Long shot: The triumphs and struggles of an NBA freedom fighter

Long shot: The triumphs and struggles of an NBA freedom fighter

Excerpt

Long shot: The triumphs and struggles of an NBA freedom fighter

Excerpted from Long shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter by Craig Hodges and Rory Fanning, published by Haymarket Books.

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On July 1, 1992, sixteen days after we won our second NBA championship title, I became a free agent. Nine days later, the Bulls released me. Jerry Krause called to break the news. “Craig, unfortunately we have to let you go . . . Thanks for looking after B. J., Stacey, Scott, and the younger guys on the team.” The call knocked the wind out of me. As much as I’d told myself this might happen, nothing could have prepared me for it. Trades were a part of life as a professional athlete, but being released from the Bulls hurt. It felt unnatural.

I knew Jordan and the Bulls weren’t going to ignore my comments in the New York Times – the country’s “paper of record.”

My game wasn’t any different in 1992 than on the day I signed with the team in 1989. My overall skills, speed, and certainly my jumper hadn’t left me. It’s easy to gauge your talent when guarding Michael Jordan every day in practice. I expected to get a call similar to the one I’d received from Tom Enlund when Milwaukee traded me to Phoenix. I knew management thought I was corrupting the minds of the players and compromising relationships with corporate sponsors. Certainly Michael wanted me gone. And my controversial visit to the White House the previous fall hadn’t helped my cause.

I’d turned down larger offers from other teams when I signed with the Bulls so I could be closer to my family and fulfill that lifelong dream to play for Chicago. My hope was that I would finish my career with the best team in the league – the team I grew up watching and cheering for.

Forward thinking won the day, though. For four years, I’d played with and against the two best players in the world. I’d won two NBA championships and three straight three-point contests.

Second to Tex Winter, I understood the triangle offense better than anyone in the league. I knew what went on behind the curtain of an eventual six-time world championship team. I was valuable. One of the twenty-eight teams in the league would offer me a contract and see me as more than a babysitter for younger players, as Krause had alluded – I was certain of it. I agreed to give Carlita my severance package from the Bulls, $80,000 a year for five years, as a divorce settlement. That is how confident I was in my future with the league.

Part of me was excited about moving on, too. As long as Jordan didn’t want to play point guard – Phil wasn’t about to force The General to do anything – I would have remained his back up. I longed for the days when Doug Collins ran me at the two-guard position, when I was scoring eighteen points a game. I had little doubt that I could replicate those numbers on another team. Besides, I was well respected and liked by just about every player in the league. I’d settle in somewhere.

The contract between Bob Woolf, my agent, and me was set to expire with my contract with the Bulls. Bob, who represented some of the biggest names in the business including Larry Bird and Julius Erving, as well as acts such as the New Kids on the Block, said he had too much on his plate and wouldn’t be able provide me with the time I deserved. I found that a little strange, but reasonable. A Boston native, Bob worked tirelessly for his players and had earned a lot of respect in the NBA. He’d fought hard for me in prior negotiations, and he’d taken it in stride when I turned down larger offers to sign with the Bulls. “[Craig] showed a lot of loyalty to the Chicago team because that is where he wanted to be,” Bob told the Chicago Tribune in 1989.

Sure, I was disheartened with Bob’s decision, but if he couldn’t be there for me there must be a good reason for it, I told myself. So I didn’t question him beyond that. Of course, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Now I had to find an agent before I could find a team.

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I personally called each of the most respected agents in the NBA. No one would return my calls. Anxiety set in. My thought was that David Falk had put a bug in the ears of the other agents. Was this retaliation for my refusal to be Falk’s rubber stamp as players’ union president, or my endorsement of the Nike boycott, or my vocal support of the pension amendment, or the New York Times piece where I said Jordan was bailing out on the Black community? I thought it was probably all of the above. The agents talked to the owners more than the players did. It was a tight community, and I had committed many cardinal sins. I wasn’t playing the game the way Jordan thought it should be played. No, I wasn’t playing the corporate game.

I followed my conscience and observed the obligation I felt toward my forebears and my community each of my 10 years in the league. I knew there would be consequences; I understood the price Black leadership paid in America, but somehow I thought that in a league comprising 75 percent Black players, I would get away with it. I was wrong. Now it was time to pay the price. It was the agents who shut me out of the league first.

Desperate, I asked my longtime friend Crawford Richmond to represent me. Crawford worked at a packaging company and had no prior experience or league connections. He had a strong work ethic, though; more importantly, I could trust him. Crawford and I shared the same commitment to Black liberation, we had known each other since high school, and he let me crash at his apartment in the city on nights I didn’t want to drive back to the suburbs after games. Crawford had also traveled along with the Bulls and the Bucks on road games and to a few of the All-Star games with me. He was a familiar face around the league.

Crawford sent an elegant and persuasive letter to every owner in the NBA, touting my abilities and basketball know-how. Players with my résumé could expect a contract or at the very least an invitation to work out with a team. Coaches recognize that players can be underutilized depending on the depth of squads, and the Bulls, more than any team in the league, had depth. We didn’t receive one reply. The summer dragged on. Crawford drafted a batch of followup letters. Crickets.

