Did the NBA blacklist former Chicago Bulls player Craig Hodges because of his political beliefs? | Sports | Chicago Reader

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Did the NBA blacklist former Chicago Bulls player Craig Hodges because of his political beliefs?

In his new book, Long Shot: The Struggles and Triumphs of an NBA Freedom Fighter, the legendary three-point shooter recounts how his on-court success was stopped short by his outspokenness.

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Craig Hodges speaks to the players he coaches at Rich East High School. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Craig Hodges speaks to the players he coaches at Rich East High School.

It's come to a point in the Rich East High School basketball practice where the coach, Craig Hodges, has seen enough and can take no more. The problem is pacing—his players are rushing and need to settle down.

So he whistles practice to a halt and gathers the team to the sideline to hear what he has to say. "When you think of great players, the way they play, the game slows down," he tells them. "The game is played at a conversational pace."

It's quiet in the gym. The only sound you can hear is the players, chests heaving, trying to catch their breath. They're listening intently to Hodges, but they look puzzled, as if they're not sure exactly what he's getting at.

That coach, by the way, is the very same Craig Hodges you might remember as one of the greatest three-point shooters in the history of the NBA and a two-time champion with the Chicago Bulls. After spending the better part of the last two decades as a basketball nomad—playing or coaching everywhere from Italy to Nova Scotia—he's returned home this season to coach his high school alma mater in Park Forest. Hodges left Rich East on excellent terms when he graduated in 1978.

But with the Bulls? Almost 25 years ago, Hodges was unceremoniously dropped by the team. In the months that followed no NBA organization would give him a tryout or return his calls, much less sign him to a contract. "I was blacklisted for my beliefs," he says today.

The 56-year-old details the unusual arc of his basketball career in a forthcoming book, Long Shot: The Struggles and Triumphs of an NBA Freedom Fighter (cowritten with Rory Fanning, it will be published by Haymarket Books on January 24). With its sharp observations about Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and the state of race relations in the NBA, Long Shot is likely to cause a stir.

The book will also revive a question, one that gets to the heart of a touchy subject in a league where most of the players are black and most of the owners, coaches, and general managers are white: Did the NBA drop Hodges because he was too old and slow to keep up with the competition, or was he banished for being an outspoken black man in an organization that prefers deference and docility?

Hodges playing with the Bulls during the 1989-’90 NBA season. - STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT
  • Stephen Dunn/Allsport
  • Hodges playing with the Bulls during the 1989-’90 NBA season.

To understand the twists and turns in Hodges's story you have to keep in mind what he considers the "two lanes" of his life. "Basketball and black people," he's told me several times. "Everything else is in the background." First, the basketball lane.

Growing up in the south suburbs, Hodges was an intensely driven athlete. "Craig and I played all sports as kids—basketball, football, baseball," says Raymond McCoy, a childhood friend. "Day and night, man, we were out there playing. And he played hard."

McCoy was one of the great high school basketball players of his generation—a McDonald's All-American from Bloom Township High School. He and Hodges were two of the best Chicago-area basketball players of the late 70s—right up there with Isiah Thomas, Doc Rivers, and Mark Aguirre.

At Rich East, Hodges played for Steve Fisher, who went on to make his reputation coaching the "Fab Five" at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. After graduating from high school, Hodges was recruited by Tex Winter to play at Long Beach State University. Yes, that's the same Tex Winter who helped develop the triangle offense and was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson, winning nine NBA championships, six with the Bulls and three with the Lakers. Hodges speaks reverentially about Winter, who's been incapacitated for the last few years after suffering a stroke in 2009. "The three greatest coaches of all time are Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, and Tex Winter," Hodges says. "Tex taught me about life. He never turned his back on me. I love the man."

In 1982, his senior year at Long Beach State, Hodges averaged 17.5 points per game, which was good enough to get him invited to the NBA's predraft tryout, where the best college players show off their talents to a gym filled with scouts and coaches. In Long Shot, Hodges describes a scrimmage where he hit almost every jump shot while the greats of the game—Auerbach and Jerry West among them—sat in the stands.

