07 June 2020 15:45
In any case, on October 1, Jordan’s absence and the fact that Bush was notoriously more interested in football, golf and fishing suggested a boring afternoon, the classic situation in which a conservative politician shows up alongside a group of successful blacks to wink at the African American community. And instead when the team came in front of the president it was understood that something unpredictable could happen. Among the managers, coaches and players, all impeccably in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, stood out a man dressed all in white. He wore a dashiki, a tunic originally from West Africa, a white headdress and white flat shoes.
To break the embarrassment intervened Phil Jackson, the coach of the Bulls, explaining to the Bushes that the man in white was called Craig Hodges and was the best shooter of the team.
Hodges agreed to prove his ability by putting himself on the pitch in the south lawn of the White House. He scored nine shots in a row from more than 7 meters, without losing his headgear and with the long tunic that waved after each shot. But Hodges wasn’t there for that: as the group left the camp, he approached the president and handed him a handwritten letter. It was a call to improve the living conditions of black people.
As for Hodges, he was used to preaching in the desert. In June of that year, the day before the Lakers-Bulls finals began, he proposed to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to postpone the game to send a message against racism. At the beginning of March Rodney King, a 28-year-old black man, had been savagely beaten by four white policemen in Los Angeles, and the whole country had watched the video of the beating. “You’re crazy,” Jordan replied. Johnson had just been more supportive: “It’s too extreme, friend.” “What happens to our people is extreme,” Hodges replied.
On another occasion he had tried to convince Jordan to quit the contract with Nike to found his own shoe company through which he would also help the black communities. Something unthinkable for Jordan, who in the 1980s had refused to support the candidacy of a black politician in North Carolina against a racist white man saying that “whites also buy basketball shoes”. Hodges had also proposed to all his companions to allocate a portion of their earnings to poor black neighborhoods, as he had done. But he had heard that it was too difficult because the agents had to be convinced.
At that point Hodges understood that the political movement he was trying to create in the NBA would never have more than one component, himself. Perhaps that was why on October 1, 1991 he addressed the president directly. Despite frustration and failures, he still tried to keep political activism and sporting ambitions together. Perhaps he was too naive to understand that in America back then, still drunk with Reagan selfishness, this was not possible. In that context it seemed that the strongest political gesture that a black athlete could make was to get out of the ghetto and get rich.
On April 29, 1992, as the Bulls rode to the finals for the second consecutive year, the police officers who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted, and riots broke out in Los Angeles which ended in 63 deaths and 2,300 injured. After the second game of the finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, Hodges criticized Jordan for not taking a position on the King affair. The Bulls won the second consecutive title, but he didn’t even have time to celebrate. Chicago did not renew his contract and he found no NBA team willing to hire him, despite being by all accounts one of the best shooters in history. This was demonstrated by the three consecutive victories in the three-point shooting competition during the all star game (a feat achieved only by him and Larry Bird), including that of 1991, in which he set a record of consecutive baskets, 19.
Hodges played some excellent games with Clear Cantù, in Italy, then in Turkey and in the US minor leagues, and finally he became coach. He returned to the NBA as Phil Jackson’s assistant – his old coach at the Bulls, one of the few people who hadn’t turned his back on him – but then he finally left the world. Today he trains the team from the Rich East high school in Park Forest, near Chicago, where he began his career in the seventies. Perhaps he is one of the few coaches who still teaches the triangle, the offensive pattern used by the Jackson Bulls. He told his story, sporty but above all political, in a book published in 2017.
By retracing his story, you can get an idea of what has changed in the United States in the past thirty years and what has remained the same. The NBA has changed, without a doubt. Today players freely denounce racism and if they want they can criticize the President of the United States. For three years, the champion team has refused to visit Donald Trump in the White House. The strongest and most famous players, unlike Jordan and Magic in the eighties and nineties, are so influential as to be able to influence the behavior of the sponsors, including Nike. But this does not apply to all athletes. If he played today, Hodges would surely have more visibility and solidarity, but he would probably end up out of the game anyway, as happened to football player Colin Kaepernick.
The police have not changed, the feeling of helplessness of people like Hodges has not changed, the lives of young black people have not changed, and every day they risk meeting the wrong white man, perhaps in uniform.
(Text by Federico Ferrone and Alessio Marchionna)