Magazine article The American Prospect

Hoop Schemes?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Hoop Schemes?

Article excerpt

A White House congratulatory ceremony for a championship sports team is usually just a big, friendly photo opportunity, filled with the platitudes and gift exchanges typical of such an apolitical celebration. But in 1991, when the National Basketball Association (NBA) champion Chicago Bulls, Craig Hodges, then a backup guards for the Bulls, saw an opportunity for activism. Instead of presenting Bush with the customary team jersey, Hodges, who wore a dashiki for the occasion, handed the President a letter asking him to be more vigilant in rectifying injustices against African Americans.

The White House episode was hardly out of character for Hodges, who frequently took advantage of his exposure to champion political causes. Hodges's complaints about the lack of African Americans in management positions in professional sports, his public dalliances with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam and his outspoken criticism of less socially conscious black athletes--criticism many construed as an attack on teammate Michael Jordan--made him a rarity in the NBA: a player who had some politics in addition to a jump shot.

In fact, Hodges now contends in a federal lawsuit that it was his politics, and not his jump shot, that brought an end to his basketball career, Hodges is suing the NBA FOR "blacklisting" him from the league because he is "black and Afrocentric." While it remains to be seen whether Hodges can convince a jury that NBA owners colluded and actively conspired to keep him out of the league, the circumstances surrounding the end of his career are unusual enough to lend credence to his allegations that his controversial politics were an issue.

After the 1992 season--a season in which Hodges won his third straight NBA three-point shoot-out and the Bulls won their second consecutive championship--the Bulls declined to offer Hodges a new contract. This, is itself, is not that odd. Hodges was 32 at the time, his skills were considered to be in decline, and the Bulls had signed several younger three-point shooters, making Hodges expendable. But what is odd about Hodges's case is that after being released by the Bulls, not one other NBA team ever sought his services. Teams routinely bring marginal players--to say nothing of ones with championship credentials--to training camp, just to have enough warm bodies for scrimmages. Teams also covet experienced, respected players like Hodges for the wisdom they might pass on to younger players. In light of these personnel needs, Hodges's inability to secure a mere tryout invitation, even after offering to sigh a non-guaranteed contract and play for the league minimum, is hard to explain.

Did Hodges fail to attract an offer because of his politics? It would make some sense. As a trip to any professional basketball arena will demonstrate, the racial dynamics of the NBA are unusual: 80 percent of the players on the court are black, while 80 percent of the fans in the stands are white. While the NBA has certainly come a long way in the last 10 or 15 years toward accepting the racial realities of its sport--it wasn't that long ago that teams leery of having an all-black squad practiced a sort of affirmative action program for white players, making sure to have a few on hand, usually on the end of the bench-- the league takes great pains to present its black athletes as unthreatening cartoon superheroes. [See Scott Stossel, "Who's Afraid of Michael Jordan? …

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