In the '82 NBA Draft, the San Diego Clippers selected Hodges in the third round—47 players were picked ahead of him. He entered the league with a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove coaches had made a mistake by not selecting him sooner. And so began six years during which he played for the Clippers, then the Milwaukee Bucks, and then the Phoenix Suns. Generally, he was a reserve—in his best years, he averaged about ten points a game.

In December 1988 the Suns traded him to the Bulls, reuniting him with Winter, an assistant coach with the team, and putting Hodges on the same squad as Michael Jordan, then only 25, as the group was ascending to the top. He fit right in with the Bulls. More often than not Hodges was the guy in the corner, exuberantly bouncing up and down as he waited for someone, most likely Jordan, to pass him the ball out of the double team so he could fire up a shot. "Great shooter," says Kevin Blackistone, a sports columnist for the Washington Post who's been covering the NBA since the 1980s. "Every team needs a shooter like Hodges."

Hodges's outside shot kept his career alive. By his estimation, he's taken millions of practice shots over the years, developing a quick release that was as fast as any in the game. "In my opinion, he's one of the greatest three-point shooters," says Sam Smith, who covered the Bulls for the Tribune and wrote The Jordan Rules, the best-selling book about the team's 1991 championship season.

Hodges had unshakable confidence in his shot, no matter how many he may have missed. "A lot of guys, they miss a few in a row, they don't want the ball," McCoy says. "Not Craig. He's unafraid to take the shot."

Hodges won three consecutive three-point contests—in 1990, '91, and '92—a feat duplicated only by Larry Bird. At the '91 contest he put on a show for the ages: he hit 19 consecutive threes. With all the great three-point shooters since Hodges (Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Stephen Curry), his record still stands.

Perhaps Hodges's most memorable moment with the Bulls was game six of the 1990 playoff series against the Detroit Pistons. With the Bulls facing elimination, and many of his younger teammates shaking in their boots, Hodges came off the bench to hit seven of nine shots, including four of four from the three-point line. In the postgame press conference, Detroit coach Chuck Daly made it clear who'd won the game for the Bulls. "We went to traps and left Hodges alone, and he really hurt us," Daly told reporters.

It was a familiar lament by rival coaches whose teams lost when the Bulls, rotating the ball, found Hodges in the corner. "Craig was ahead of his time," Smith says. "With the way the game's developed, he'd be very valuable in today's game, with the emphasis on the three-point shot."

Hodges agrees. "I could have played till I was 45 years old, especially now that the three is so important in many offenses," he says. "I stayed in shape. I practiced all the time. I never lost my shot. There's no great secret to this game. You need a guy who can put the ball in the basket."

In September 1992, Craig Hodges (seated second from left) joined rappers Prince Akeem (pictured holding the microphone, second from right) and May May on Youth Empowerment Day at Operation PUSH headquarters. Hodges is not a Muslim but says that he "studies all religions." - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Sun-Times Print Collection
  • In September 1992, Craig Hodges (seated second from left) joined rappers Prince Akeem (pictured holding the microphone, second from right) and May May on Youth Empowerment Day at Operation PUSH headquarters. Hodges is not a Muslim but says that he "studies all religions."

In retrospect, Hodges was a smart, hard-working overachiever, just like Danny Ainge, Scott Brooks, and Jeff Hornacek, to name a few of his peers, who all presently work as coaches or in the front office of NBA teams. Of course, these are white guys who've never expressed controversial Afrocentric views. Thus, what Hodges calls the "black lane" in his life.

Raised in a middle-class family in Chicago Heights, Hodges was always encouraged to read, write, and speak his mind. His father, Saul Beck, was the mayor of Ford Heights. His mother, Ada Hodges, worked as a secretary for Union Pacific. His maternal grandfather, Bruce Hodges, was a prominent youth coach in Chicago Heights—the town named a park after him. And Craig's aunt, Dorothy Hodges, is the retired principal of Jefferson Elementary, also in Chicago Heights. "My family was involved in civic groups and civil rights organizations," Hodges says. "There were always books in the house. We were always talking about the civil rights issues of the day."

