During the interview – and as we examine race in America during Black History Month – I kept thinking about how times have changed since Craig Hodges was whiteballed by the NBA less than 30 years ago for wanting to do the same thing as Barnes today.
Hodges played in the NBA for 10 seasons and led the league in three-point shooting three times. He won two NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, and along with Larry Bird, is one of only two players to win three consecutive three-point shooting contests at NBA All-Star weekend.
But when he visited the White House in 1992 for the ceremonial championship team visit, he wore a dashiki and delivered a handwritten letter to the staff of then president George HW Bush. The letter challenged the administration’s treatment of poor communities and sought a partnership to hold them accountable. Sounds very similar to what Barnes did with Biden, right? But that was a different time, and as a result, Hodges was subjected to a firestorm of public scrutiny, resentment, ridicule and condemnation that led to his exile from the league. His career was effectively over at 32, even though he was still in his prime and in a league where shooters such as Hodges often thrive into their late 30s.
I interviewed Hodges for my book We Matter: Athletes And Activism and asked him how he dealt with the criticism and his exile from the NBA.
“Black people are my first love, and then basketball,” he said. “And even though basketball gave me opportunities and opened doors for me my entire life, I wasn’t going to have one without the other. That wasn’t even a question.”
Hodges is not the only courageous player I remember during Black History Month. This past summer, we witnessed entire NBA teams – as well as coaches and referees – take a knee during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice in the US. And I couldn’t help but also remember how Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, like Hodges, was whiteballed from the NBA for his beliefs. Abdul-Rauf was Kaepernick before Kaepernick, protesting during the national anthem in 1996. Like Hodges and Kaepernick, his career wasn’t cut short because his skills were diminishing or because of injuries. It was the result of the controversy he sparked for calling the flag of the United States a symbol of oppression and racism and explaining that standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith.
Let’s not forget as well how athletes expressing even minor forms of protest, such as Carlos Delgado protesting the Iraq War by not showing up on the field for the grotesque displays of meaningless patriotism in baseball, by which I mean the playing of God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, leads to howls of outrage from the white sports world, desperate to see the world’s Black people entertain them while not saying a single world about the world in which they live.