Later, Ira Berkow from the New York Times asked Phil Jackson why teams weren’t returning my calls. Phil said, “I had the highest regard for Craig. . . . He was a great team player, never caused any problems and I respected his views. I’m a spiritual man, and so is he. I also found it strange that not a single team called to inquire about him. Usually, I get at least one call about a player we’ve decided not to sign. And yes, he couldn’t play much defense, but a lot of guys in the league can’t, but not many can shoot from his range, either.”

In April of that year, I was invited to the Black Expo in Indianapolis as a featured speaker on the topic of Black liberation. After giving a well-attended speech about the challenges facing the Black community and the importance of understanding Black history, I found myself sitting backstage in the VIP section of the Miss Black America contest – part of the Black Expo program – with none other than Jim Brown, whom I had met the year before in LA. T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, who knew Jim from Hollywood, sat down alongside us. T’Keyah had been first runner-up in 1985, and she and Jim were at the Expo as contest judges.

T’Keyah was now wildly popular as an actress on the show In Living Color. She was beautiful, whip-smart, and funnier than hell. Her impersonations of Diana Ross, Downtown Julie Brown, Whoopi Goldberg, and Barbra Streisand had me rolling on the floor. T’Keyah and I hit it off right away and began spending a lot of time together, with her commuting back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. A renegade in the entertainment business, T’Keyah was conscious of the challenges that African American women faced in Hollywood, yet she wasn’t about to compromise her standards to succeed in the business. She often turned down roles that required her to hide her natural hairstyle or felt too stereotypical of Black women. She walked the walk, and her popularity on In Living Color only continued to grow.

T’Keyah also worked as hard if not harder than I did to build Operation UNITE. The limbo state I was in with the league, however, increasingly meant that my head was in the clouds most days. I certainly wasn’t giving her the attention she deserved.

That August, the relationship ended in ruin when Carlita confronted T’Keyah at DePaul University, where I was hosting a charity All-Star game. Carlita and I had been on better terms since the divorce was finalized, so I had encouraged the boys to spend more time with her. I knew the kids were better off with their mother in their lives than without, and there seemed to be a healthier distance between us now. However, both boys had mentioned that their mom was jealous of my relationship with T’Keyah. Their comments should have been a red flag. Unfortunately, my focus was being pulled in dozens of directions at the time, and I ignored the warning.

Before the game, while I was in the locker room, Carlita approached T’Keyah – they had never met – and demanded she leave the gym, never to see me and the kids again, in less than polite language, I’m told. T’Keyah stormed out of the building before I could attempt to talk to her. I arrived home after the game and all of her possessions had been removed. She had a friend remove every scrap of paper of hers from UNITE’s Chicago Loop office as well. I don’t blame her for leaving. I wouldn’t want that drama in my life either. It would be years before T’Keyah and I saw each other again. I was heartbroken.

Losing a woman as extraordinary as T’Keyah couldn’t have come at a worse time. The house in Northbrook was about to be liquidated by court order as part of the divorce settlement, as was the farm in Walkerton, Indiana. I was returning to my mom’s house in the south suburbs of Chicago, and the phone was still silent. A murky depression was trying to pull me under. I was determined, however, to keep my head above water. The call would come, I told myself. I was only thirty-two; I had a lot more basketball in me. I couldn’t forget that.

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The leaves began changing colors, and soon the trees were bare, which for me signaled game time. The 1992–93 season tipped off in November as the Bulls were on their way to a threepeat. Trent Tucker filled my slot with the team. I have nothing but love for Trent, but he wasn’t the shooter I was. Sitting out the season might have been easier if I hadn’t been stuck in Chicago. The Bulls were front-page news, as they continued to dominate the league. More than anything I wanted to be a part of it. Every time I turned on the news or saw a paper I was reminded that I wasn’t a Bull anymore.

My sons were both nearly teenagers and loved basketball as much as I did. So I sat with them and we watched all eighty-two games. I continued to explain the technical side of basketball to them. I couldn’t deny my boys my knowledge of the game, and the Bulls were a great teaching resource. Plus, I refused to sour the good memories the boys had of my time with the Bulls. They were still extremely proud of me.

In my darker moments I would sit alone and wonder what life would have been like if I’d tried to “play the game” and only enjoyed the privileges that came with being a professional athlete on a world championship team. What if I’d pretended I wasn’t Black and ignored the obligation to my people, my responsibility to them? As much as I tried not to succumb to such thoughts, my mind continually drifted in this direction. One night, my Grandma Dorothy walked in on me as I was staring at the wall in the dark living room.

“What’s wrong, Craig? You’ve been down in the dumps for days now.”

“If only I hadn’t spent so much time thinking about our people and focused on my game, Grandma. . . . I’d still be on that court helping the Bulls win another championship.”

“We raised you to step up when you saw something to stand on, Craig. You know that. We always encouraged you to speak out when you brushed up against a wrong. And you may have been early, or you may have been late, but you seized your moment. You made the choice to line your career up with your values. You followed the plan God laid out for you.”