His childhood sports heroes, he says, were "athletes of integrity, who never back down: Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." One of Hodges's earliest memories—detailed in Long Shot—is going door-to-door collecting signatures for a petition that successfully pressured the leaders of Chicago Heights to name a local school for Charles Gavin, a prominent black physician. "It was the Franklin School," he says. "But Benjamin Franklin didn't have the relevance to us kids as Dr. Gavin."

At Long Beach State Hodges majored in black studies, taking classes from Maulana "Ron" Karenga, a key figure in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s who invented Kwanzaa in 1966 and would go on to help organize the 1995 Million Man March. As the years wore on Hodges began to see his life "in the context of a greater struggle for my people," he says. As a relatively well-paid, high-profile pro basketball player, he felt an obligation to deliver a message of "racial unity" and "black empowerment."

Among his teammates, Hodges earned a reputation for having informed opinions on virtually any subject. He frequently disarmed coaches and teammates by initiating conversations about religion and politics—topics rarely tackled in the locker room. In 1991, he was one of the few Bulls players to publicly oppose the gulf war (on that issue, he saw eye to eye with Phil Jackson). And he urged his teammates to invest their millions in businesses that would create jobs in poor black communities.

In the mid-80s, when he was with the Milwaukee Bucks, Hodges tried to convince teammates to come with him to see Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan preach. According to Smith, NBA officials were wary of Hodges's participation in the 1991 three-point contest. "With the nation at war with a Muslim nation, Hodges might say something embarrassing if he won," Smith writes in The Jordan Rules. "There was talk of asking Hodges not to mention Allah in any postgame speech if he won."

In a funnier vein, Smith writes about the "time on a team bus after the war had started," when "a player farted and Jordan, militantly chauvinistic throughout the [gulf war] campaign, yelled, 'Hey, Hodg, that's a bad one. Is that one of them Muslim farts?' "

Ironically, Hodges says he never was a Muslim. "People must have assumed that because I read the Koran," he says. "But I read the Bible too. I studied all religions. I can't worry about what people assume."

In Long Shot Hodges writes that he doesn't "identify with any religion." He also recalls studying the Torah while in college "so I could better understand what it was like to be Jewish." He even "walked around campus in a yarmulke," he writes. "This experience has made me question Farrakhan's anti-Semitism. There had to be a better way."

From afar Hodges's old friends worried that his outspokenness would eventually catch up to him. "I don't know if I'd have done what he did," McCoy says. "But that's Craig. He's true to what he is—always has been. And I respect him for that."

Despite the trepidation of league officials, Hodges was admired by his peers, according to Smith. He took on the thankless job of being the players' union rep on every team he played for. In the early 1990s, Hodges advocated that players be allowed to tap into their pensions immediately after retiring rather than having to wait until they're 45 years old. That would've meant less money for agents, who are paid a portion of what players earn in salaries. So Hodges's position put him at odds with some of the most powerful agents in the game.

Hodges was also unafraid to stand up to teammates if he thought they were wrong. According to Smith, he was one of the few Bulls who dared to defy Jordan. Apparently, Jordan respected Hodges for it.

In one passage from The Jordan Rules, Smith recalls a locker-room conversation in which Jordan criticized the reserves: "I hate being out there with those garbage men. They don't get you the ball."

"I ain't no garbage player," Hodges told Jordan. "I was playing in this league when you were still trying to figure out how to put your pants on."

"I wasn't talking about you, Hodg," Jordan said.

More often than not, Hodges pressed Jordan to speak out, as he did in 1991 after the Bulls had made it to their first finals against Magic Johnson and the Lakers, according to an anecdote addressed in Long Shot and The Jordan Rules.

As the two teams warmed up for game one, Hodges approached Jordan and Johnson to suggest they lead a spontaneous boycott of the game right there and then, live on national TV. "I wanted to stand in solidarity with the black community and call out racism and inequity," Hodges told me. "It would be a united front with the whole world watching."

There was a precedent: At the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and other stars refused to leave the locker room to play unless the owners conceded to concessions on salaries and other benefits. That boycott worked. The players didn't leave the locker room to play the game until the owners agreed to many of their demands.

But Jordan and Johnson brushed off Hodges. The boycott never took place. "Michael said I was crazy," Hodges says. "And Magic said it's too extreme."

