Basketball

Today athletes speak on politics and race. Some NBA players in the 1990s were blackballed for this.

Craig Hodges, NBA champion and teammate of Michael Jordan, sacrificed his career when he voiced concerns about racism in America.

LOS ANGELES — Two-time NBA champion Craig Hodges would have fit right in with today’s NBA — and not because of his prolific 3-point shooting.

Alongside LeBron James and Chris Paul, Hodges would have been a leader, social justice advocate and role model in the league today — a politically conscious, savvy and articulate public figure who would use his platform to speak on the Black Lives Matter movement and other political and economic inequities.

Professional athletes today — NBA players, in particular — have positioned themselves at the center of culture and politics. When they speak, people listen.

Several teams boycotted games after police shot Jacob Blake during the 2019-20 season. In support of its players, the league postponed several more games the same week. LeBron and other high-profile stars were not shy in voicing their opinions online.

When asked about the NBA boycotts, Hodges spoke proudly.

“It was beautiful,” he told CBS in an interview. “I said, ‘man, our young brothers got some backbone.’”

The NBA has become a social justice spearhead among professional sports leagues — perhaps something that Hodges would not have believed had he heard it in his basketball prime.

Hodges played from 1982-93 and collected two championship rings and three NBA All Star Three-Point Contest trophies along the way. When he spoke out on political issues then, instead of being affirmed, the opposite happened. The league blackballed Hodges, truncating a promising career and banishing him for suspect, non-basketball-related reasons.

Athlete-advocates then, like Hodges, were discouraged. Even other players did not voice support for Hodges at the time.

“Leadership in America is the athletes and entertainers,” Hodges said. “That’s why I feel like I have to start speaking out.”

Before Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, Hodges approached his teammate Michael Jordan and opposing player Magic Johnson — arguably the two most famous athletes in the world at that time — to boycott the first Finals game in a show of solidarity in light of Rodney King being assaulted by Los Angeles police officers.

Jordan and Johnson refused.

On a separate occasion, Hodges pushed Jordan to use his global reach to speak out about the lack of Black coaches in the NBA, which predominantly has Black players.

Jordan refused then, too.

“The problem is that we are apolitical and we are not unified,” Hodges told the New York Times in 1992 when asked about the recent head-coaching vacancies.

Today’s NBA players have learned to leverage social media to speak out directly to fans and the world. They can look back to the social justice giants before them — Craig Hodges, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and others — for inspiration and encouragement to keep moving forward.

“They want the athletes to shut up and dribble,” Hodges wrote in a 2020 story for SLAM Magazine. “Social media is the game now. Everyone has a following. Use it. I applaud all the young brothers and sisters that are standing up.”