“Yeah, but for what? The world is no better for what I did.”

“How do you know who you did and didn’t inspire? I know for a fact that kids look up to you, and not only for what you did on the court. You know that as well as I do, Craig.”

I sat in silence.

“Do you remember crying the night Martin Luther King was killed? You were eight years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. You didn’t know Dr. King from Adam, but you knew how much he meant to your mom and aunts. You felt their pain deeply. You lived his death through them. That day changed you, Craig. You recognized at an early age that children living in all the houses out there love their families just like you love yours. You never lost sight of that. You are a fighter, Craig. You always have been. And your fights have been for all the right reasons. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you because of that.”

I felt a calmness and a clarity settle over me as I listened to her. My grandma had a way of filling me up with life, and she motivated me to continue on. She and my mom and aunts and uncles were there for me when I needed them most.

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* * *

My name appeared in the papers again in early January when the votes for the All-Star team were being cast. Reporters asked if I would be allowed to defend my three-point title. The official word from the NBA front office was that I would be barred from the competition because I was no longer part of the league.

Sam Smith from the Chicago Tribune called me for my thoughts on the matter. I reminded Sam that Magic Johnson was invited to play in the All-Star game in 1992, and Rimas Kurtinaitis from the Soviet Union was invited to be an extra participant in the three-point contest in 1989. Neither played in the league, so there was precedent for me to shoot. Sam reported what I said and others ran with it. Soon after Sam’s piece ran, the NBA operations director, Rod Thorn, called the decision to keep me out of the competition a “mistake.” Players such as Mark Price from the Cleveland Cavaliers protested my inclusion. I beat Price the previous three years, so his complaints were unsurprising.

I received the official invitation in mid-January, with a little over a month to prepare. It was up to me to figure out where I could get back to competition-ready shape. So I shot in my mom’s driveway and at a local church’s gym. Sixty miles separated the cracked driveway and the Berto Center in Deerfield, where I’d prepared for the competition the previous four years with the Bulls, but the distance felt even greater. Needless to say, the church gym and the driveway were no substitute for an NBA practice facility. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I shot day and night for those few weeks. This could be my last opportunity to prove I still belonged in the NBA, I kept telling myself.

My kids and I arrived in Salt Lake City a day before the competition. As we stepped off the elevator at the hotel, Dominique Wilkins walked toward us. I waved. The last time Dominique and I had spoken, he and I were laying the wreath on Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite. “The Human Highlight Film,” as Wilkins was nicknamed, dropped his eyes, turned, and walked in the other direction.

“Come on kids, let’s get to our room,” I said, already feeling disillusioned less than an hour after arriving in Utah. What was being said about me? I was confused.

Charles Barkley approached me during warm-ups later that day. “I know what you are going through, man,” he said, as he sorrowfully patted my back.

“If you know what’s going on, then speak about what you know, Chuck,” I said. But Barkley walked off without saying a word. Now I really wondered what was going on. I had been expecting a reunion, and all I found was cold shoulders and coded messages. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean in a radioactive boat with no oars. I did my best to focus on the competition and let it all roll off my back, but it was a challenge.

I’d packed a black uniform with the gold letters “UNITE” on the front of the jersey for the competition. “No, no, Craig, we have a uniform for you,” said a league representative as he handed me a generic NBA uniform without a team logo. I’d be shooting for the owners, apparently? I wanted to pick my battles wisely at that point, so I changed out of my UNITE uniform without protest.

The media swarmed me before the competition. Sam Smith asked me what I would have done if I hadn’t been invited to participate. “I’d have been outside with a banner that read, ‘Paper Champ.’ I’d have been out there like Ali, yelling, ‘Paper champ, paper champ. They ain’t the real champ,’” I laughed. I kept things light as best I could, maintaining hope that I would be picked up by a team after the shootout. But invoking Ali, who was denied the ability to compete and stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, was my own coded message.

As luck would have it, Mark Price and I were matched up in the first round. I missed short on my first two shots and the money ball and never recovered, managing only fourteen points. Price scored twenty. My score was enough to move me into the next round, though. In the semifinal I fared better, with sixteen points, but I finished third in the competition behind Price and Terry Porter. The whole experience never felt right. A creeping sense of embarrassment proved hard to shake. The interactions with Dominique and Charles and a general frigidity from the rest of the players made me feel like a pariah that weekend.

The question of “manhood” has always loomed over African American men. In many respects the NBA was one of the only places where African American men could gather and feel like men are “supposed” to feel: strong and respected. “I Am A Man” was written on the placards worn by the mostly Black striking garbage workers in Memphis the day Dr. King was killed in 1968. Playing in the NBA, Black men didn’t need to worry about questions as basic as “Am I a man?” It took being kicked out of the league for me to realize how insulated I had been from that question and its deeper meaning. Yes, my family and God gave me my true strength, but the league made it much easier to display. I began to understand why few players spoke up. It was more than the money and the adulation: it was the luxury of feeling secure and strong as a Black man – as long as you played the game, of course.

You can buy Long shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter by Craig Hodges and Rory Fanning, published by Haymarket Books on Amazon.

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