The Bulls went on to win the series and capture their first championship. In October, they were invited to the White House to be congratulated by President George H.W. Bush. Hodges showed up to the ceremony wearing a full-length dashiki and bearing an eight-page letter that he intended to hand to Bush. "The purpose of this note is to speak on behalf of the poor people, Native Americans, homeless and, most specifically, the African Americans, who are not able to come to this great edifice and meet the leader of the nation where they live," his letter began. "This letter is not begging for anything, but 300 years of free slave labor has left the African American community destroyed. It is time for a comprehensive plan for change. Hopefully, this letter will help become a boost in the unification of inner-city youth and these issues will be brought to the forefront of the domestic agenda."

He gave the letter to Tim Hallam, the Bulls' press spokesman, and asked that he deliver it to the appropriate White House staffer who would give it to Bush. Whether Hallam actually passed on the letter is unclear. Hallam, who still works for the Bulls, didn't return calls for comment.

But President Bush apparently knew about the letter—Hodges says he and the president talked about it at the ceremony. "I told him about the letter and he said he looked forward to reading it."

In 1992, Hodges returned to the Bulls as they successfully defended their title. After game one of the 1992 NBA Finals, he opened up to New York Times columnist William Rhoden, chiding Jordan by name for not speaking out more about injustice and inequality. "The poverty in the city is so hellish, just look across the street [from Chicago Stadium]," Hodges told Rhoden. "Then you have us playing in here—how much money did we make here last night? How many lives will it change?"

At that point in his career, Hodges was 32 years old. He'd lost much of his playing time to B.J. Armstrong, another reserve guard. In July 1992, a few weeks after the Bulls had won their second title, Hodges got a call from Jerry Krause, the Bulls' general manager.

"He said thanks for looking after the younger guys on the team, like I was a damn babysitter," Hodges says. "Then he said, 'We're gonna have to let you go.' "

And just like that, after ten seasons in the NBA, Hodges was out of a job.

Members of the 1990-’91 Chicago Bulls celebrate the 20th anniversary of their championship season during halftime of a March 2011 game. - AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
  • AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
  • Members of the 1990-’91 Chicago Bulls celebrate the 20th anniversary of their championship season during halftime of a March 2011 game.

Coincidentally, Hodges was also without representation after the Bulls cut him. His longtime agent Bob Woolf was retiring and cutting back on his clients. (Woolf died in 1993.) Unable to convince an agent to take him on, Hodges asked a friend—Crawford Richmond, a business consultant in Evanston—to call around the league on his behalf.

"No one returned the calls," Hodges says. "Think about that, man. I was the defending three-point champ and a member of the championship Bulls, and I couldn't get a team to return my calls."

OK, so maybe he wasn't a great defender. And, yes, Hodges's best days were behind him. And, no, he wasn't able to play 30 minutes a game, like he did back in the 80s. But he was still one of the league's best three-point shooters, and any team could use a shooter coming off the bench. Hell, the New York Knicks, who were trying to upend the Bulls, might have signed Hodges for no other reason than to give them a psychological edge over their rivals.

"I asked Tex [Winter] to ask around," Hodges says. "Eventually, he got back to me and said, 'Craig, if you want to play, you better look overseas.' No one responded to him either."

When the 1992-'93 season began, Hodges was still without a team. In December '92, league officials told him they wouldn't allow him to defend his three-point championship at the All-Star Game in February. "They said they have a policy where you can't participate in an all-star event unless you're on a roster," Hodges says.

But that's not true. In 1989, the NBA allowed Rimas Kurtinaitis, a player for the Soviet national team, to participate in the three-point contest—and he never played in the NBA. Sam Smith wrote a column in the Tribune about the matter, blasting league officials for their hypocrisy. "The NBA sends out a lot of messages: Stay in School. Don't Use Drugs," Smith wrote. "Perhaps it's time for one that goes something like this: 'Keep your mouth shut and behave like people feel you should unless you can make them a lot of money or are too famous for them to silence.' "

After Smith's column was published, the NBA reversed its position and invited Hodges to participate. He finished third.

