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SHOOTOUT IS HODGES' CHANCE FOR NBA RETURN

Of all the oddities at this weekend's NBA All-Star Game, the oddest might be Craig Hodges. While his peers have been grooming their games on NBA courts around the country these past 3 1/2 months, Hodges has been shooting by himself in a gym on his Indiana farm, and at a local high school. Shot after shot, two hours at a time, all by himself.

You never know when the phone will ring.It finally did. It wasn't quite the call he'd hoped for, but, nonetheless, Hodges readily accepted the invitation to compete in this evening's AT&T Long Distance Shootout in the Delta Center. Finally, he'll have an audience - and someone to shag balls - again.

Hodges will be easily recognizable. He'll be the one in the generic NBA jersey, because he no longer owns a team jersey of his own.

He is The Man Without a Team.

For Hodges, tonight's Long Distance Shootout will be part contest, part audition. Talk about pressure.

JOB WANTED: 10-year NBA veteran. Age 32. Three-time defending Long Distance Shootout champion. Two world championship rings. No agent. Have shot, will travel. Rank fifth on NBA's all-time three-point shot list. See references with Clippers, Bucks, Suns and Bulls.

At last year's NBA All-Star Game, someone asked Hodges if he was worried about being waived. No, he said, because teams can always use a good shooter. The Bulls cut him last July, and no team has called him since then.

Hodges is baffled by the lack of interest. "Every team I've been with I've made a better team," he says. He hints that racism and his outspokenness on the subject might be a factor in his unemployment, but then this is a man who seems to see racism behind every door and makes no secret of it.

When Hodges talks of winning an unprecedented fourth straight long-distance title today, he says it would be "just." It is, he says, Black History Month, and Salt Lake City is, he says, "the last bastion of white supremacy."

The one possibility that Hodges seems to overlook is that he is largely a one-dimensional player, and possibly that is why he is a man without a team. He has a gift for shooting, but the rest of his game isn't exceptional by NBA standards.

When the AT&T Shootout was invented in 1986, Hodges couldn't have been happier. It was an event he'd been practicing for years before it was created. Hodges was 15 years old when his uncle gave him perhaps the definitive advice of his basketball career: Never bounce the ball; just pick it up (or catch it) and shoot. And that's what he did: catch the ball and shoot, over and over. Sometimes he let the ball roll as far as it would roll on the rebound, then picked it up and shot from there. It was perfect preparation for the Long Distance Shootout, in which players pull ball after ball out of a rack and shoot without dribbling.

"You don't have to be a great leaper," he says of his specialty. "Anyone can do it if he has strength and hands."

In the seven years the Shootout has been held, Hodges has finished second twice and first thrice. He owns the two highest scores ever for a single round, and his record for most consecutive makes borders on the incredible (it's eight better than the next best mark).

A victory in today's contest would give Hodges his fourth victory, breaking the record he shares with Larry Bird. Hodges almost didn't get the chance to go for the mark. When the NBA began assembling its field for the three-point contest last month, based on this year's statistics, it didn't include Hodges.

Eventually, the NBA received a few complaints: Why not include the three-time defending champ, even if he is no longer in the league? The NBA, after the players association said it had no objections, agreed and added Hodges to the field.

There was precedent for the move. Magic Johnson was invited to play in the All-Star Game last year, after he had retired. And Rimas Kurtinaitis, a Lithuanian player who won his country's version of the same contest, was invited to compete in the 1989 Shootout.

Some players voiced mild complaints about the inclusion of an inactive player in the event, but others expressed support. "He deserves it because of what he's done," says Kenny Smith, the Houston Rockets guard who will compete against Hodges in the Shootout. "I said it from Day 1. What's this weekend about? It's not a game. It's a showcase."

For his part, Hodges' view of the contest is not so lighthearted. There is more at stake for him. "If I do what I'm capable of doing, maybe this week something will break," he says. " . . . It's definitely a job opportunity."

What are Hodges' chances? He's been out of the league for months, but this contest is not about the timing and legs of a game. It's a stand-and-shoot driveway game, and Hodges has put in more pure shooting practice this year than he did as an active player. "And he's got all that experience," says Dana Barros, another Shootout entry.

Hodges will shoot for a win and a job today. Short of that, this time next year he'll be playing in Europe, however reluctantly. At least then he'll be a player with a team.