Hail to the hoopster

On January 21, 2009, in Articles, by Baller-in-Chief

(From Mark Zeigler at the San Diego Union-Tribune) Barack Obama joins a long list of sports-loving presidents, but there’s never been anyone in the Oval Office with his passion for basketball Before he studied political science at Columbia University in New York, before he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, before […]

(From Mark Zeigler at the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Barack Obama joins a long list of sports-loving presidents, but there’s never been anyone in the Oval Office with his passion for basketball

Before he studied political science at Columbia University in New York, before he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, before he became an Illinois state senator or a U.S. Senator, before he was elected the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama was a hoopster, plain and simple.

Except he wasn’t known as Barack or Obama back then.

He went by Barry, and he was called “Barry O’Bomber” by his teammates for his penchant for shooting from anywhere, anytime. A poster of Julius Erving, Dr. J, rising up majestically for a dunk graced his bedroom wall. He carried a basketball with him everywhere and hung out with a group of guys known as the “Rat Ballers.”

He came off the bench on Punahou High’s 1979 state championship team in Hawaii.

He wore No. 23 before Michael Jordan made it fashionable.

He could dunk at age 16.

“My first love,” Obama says of basketball.

His Kenyan father had left the family when Barack was 2 but returned briefly to Hawaii when he was 10 and gave him a basketball for Christmas. A few months later, his grandfather took him to see the University of Hawaii Rainbows play, to see the “Fabulous Five” squad that wore aloha-print shorts and went 24-3 in the 1971-72 season, was ranked No. 12 nationally and earned the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

All five starters were black, and it made an indelible impression on a fatherless black child searching for an identity in a white world. Soon he was spending his afternoons on a court in a nearby park, with his Christmas present.

“At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own,” Obama wrote in “Dreams From My Father,” his 1995 autobiography. “It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage.”

Thirty-seven years later, this self-professed basketball junkie has taken the presidential oath of office.

Which means exactly what for America and the rest of the world?

Obama campaigned on a platform of “Change,” and indeed having a basketball-obsessed president is uncharted water.

Only six of the previous 43 presidents were over 6 feet (Obama is 6-1½), none taller than 6-4. Jimmy Carter played basketball briefly in high school, and Bill Clinton made Oxford’s JVs when he studied in England, which, he later said, “shows you how weak basketball was at Oxford.” And that’s pretty much it for basketball and the Oval Office.

The first U.S. presidents were fond of horseback riding, fishing and hunting. More than a dozen have played golf. Wilson, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Ford played or coached football. Both Bushes were big baseball guys.


On YouTube you can find the “Barack O’Balla Mix Tape,” a compilation of basketball clips to a rap soundtrack that, these days at least, is the ultimate symbol of roundball respect. He has practiced with the North Carolina men’s team. He’s played pickup with troops in Djibouti. He’s walked into a gym in Kuwait and, without warming up or loosening his tie, drained a three-pointer on his first attempt.

“I’ve got skills,” he joked.

And on Election Day in November, he wasn’t sitting in his living room watching the returns; he was playing pickup games with staffers and friends.

Obama, 47, has not hidden his desire to keep the hardwood decor in the subterranean room beneath the White House’s north driveway – but replace Nixon’s bowling alley with a regulation basketball court. Obama also has pieced together what he claims “might be the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history.”

Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education, is 6-5, was an all-Ivy League player at Harvard and played professionally in Australia. National Security Adviser Jim Jones played at Georgetown. Attorney General nominee Eric Holder played at Columbia. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a pickup fanatic. Susan Rice, the proposed ambassador to the United Nations, was a point guard in high school.

Even Reggie Love, Obama’s personal aide, was a forward on Duke’s 2001 NCAA championship team.

And figure Craig Robinson, Obama’s brother-in-law, might drop by for a few White House pickup games. He was the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton and is in his first season as head coach at Oregon State.

It was Robinson who gave his younger sister, Michelle, the thumbs up to marry Obama. Their father had always espoused that a person’s true personality is laid bare on a basketball court, and Michelle dutifully asked Craig to “check out” Barack by inviting him to a pickup game. Robinson reported back that Obama exuded a “quiet confidence” on the court, which is another way of saying that he shot when he was open and passed when he wasn’t and didn’t talk trash.

They get a good laugh out of it now, but extrapolating a president’s character and management style from his sport of choice might not be so farfetched. At least not according to John S. Watterson, who chronicled U.S. presidents and their athletic endeavors in a 2006 book entitled, “The Games Presidents Play.”

“Sports and political character might be more intimately connected than is commonly acknowledged,” Watterson, a history professor at James Madison University, writes. “Presidential sports might even influence a president’s career and his approach to foreign and domestic policy … (It is) useful to understanding presidential character.”

Take Clinton, who was infamous for fudging his golf score.

“Clinton played golf with a disregard for the rules,” Watterson writes, “that seemed to mirror his behavior in Monicagate.”

Watterson contends that presidents who prefer individual sports tend to micro-manage, noting that Carter himself controlled the schedule of the White House tennis courts. And those from a team sports background tend to delegate, deferring to the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“I found that presidents who had played team sports were more likely to work in a sort of command type of system and not go outside the system so to speak,” Watterson said by phone. “I see some of those same things in Barack Obama, which doesn’t mean he won’t innovate. But all of his choices so far for Cabinet positions seem to be people who are able to work within the system.”

Or as Obama put it in an interview with HBO Sports when explaining his passion for basketball: “There’s an aspect of improvisation within a discipline that I find very, very powerful.”

One wild card is that the “team sport” presidents were almost exclusively Republicans and Obama is a Democrat. He is left-handed and, fittingly, only goes left on the basketball court.

If there is a common denominator, though, it is that fitness increasingly seems to be a prerequisite for the White House these days. George H.W. Bush was a certifiable jock who was still parachuting out of planes in his 80s. Clinton jogged regularly. George W. Bush works out daily and, when he couldn’t jog because of bad knees, took up mountain biking.

Obama might be even more of a fitness fiend judging by his rigorous workouts at a local Marine base during his recent Hawaiian vacation, and with him comes the added component of the first truly fit First Lady.

Michelle Obama grew up in a basketball family and was legendary for her 4:30 a.m. workouts in Chicago-area gyms. Her current regimen is said to be “only” three times a week for 90 minutes. She is close to 6 feet in heels and often wears sleeveless blouses, proudly displaying her muscular arms.

“This may be a trend,” Watterson says of the athletic commander-in-chief. “It’s a new generation of presidents, a changing of the guard.”

In more ways than one, of course.

Baseball may be known as America’s pastime, but basketball remains its most popular participatory team sport. A 2008 report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association ranked it No. 1 in team sports among Americans with 26 million overall participants and 18.5 million “core” participants over the age of 13.

But it is basketball’s soaring international popularity that may be most beneficial to Obama as he attempts to repair an image of the U.S. presidency that has reached record lows abroad. Recent presidents played football or, in the case of the Bushes, baseball – wholly American sports with little global appeal or comprehension outside the United States.

Spain’s Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, still plays basketball reguarly at age 48. And imagine the goodwill Obama could engender among 1.2 billion people in basketball-crazed China by going one-on-one with Yao Ming on the outdoor hoop at Beijing’s Forbidden City.

“Worldwide, I think basketball helps people better identify with him,” says Craig Miller, assistant executive director for USA Basketball. “There are millions and millions of people around the world who have a passion for basketball, and hopefully this common thread will help them open their views to America and its president.”

To U.S. president No. 44 who, in his heart of hearts, is really No. 23.

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