For the next several years, Hodges kept trying to get back into the NBA. In 1993, he played for a team in Italy's pro league, then for the Continental Basketball Association team in Rockford. In 1995 and '96, he played on the Chicago Legends, a barnstorming collective of retired pro athletes. It was a long way from NBA-caliber competition, but he accepted anything to stay sharp.

"I know how hard he worked to stay in shape," says Allison Jordan, who was Hodges's wife and agent back in the 1990s. "I remember one game for the Legends, he hit 27 three-pointers in a row. Twenty­seven. He was like a machine. You tell me how a team could pass on a shooter like that?"

In 1996, Jordan says, she contacted every team in the league on Hodges's behalf. But she got no responses until Billy McKinney, the assistant general manager from the Seattle Supersonics, who is African­-American, called back.

"He told us that there was nothing he could do, because 'brothers have families,' if you know what I mean,' " Hodges says.

The implication is that no black official in the NBA could help Hodges without getting punished himself. McKinney didn't respond for comment. But Jordan confirms that story, saying she was listening to the conversation on a speaker phone.

In December 1996, Hodges filed a federal lawsuit, citing McKinney's quote and charging the NBA with racial discrimination. Within a year, the case had been dismissed by a federal judge on a technical issue. The judge ruled that the statute of limitations for a racial discrimination case is only two years. And because Hodges filed his case four years after the Bulls dropped him, he was out of luck.

Hodges with Raymond McCoy, his childhood friend and a former high school basketball great - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Hodges with Raymond McCoy, his childhood friend and a former high school basketball great

In the years since the Bulls cut him, Hodges has had a couple of jobs in the NBA, in each case thanks to Phil Jackson. From 2005 to 2011, he was the shooting coach for the Lakers, when Jackson was the head coach and the team won two championships. When Jackson left the Lakers, Hodges, like all the other assistant coaches, was let go.

In 2013 he coached the Halifax Rainmen in the Canadian Basketball League. In 2014 Jackson hired him to coach the New York Knicks' development team. (Jackson is now the general manager of the Knicks.) Last summer Mike Laneve, the Rich East athletic director, asked him to coach the varsity team at his alma mater. "I've always wanted him to coach here," Laneve says. "I have tremendous respect for Craig."

In Long Shot, Hodges describes some tough times in the 2000s—before Jackson hired him with the Lakers—when he was so broke he had to pawn his championship rings and three-point contest trophies. In the intervening years, his story has become part of the unspoken folklore of the NBA.

"Believe me when I tell you, everybody in the league knows the story of Craig Hodges," says Etan Thomas, a former center for the Washington Wizards. "When I was playing for the Wizards and I spoke out against the second war with Iraq, a lot of people would caution me to be careful 'cause 'you don't want to be like Craig Hodges.' Or they'd say, 'You saw what happened to Craig Hodges.' "

Was Hodges blacklisted by the NBA because of his political beliefs? The answer to that question depends on whom you're talking to.

In a 1996 column on Hodges's suit, New York Times writer Ira Berkow interviewed David Stern, the former commissioner of the NBA. "Stern said that the idea of a conspiracy against Hodges is 'ridiculous,' " Berkow writes. " 'I was even at the White House when Craig wore the dashiki,' Stern said. 'I thought it looked great, and I told him so.' "

Berkow also quoted Wayne Embry, the former chief operating officer of the Cleveland Cavaliers: "I never heard of any conspiracy whatsoever. I'm sure I would have if there was one. And in a league that has about 80 percent black players, it's hard to charge racism."

Sam Smith (who now blogs for the Chicago Bulls' website) has a more nuanced point of view. "If you ask me was there a conspiracy against Craig, I'd say, 'There are no conspiracies in the NBA,' " Smith says. "Nobody is smart enough to pull off a conspiracy.

"It reminds me of the situation with [Jason Collins], the backup center who came out as gay," Smith continues. "No one in the league conspired to keep him out of the league because he was gay. It was more like they knew there were going to be a lot of questions asked if they hired him, and he wasn't good enough to have to put up with all those questions."

