(From Joaquin Henson of the Philippines Star) Baller-in-Chief Leaving his dark days as a Punahou Academy high school varsity benchwarmer behind, US President Barack Obama continued to play basketball with a passion but never again for a school team. From high school, Obama enrolled at Occidental, a small liberal arts college in California. He often [...]
Leaving his dark days as a Punahou Academy high school varsity benchwarmer behind, US President Barack Obama continued to play basketball with a passion but never again for a school team.
From high school, Obama enrolled at Occidental, a small liberal arts college in California. He often played hoops with faculty, students and staff but it finally dawned on the 6-1 1/2 left-hander his varsity days were over.
“The greatest contribution Occidental has made to American democracy was to help Barack decide that his future wasn’t in basketball,” mused Occidental professor Eric Newhall, quoted by Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated (Jan. 19, 2009).
Obama later transferred to Columbia University and became less involved in basketball and more immersed in classwork, anti-apartheid activism and law. But he never put the game out of his system.
Wolff said in his first job after graduation, Obama used basketball as a vehicle to reach out to a troubled youth while trying to solve community problems on Chicago’s South Side. When he was at Harvard Law School, Obama joined fellow students in playing pick-up games with inmates at a nearby prison – an experience to broaden his outlook on life.
But it was marrying into a basketball family that cemented Obama’s hoop roots. His wife Michelle Robinson, a lawyer, couldn’t be more basketball-oriented. Her brother Craig was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton, where Pete Carril mentored, and is now Oregon State coach. In fact, Obama had to pass a test – on the basketball court – before he could date Michelle.
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So when Obama campaigned for critical votes in Indiana and North Carolina during the Democrat primaries last year, basketball came to mind as his connection to the people. He played h-o-r-s-e, three-on-three and a full-court scrimmage with the North Carolina varsity. Obama even tried his luck at an arcade game during a visit to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He eventually took North Carolina but narrowly lost Indiana. In the presidential polls against John McCain, Obama swept both states, each by a single percentage point. “Basketball might well have made the difference,” wrote Wolff.
Today at 47, Obama still plays hoops, unmindful of critics who can’t seem to understand how basketball is such a way of life for those with deep roots in the game. He was ridiculed for shooting baskets with US troops while on a Kuwait trip last July and called an Allen Iverson with a Harvard law degree. But to Obama, there’s more to basketball than just knocking down a three-pointer – which is, by the way, what he did in Kuwait.
Craig Robinson likened him to former NBA All-Star guard Lenny Wilkens who is also half-African-American, a southpaw and brainy. Wilkens, the NBA’s winningest coach, campaigned for Obama and his autographed basketball has a special place in the President’s office. In Obama’s mind, basketball is “an improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful.” Wolff added, “With its serial returns to equilibrium – cut backdoor against an overplay, shoot when the defense sags – the game represents Obama’s intellectual nature come alive.”
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It’s no wonder that in Obama’s Cabinet are hoopsters who share his love for the game. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a 6-5 USBL and Australian league veteran, was co-captain of the Harvard varsity in the 1980s. Attorney General Eric Holder was a 6-2 guard at Columbia. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, a 6-5 forward, played at Georgetown in 1963-65. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was a 5-3 point guard at National Cathedral School and suited up for Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.
Wolff said because of Obama’s passion for basketball, the NBA has offered to assist in constructing an indoor full court on Capitol Hill. Right now, there’s just an outdoor half-court on the White House grounds. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin reportedly volunteered the Verizon Center for Obama and his playmates to shoot hoops in their leisure hours.
Surely, Obama’s basketball background has contributed in some way to preparing him for his new job. Teamwork, after all, is essential for Obama to succeed. As President, he’s the point guard of Team USA, the Baller-in-Chief.
“Americans chose him as their next President because they have come to recognize that in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” said Wolff.
Before his first presidential debate against McCain, Obama told his senior adviser David Axelrod (who met his wife in a Chicago co-ed basketball league), “I’m a little nervous but it’s a good nervous – give me the ball, let’s play the game.”
That’s probably what was in Obama’s mind, too, when he was sworn in last Tuesday.