Fighting The Fight: Activist, former Bull Craig Hodges guides youth in his hometown

Craig Hodges took his shots. The dead-eye former professional basketball player (with the Chicago Bulls, among others) once made nineteen three-pointers in a row on a national stage in the N.B.A. All Star Game’s Three-Point Contest. One of only three players to lead the league in three-point percentage more than once, Hodges is regarded as one of the finest pure shooters in the game’s history. When he saw an opportunity, he went for it. They weren’t all makes, but he always knew he did what he could.

Now, as a leader of young men in the in-need suburb of Park Forest, which has lost population and resources for decades, Hodges preaches that same opportunism and resilience on the court, hoping the lessons make a difference off of it. “Don’t spend so much time when you miss cursing yourself. Correct it,” Hodges said as an example of what he tells his players. “And as you correct it in practice, you aren’t allowing that miss to make you miss the next play so that you’re allowing your man to run by you defensively. You got to understand it’s a transition game, and life is transitory. So the lessons in the game can surely translate into life lessons and the ability to never quit, regardless of how much a struggle things may be.”

Inside the athletics office at Rich East High School, Hodges looks trimmer than during his playing days. His cheeks sink under the pronounced bones above them, and gray has overtaken the tightly-cropped hair on his head and in his goatee. He’s fifty-seven now, but it’s a good bet he can still shoot it. The athleticism and assurance in his limbs give that away. For years, he’s been helping young ballplayers in his old neighborhood around Park Forest, but nowadays, he has a more established role as head coach of his alma mater’s Rockets.

The squad looks strong this year, and Hodges speaks proudly of that. Courtside, he breaks our interview here and there to point out one of his student-athletes. “That kid’s top-thirty in the state. Scored fifty points two times in summer league.” “This kid doesn’t miss.” “He’s just a sophomore … probably going to be 6-[foot]-8.”

There’s another player, too. He might have the most raw talent on the team. But it is raw, even though he’s a senior. He didn’t play for the high school the first three years. He attended the district’s alternative school and went unnoticed. Then came Hodges, whose active presence in the community allowed him to witness the kid play street ball. His skills were wowing. Hodges thinks he can play in college, a tremendous opportunity for a kid never expecting one. “That’s the type of satisfaction I get being able to get them to see that there’s another opportunity after this one, and why not you?” he said. “The one thing in our community is we’ve grown so that our expectations are low to no expectations at all. So we don’t expect. No, we expect the worst.”

Hodges grew up in the area, but it’s completely different now. When he went to Rich East, he said, there were maybe forty black students out of fifteen hundred.  “It’s a complete reversal,” said Hodges, who bets there are more white educators than white students at Rich East.

After his run with the Rockets, Hodges headed west—like he’d always dreamed—to play basketball for Long Beach State. Growing up, Hodges, an avid basketball fan, admired the dynasty of the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball program that won ten collegiate championships, including seven in a row in the sixties and seventies. After a post-senior-season city-suburban exhibition game, Hodges was pulled aside by then-Northwestern University coach Tex Winter, who had just secured a new job at Long Beach State. Winter asked Hodges if he’d like to join him out west. “I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ” Hodges grinned.

Joining Hodges on the West Coast were a handful of other “Chicago boys,” as he put it. He said Tex promised the group that if they each put in their four years at Long Beach State and followed his lead, that each of them would get into an N.B.A. camp for a shot at pro ball. Right then, Hodges bought in and dedicated himself to the process on and off the court. On it, Hodges became a premier shooter in college basketball. With his first-in, last-out attitude, he improved his game each season. Off of it, he marginalized distractions, like partying, gaming, and dating. He gave his mind to black studies, furthering his interest in and passion for the topic first sparked by his mother, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After graduating from Long Beach State, Hodges was not on the list of invites to the N.B.A.’s inaugural pre-draft camp, but he was first alternate. Winter told him to wait by a phone near Chicago the day of camps, because there is always someone who does not show up. Sure enough, a guard with an all-but-assured draft spot dropped out, and Winter called Hodges. “He said, ‘How soon can you get to the Hyatt [in Chicago]?’ ” Hodges said, before imitating an excited, quick phone hang-up. “Man, thirty-five minutes later: ‘Knock, Knock, Knock.’ He’s like, ‘Hodge, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m here. What’s up?’

