A Canadian winter and two Chinese security guards conspired against former NBA sharpshooter Craig Hodges as he attempted to make the trip of a lifetime to North Korea with his controversial colleague Dennis Rodman.
The stormy weather in Canada made him a day late, his ticket to Pyongyang expired and he missed meeting up with Mr. Rodman and the other players in Beijing. Mr. Hodges, who last month took over as coach of the struggling Halifax Rainmen professional basketball team, now just wants to be paid – between $15,000 and $20,000, he says.
He’s owed the money, he says, for agreeing to be part of Mr. Rodman’s team of former NBA players who travelled recently to North Korea to play against a top senior national team there to mark Kim Jong-un’s birthday.
“I didn’t get paid, but I made the effort,” Mr. Hodges said. The 53-year-old told The Globe and Mail about the journey that took him from Halifax to Toronto to Beijing, where he spent only 25 minutes in the airport before security guards put him on the same Air Canada plane he had arrived on and sent him right back to Toronto. (His flight was paid for.)
A conversation with Mr. Rodman’s “people” in which he asked for payment elicited only a promise that they’d get back to him.
Mr. Hodges played in the NBA from 1982 to 1992 and was the All-Star three-point shootout champion for three consecutive years. Like Mr. Rodman, Mr. Hodges is a controversial figure: A political activist and a follower of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, he caused a stir when his team, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, visited the White House after winning the championship in 1992. Mr. Hodges presented then-president George Bush a “heartfelt” letter complaining about poverty and the country’s disenfranchised. (He did not receive a response.)
He believes that political statement was the real reason behind being cut from the Bulls and being shut out of the NBA. So he bristles at the criticism toward Mr. Rodman’s team visiting North Korea, and particularly the suggestion he and others are in it for a fat paycheque. He said he didn’t hesitate when Mr. Rodman’s agent called in August to invite him to join the team.
“Stop right there. Why shouldn’t they [go to North Korea]?” he asked. “Here you have black men [going to North Korea] … because we can’t get paid in the States. This man [Kim Jong-un] asked us to come on a tour to help people in his country learn how to play basketball. He didn’t ask us to come here to be diplomats, man. So how dare you.”
Mr. Hodges says it bothers him that the media is focusing on the players and not on some of the things they were going to do in North Korea, such as putting on a basketball camp for children. He wanted to ask Mr. Kim why he likes basketball so much, and what he knows about black people in America.
As for his new home, Mr. Hodges says learning the history and plight of black Nova Scotians “blew my mind.” He wants to see if the Rainmen can practise in North Preston, the predominantly black Nova Scotian community in Halifax, to give the kids a chance to see their favourite players “hooping.”
On the court, he wants his players, despite their struggles, to think of themselves as winners. “I am here to be a partner in making the community better,” he said, “and hopefully build a culture of winning.”
But his international outreach doesn’t seem to be helping the team at home. Some Rainmen fans aren’t impressed; a couple of season ticket holders have cancelled their tickets.
Rainmen owner Andre Levingston, who started the National Basketball League of Canada (which now has nine teams), brought Mr. Hodges on board in early December – his eighth head coach in seven seasons – after the team opened its season with six straight losses. By the time Mr. Hodges arrived, the team had chalked up a record nine straight losses.
So far, the Rainmen are dead last in the league. They came close to winning a game on Thursday night against the Moncton Miracles.
As for the controversy, Mr. Levingston is unperturbed: “It is what it is.” He’s focused on the game. He thinks Mr. Hodges has the team playing better basketball, and hopes the players prove it Saturday against the London Lightning.