Excerpt from chapter one “Basketball Jones” from The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama by Alexander Wolff. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2016 by Alexander Wolff. All Rights Reserved.
Check out Alexander Wolff's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
The same path had been followed before: ancestry in Kansas, influences from Africa, a high point in Michael Jordan’s Chicago, eventual acclamation by the world. And while basketball itself didn’t take up residence in the White House in January 2009, the game nonetheless played an outsized role in forming the man who did. As Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, watched it happen, Robinson came to understand why Obama would become the forty-fourth president of the United States. Basketball, the coach and former college star declared, was why “he’s sitting where he’s sitting.”
The game provided space for young Barry Obama to explore his identity, to wage what he called a “fitful interior struggle . . . to raise myself to be a black man in America.” He won a reputation as a cool head and consensus builder while playing informally during college and law school.
In Chicago, basketball helped him connect with both the South Siders he worked with as a community organizer and the circle of professionals who would help launch his political career. A pickup game with Robinson did nothing less than confirm Obama as a worthy suitor to his wife-to-be, Michelle.
On the stump he used basketball to help introduce himself to voters. To the superstitious candidate and his aides, playing ball on election days during the 2008 campaign delivered victories, and failure to play accounted for defeats. The two reddest states Obama flipped in that election, Indiana and North Carolina, each narrowly chose him after he made a basketball lover’s case to basketball-loving people. And once he settled into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the game became a touchstone in his exercise of the power of the presidency. Whether demonstrating his Everyman bona fides by announcing his NCAA tournament picks on ESPN or invoking the NBA to project American soft power with gestures of public diplomacy, Obama would pull the game from his toolbox, using it more often and more effectively than any previous president had used any sport.
To be sure, many of Obama’s presidential predecessors had been athletes, some of them good ones, happy to be identified with their games of choice and ready to wade into the sports debates of the day. Teddy Roosevelt boxed and rode and decried violence in college football. Gerald Ford, errant tee shots and ridicule from Saturday Night Live notwithstanding, won two national titles as a lineman at Michigan, where his number is retired. Several commanders in chief installed sporting venues on the White House grounds—Harry Truman’s horseshoe pit, Richard Nixon’s bowling alley, and George W. Bush’s T-ball diamond all served as precedents for Obama’s adaptation of the South Lawn tennis court into a full basketball court. Still other chief executives were closely identified with a single sport: Dwight Eisenhower squeezed in eight hundred rounds of golf during two terms and left cleat marks in the floorboards of the Oval Office, while Nixon suggested plays to Washington Redskins coach George Allen. And a couple of southern Democrats preceded Obama as presidents who gave basketball an enthusiastic embrace. Arkansas Razorbacks fan Bill Clinton, who once swung by Harlem’s Rucker Park to catch a summer-league game, claimed to have dunked in church-league play as a sixteen-year-old; Jimmy Carter played junior-college ball at Georgia Southwestern in Americus and could trace his passion for the Atlanta Hawks back to a time the networks refused to broadcast the NBA Finals live.
But other than golf to Ike, no game has been as tightly lashed to a president as basketball to Obama. Nor has any president been so enduringly engaged as both player and follower of so strenuous a sport—certainly no team sport. (Herbert Hoover’s gatherings of government officials and journalists for morning tosses of a medicine ball over a volleyball net on the South Lawn do not count as participation in a strenuous team sport.) