally called each of the most respected agents in the NBA. No one would return my calls. Anxiety set in. My thought was that [superagent] David Falk had put a bug in the ears of the other agents. Was this retaliation for my refusal to be Falk’s rubber stamp as players’ union president, or my endorsement of the Nike boycott, or my vocal support of the pension amendment, or the New York Times piece where I said Jordan was bailing out on the Black community? I thought it was probably all of the above. The agents talked to the owners more than the players did. It was a tight community, and I had committed many cardinal sins. I wasn’t playing the game the way Jordan thought it should be played. No, I wasn’t playing the corporate game.”
I thought it would be interesting to examine some the anecdotal evidence at the time to see if Hodges’ case for collusion was strong. Before diving in, let’s do a quick thumbnail of Hodges. He was a second-round pick in 1982 and a role player for the old San Diego Clippers. In 1984-85, he was traded to Milwaukee as part of the big Terry Cummings-Marques Johnson swap. Hodges was a starting guard for the next three years on a very good Bucks team. Hodges was the point guard on paper but Paul Pressey was the real ball handler. Instead, Hodges was a useful shooter, averaging 10.8 ppg and 3.6 apg in those three seasons. Hodges’ main role was to stretch the defense and he did that well. He had shot only 30-136 from three in two seasons on San Diego but he led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage twice on the Bucks and shot 291-700 (.416%) from three over the next four seasons.
After a brief layover in Phoenix, Hodges was traded to the Bulls in early 1988-89 for the immortal Ed Nealy (who would end up on the Bulls several more times). Hodges fit in well as a backup to John Paxson. Hodges would camp in the corner and shoot threes if his man doubled Michael Jordan. Over the next four seasons, Hodges basic numbers were as follows:
1988-89: 22.7 mpg, 10.0 ppg, .423 3FG%, 2.8 apg, 14.9 PER, 2.8 WS, -0.2 BPM, 0.5 VORP
1989-90: 16.7 mpg, 6.5 ppg, .481 3FG%, 1.7 apg, 12.5 PER, 2.6 WS, -2.3 BPM, -0.1 VORP
1990-91: 11.5 mpg, 5.0 ppg, .383 3FG%, 1.3 apg, 12.4 PER, 1.7 WS,-3.3 BPM, -0.3 VORP
1991-92: 9.9 mpg, 4.3 ppg .375 3FG%, 1.0 apg, 10.4 PER, 0.8 WS, -5.0 BPM, -0.4 VORP
On paper only, Hodges’ minutes and production were declining over this time. He could still hit a three but the rest of his game was not great and young B.J. Armstrong, another good shooter, had made Hodges less important. After 1991-92, Hodges was 32 and certainly not valueless but nearing the end of his career.
Off the court, Hodges had made some noise too. Here’s a quick rundown of his off court stories:
-After the 1990-91 season, the Bulls were invited to the White House to meet President George H.W. Bush. Hodges delivered a letter to Bush that detailed the issues in the African-American community, in America. After detailing these issues, Hodges summed up the letter with the following: “This letter is not begging the government for anything. . . . but 300 years of free labor has left the African-American community 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 forefront of the domestic agenda.”
-During the 1991-92 NBA Finals, William C. Rhoden of the New York Times wrote an article in which Hodges criticized Jordan for not being vocal on social issues: “When they came to Michael after the L.A. deal [where Rodney King was beaten by police and riots ensued] went down and asked him what he thought, his reply was that he wasn’t really up on what was going. I can understand that, but at the same time, that’s a bailout situation because you are bailing out when some heat is coming on you. We can’t bail anymore.”
A few months later, Hodges was a 32-year old free agent and, as noted, he couldn’t get any offers. The Bulls signed another older three-point specialist in Trent Tucker to replace Hodges. According to Hodges, Tucker’s signing was more political than based upon talent: “I have nothing but love for Trent, but he wasn’t the shooter I was.”
Putting aside the other issues, was Hodges’ claim that Tucker wasn’t as good a shooter true? Not exactly. Tucker never had as a high three-point percentage as Hodges best years but Tucker’s 1991-92 level (.396%) was better than Hodges had been in 1990-91 and 1991-92. In addition, take a look at Tucker’s 1992-93 versus Hodges’ 1991-92 season:
Hodges 91-92: 9.9 mpg, 4.3 ppg .375 3FG%, 1.0 apg, 10.4 PER, 0.8 WS, -5.0 BPM, -0.4 VORP
Tucker 92-93: 13.2 mpg, 5.2 ppg .397 3FG%, 1.2 apg, 14.1 PER, 2.8 WS, -1.0 BPM, 0.2 VORP
One can understand Hodges’ frustration that he was not treated fairly but the stats support the move. Tucker was a better shooter and a better all-around player than Hodges. Hodges was still a fringe NBA player but his case for coming back to the Bulls was not strong.
This leads to the larger point of whether Hodges was blacklisted for his outspoken nature. The letter to Bush was certainly awkward moment for the NBA that never really wants to make news outside of the game. But that wasn’t really the end. No, Hodges’ employment ended weeks after the Rhoden article where Hodges directly questioned Jordan’s apolitical stance.
Was this fair? This is a bit complicated question and leads to even more questions. Should Hodges have been punished for urging Jordan to support Hodges’ sincerely held beliefs? Maybe but…were Hodges’ political beliefs well-founded? That’s a longer question than we can answer here now but while considering that also consider: what responsibility did Jordan (and stars in general) have to make political statements?
The short answer is that Hodges wanted to have larger discussions about race, society, and inequality. You can debate whether and to what extent Hodges’ positions were/are correct but the following facts can be reasonably gleamed from the story above:
-Hodges’ was a decent NBA player in 1992.
-Hodges criticism of the best player on his team (and the world) did not endear him to any prospective future employers.
-Hodges’ replacement, Tucker, was better than Hodges.
-Hodges was not good enough, as a limited role player, to make the NBA deal with him.
-This wasn’t totally fair that Hodges was dropped so fast and hard but NBA teams could credibly counter that Hodges wasn’t worth the trouble. If he wasn’t afraid to criticize Jordan what would stop him from criticizing lesser stars on other teams?
In the end, there is no satisfying definitive take on the end to Hodges’ career. On the one hand, the NBA has changed a bit and the stars of today’s NBA have been much more vocal about political issues than Jordan was. On the other hand, if the fourth guard like Jose Calderon started telling the press that his teammate LeBron James was “bailing” on social issues, Calderon would not be long for the Cavs or the NBA. This is the line that athletes and public figures have always walked and will continue to walk.