Moncrief. Cummings. Nelly. Hodges. MECCA. There never was such a beautiful time for basketball in my life. As a teenager, I basked in the glory of my Milwaukee Bucks, who as Hodges wisely noted, were one of the top NBA teams of the 80's. Every kid in Wisconsin emulated those teams. On the battered hoop hanging from my garage, we would drive to the hole in the classic Sidney Moncrief two handed, what we'd call "old-man" approach. We'd shoot short range "pancake" jumpers emulating that odd but effective Terry Cummings shooting stroke. And of course, we'd migrate to the outer reaches of the court-in my case, the sideyard lawn and my mom's prized flower beds, to shoot jumpers like Craig Hodges. We'd rise up mimicking Hodges textbook high-forehead pre-release ball carriage and loft bombs from beyond the arc, in a day when the NBA 3 point line seemed like half-court. Not since Brian Winters had I loved such a shooter!
I had forgotten about Craig Hodges. My teenage years are long in the rear view mirror, and the post 80's Bucks have been a revolving door of mediocrity. When I saw Hodges was coming out with a book, I was surprised to say the least. What was it about--shooting? Hodges wasn't Bird, or Magic, or Dr. J. He didn't have those credentials, so why would he put out a book?
In your teenage years, you fall into the trap of only seeing the player--not the man. Stats are king, image is everything. Happily, as I discovered in his new book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, there was much to learn about Craig Hodges--and much to appreciate.
You can't emulate activism in the driveway, and what fan has time to notice a player fighting for rights when there's a 7 game series with the Celtics to worry about. Hodges takes the reader through his life--from his start in Chicago, to his college days in California at Long Beach State, and through his pro career and beyond. Hodges highlights not only his rise as an exceptionally talented basketball player, but his mission as an activist for the rights of players and African Americans. He also spends time weaving in the importance of family and other role models in his life. One of Hodges best known moments was during the 1992 Chicago Bulls NBA title visit to the White House, he delivered a handwritten letter to President George H. W. Bush demanding that he do more to address racism and economic inequality. I was personally fascinated by the chapters about his time in Milwaukee, which ended in an odd trade to the Phoenix Suns. Discovering the truth that the Bucks traded him because they did not like his outspoken activism was a shock to me. In a way it was this type of outspokenness that most likely cost Hodges the recognition he deserved during his time in the NBA.
As many athletes have discovered, speaking out comes at a cost. But guys like Hodges have paved the way. The Andrew Maraniss telling of Perry Wallace as the first Black basketball player in the SEC in his book Strong Inside is another recent book that addresses heroic examples of athletes fighting for justice in society. Spawning from this(hopefully), is a vein of athletes who are not simply content to skate by on their athletic resumes. They know there is a higher calling in the world, and perhaps they have a bigger pulpit than us everyday joe's to call attention to injustice.
Hodges book is extremely readable. At times it seems like a cool conversation he is having with the reader around a kitchen table. Hodges is a very honest narrator. There is not a preachy tone to the book, but rather an undertone of awareness and curiosity that Hodges breathes throughout his life. In this manner, I feel it would play extremely well with teens. I have faith that there are many young teenage athletes out there who are curious about what's going on in the world. They have no time for someone bullying them into activism. What Hodges urges in his book is for kids to be naturally curious about their world, and if there are things that they feel are wrong or unfair, don't be afraid to take a stand. Hodges came to these understandings through his heart. He wrote letters, he petitioned, and talked to authority figures. He showed the same tenacity with the rock as he did his rights.
I don't think kids will recall Craig Hodges. He's not Jordan or Bird. But that shouldn't stop any school or YA librarian from buying this book. Kids will quickly discover Hodges as an example of an athlete standing up fairness, equality and a better society, which is a lesson every kid could benefit from. I miss you Craig!