In other words, had Hodges been at the top of his game back in 1992, he'd have had plenty of suitors after the Bulls dropped him, no matter what he said about Farrakhan, reparations, or whatever. Hell, the Bulls never would've dropped him in the first place. NBA officials figured the risks from signing Hodges outweighed the rewards.

"I don't think Craig was blackballed for what he said," Smith says. "It's more like he just wasn't good enough at that stage in his career to make it worth dealing with all those questions you were gonna get regarding a guy who was maybe a tenth man on your roster."

Hodges thinks there's no doubt he was blackballed. "Of course I was blacklisted," he says. "But if I say that—oh, it's sour grapes."

What makes him so certain? Well, the list of his infractions is long. It wasn't just the dashiki at the White House or the letter to Bush or his admiration for Farrakhan or his criticism of Jordan or his position on the players' pension—it was all of those things together that made Hodges untouchable. "The biggest way to blacklist someone is to make him invisible," Hodges says. "Why do you think they didn't want to invite me to that three-point contest? Think about it. How would it look if I won? Someone might ask, 'Why's this guy, who's good enough to win the three-point championship, not good enough to play in the league?' So they pretend like I don't exist."

—Craig Hodges

One Sunday in mid-November, I drive to the south suburbs to meet Hodges in person. We convene at his Aunt Dorothy's ranch house in Park Forest, in a quiet residential neighborhood across the street from a grammar school. We sit at the table in the dining room. In the background the sound of a football game plays on a TV in the den.

My first question has to do with politics. "Who did you vote for?"

"No comment," he says.

"Uh-oh," I say. "That means you either voted for Trump or you didn't vote at all—neither answer is good."

He frowns and tells me the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow in the south. True, I say, but those Democrats became Republicans after LBJ passed the civil rights bill. And he tells me Hillary Clinton once called young black men "superpredators." Also true, I say, but largely irrelevant to the point I was making about Jim Crow Republicans.

And Hodges goes on an extended riff, a favorite tactic when he doesn't want to concede a point. "I'd love to sit here with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump," he says. "I'd ask her, 'What have you done for black people?' And don't come to me with no frivolous shit. Do you consider us humans? At one point we were superpredators. That's somebody's baby you're calling a superpredator. Where's your compassion? Ain't the Democratic Party the party of compassion?"

"And Trump?" I ask.

"What about Trump?"

"What would you say to him?"

"Man, Trump—are you serious? They're begging for his tax returns. And he's like this . . . " He raises his middle finger.

"It's a joke," he continues. "He gets away with what he wants 'cause he caters to the white men and white women. Do you understand me? We'll take a clown as president who's talking nonsense as long as he caters to the white man and white woman. Don't forget, a lot of Democratic white women didn't vote for Hillary. He made it us against them."

I get him talking about basketball. He says the five greatest players he played against are "Kareem, Michael, Dr. J, Larry Bird, and Nate Archibald."

"What about the black guys who used to tell me there's a dozen guys in the hood as good as Larry Bird?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "To that I say, 'Whatever, brother.' They don't know Larry Bird. Larry Bird is cold, cold, cold—you hear me?"

Eventually, the discussion returns to his larger mission. "The real question is, why are the conditions I talked about 20 years ago even worse today? And they are—just look at all the killings in Chicago. It was never a thing where I tried to upstage people. I was trying to raise the consciousness of my people, to use my platform for my people who can't be heard.

"As a coach, I challenge the kids—not just about basketball, but about life. I say to the kids wearing dreadlocks, 'Are you wearing those dreads because you know what it means or because it's a fad?' They're looking at me like, Huh? I tell them, 'Go back and study it. And you better come back talking about Bob Marley.' I know I can help those young men achieve their dreams. I have the knowledge. I played on the highest level. I could be a coach in the NBA. But I can't wait for the NBA. I don't care about the NBA."

This comment strikes me as odd coming from a man who valiantly fought the NBA to let him play. "If you don't care about the NBA, why did you try so hard to stay in the league?" I ask.

He smiles. "I wanted to play in the NBA as long as I could because I'm a competitor," he says. "But there's a difference between me as a competitor on the court and me as an educated black man speaking my mind. I won't take one if it means giving up the other."  v

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