“He said, ‘This is your chance.’ ”

And Hodges seized it. He was all smiles while describing the camp, at which, he said, he didn’t miss a shot the first two days and had every coach searching for his name on their camp rosters. A few days later, Hodges was the forty-eighth pick in the 1982 N.B.A. Draft, going to the then-San Diego Clippers.

His rookie year, Hodges started and got to play against some of his basketball idols—George Gervin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and Gus Williams, whose game Hodges incorporated into his own. When the Clippers moved to Los Angeles, Hodges was traded to Milwaukee under coach Don Nelson, where he played the most successful, from a statistical standpoint, years of his career. The Bucks were in the playoffs all three full seasons with Hodges, who averaged between ten and eleven points per game and led the league in three-point percentage in 1985-’86 and ’87-’88. From the same division, the Bucks often matched up with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Hodges once told Jordan in pre-game warmups, “When we get together, we’re going to win championships.”

After Milwaukee, Hodges went to Phoenix for half of two seasons before being traded to the Chicago Bulls in the middle of the 1988-’89 campaign, teaming with Hall of Famers Jordan and Scottie Pippen, drafted in 1987. Already a playoff team, the Bulls needed to turn the last corner to become a championship team. Hodges was happy to provide a veteran presence with playoff experience—and come home—but he credited the final click to his old friend Tex Winter, his Long Beach State coach who had been with the Bulls as an assistant since 1985. Under new head coach Phil Jackson in 1989, the Bulls’ triangle offense developed into its final form, and the Bulls developed into a dynasty.

Hodges was an integral part of the development, but made a national name for himself somewhat elsewhere. A premier shooter in the league, Hodges participated in eight straight three-point shooting competitions during All-Star Weekend. He won three straight titles (1990-’92) and finished second twice. He still holds the contest record for most threes made in a round (twenty-one of twenty-five) and most made in a row (nineteen).

Hodges was a household name, and when the Bulls won their second of six nineties’ league championships in 1992, he became even more so. With the team on an honorary visit to the White House, Hodges delivered a hand-written letter to President George H.W. Bush detailing his dismay over the treatment of poor and minority communities across the nation.

Before the next season, Hodges, thirty-one at the time, was waived by the Bulls and reportedly did not receive one call from another N.B.A. team. It confused Hodges and his agent, neither of whom received a straight answer, Hodges says. The Bulls organization responded that his shooting and defense were in decline, but Hodges says he was blackballed because he was a man of influence armed with courage and a powerful message. “It’s speculation, because nobody will tell me,” he said. “I think it’s the ability to articulate your position, and you’re a leader, and the platform that you have to speak from is enormous. So those people who control things don’t want you to have that pull and want to deny you the ability to make a difference, because you might be able to.”

Still an outspoken activist, Hodges has been back in the news in recent years in relation to Colin Kaepernick, the N.F.L. quarterback who protested racial injustices by kneeling during the national anthem before games. Despite relative youth (thirty) and above-average measurables for the position, Kaepernick can’t get a tryout, let alone a roster spot—though, his presence is still felt with dozens of N.F.L. players protesting during the anthem every week. Hodges knows what he’s going through. “They take the position that he’s against the flag,” Hodges said. “That’s totally separate from what he’s trying to do—get justice under the flag. ”

Back in Park Forest, Hodges fights for equality through everything he does. With the Rockets at Rich East, he keeps players focused and preaches fundamentals and repetition in hopes they all live richer lives. To Hodges, those with limited opportunity get used to it. With low (or no) expectations, Hodges said, many in Park Forest — and the black community as a whole — “don’t expect or expect the worst.”

So, when an opportunity does come along, Hodges pushes his players to see it and seize it.

Recently, a player skipped practice. Rarely a good sign under a strict coach. Usually, it ends up with wind sprints or wall-sits. But not this time. The player was at his internship. “I’m cool with that,” Hodges said. “You’re starting to think critically about your future, and I’m the biggest proponent of that: How can you every day think about where you are taking your life?”

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

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