“You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”
The first line in this autobiography, subtitled ‘The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter’, is a intriguing one.
The quote immediately makes you want to read on. Why isn’t Craig Hodges someone you want to be like?
For those not familiar with the name, Hodges, 56, is an American retired professional basketball player. He played in the NBA for 10 seasons, winning two NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan.
Hodges led the league in three-point shooting percentage three times and, along with Larry Bird, is one of only two players to win three consecutive three-point contests at the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend.
Always ready to speak out on issues and never happy to simply keep his head down and – in more ways than one – play the game, Hodges refused to just take the money and run.
The foreword by firebrand US sportswriter Dave Zirin explains why sport and politics continue to make for uneasy bedfellows.
Not so long ago, as Zirin explains, any sportsman who dared to rock the boat would be blackballed and “written out of the history books with a casual cruelty that would make Stalin jealous”.
Sure, times have changed. But as NFL star Colin Kaepernick discovered when he began marking the national anthem with down-on-one-knee ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, politically-outspoken elite sportspeople still risk vilification.
Speaking to current New York Knicks player Joakim Noah, Hodges says: “Don’t let those big paychecks buy your silence.”
It could be argued that modern-day athletes such as Kaepernick and NBA star Steph Curry have used Hodges as a role model in this respect.
Like many black American athletes, Hodges is proud of his African heritage. When visiting the White House, he wore a white Dashiki, saying: “I was raised to know that my history was unwritten, so if the books weren’t going to represent it, I would.”
“What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in” – Craig Hodges
He took the opportunity to hand a letter to President George Bush Sr, speaking about his beliefs and the battle for equality for African Americans.
But as the shooting guard says in his book, written with Rory Fanning: “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.”
One of the main points I took from this fascinating read is that Hodges put his beliefs ahead of his career and it cost him.
But it was still a career that offered him a way out of poverty, although he makes the point: “What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in.”
Having watched the IVERSON documentary on Allen Iverson, there are similarities between him and Hodges.
Kids like them had to do all they could to make it into the big leagues or, as Hodges says, “end up in the Ford factory” – if they were lucky.
Fanning has helped Hodge to tell his story in a way which connects his personal and professional lives, his exploits on the court with the activism which so irked the basketball hierarchy.
Hodges claims, for instance he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Phoenix Suns because of his affiliation with members of the Nation of Islam, and his political views.
In 1996, towards the end of his playing career, Hodges filed a $40m lawsuit against the NBA and its then 29 teams.
It claimed they blackballed him for his association with Louis Farrakhan and his criticism of “African-American professional athletes who failed to use their considerable wealth and influence to assist the poor and disenfranchised”.
‘Long Shot’ firmly places Hodges in a tradition of activist athletes which also includes Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Muhammad Ali – sportspeople who have often paid dearly for refusing to compromise their political beliefs, and they deserve credit for that.
After reading about the trials and tribulations he went through during his career, I finally understood the statement “You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”
However, as Zirin writes in his foreword, it should say “You DO want to be like Craig Hodges.”
Long Shot – The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter is available on Amazon UK for £14.99.