The 1991 finals featured a match-up between the two most popular NBA teams at the turn of the decade - the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. What made this series especially attractive was the spectacular match-up between the two leading NBA stars at the time - the 1990 NBA MVP Magic Johnson and the 1991 NBA MVP Michael Jordan.
At the same time, everyone’s attention was on the Rodney King case. King is an African-American construction worker who was brutally beaten by a group of caucasian LAPD police officers on March 3rd, 1991.
At the same time, as many as 32% of the African-American population in the state of Illinois, the home state of the NBA Eastern Conference champions Chicago Bulls, lived below the poverty line!
Knowing that, and being aware that the stage of the NBA finals will draw tremendous media attention from all around the world, the Bulls sharp-shooter Craig Hodges decided to take action as an activist.
According to Hodges’ book “Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter,” just before the opening tip-off of the 1991 NBA finals game 1, Hodges tried to convince Magic and Jordan that both of their respective teams should sit out and boycott the game, thus making a collective supportive statement.
“We would stand in solidarity with the black community while calling out racism and economic inequality in the NBA, where there were no black owners and almost no black coaches despite the fact that 75% of the players in the league were African American”
Craig Hodges, via The Guardian
Jordan called Hodges ‘crazy’ while Johnson refused the idea by saying, “That’s too extreme, man.”
Hodges bravely replied to Magic, “What’s happening to our people in this country is extreme.”
Hodges later added that MJ “didn’t speak out largely because he didn’t know what to say – not because he was a bad person.” Johnson and Jordan didn’t listen to Hodges, a player who, to that point, led the league in the three-point shooting percentage twice and had won the 1990 & 1991 NBA All-Star three-point shooting contests.
Less than a year after the memorable finals, in late April 1992, the charges against the policemen who attacked King were dropped. This triggered a series of violent events today known as the 1992 L.A. riots.
If Magic and Michael eventually listened to Hodges and made their teams to boycott the game that might have been counter-productive to their respective careers. But at the same time, they would have delivered a tremendously brave statement in favor of the hurting African-American community, and thus help find the way to the future of non-violence and reconciliation.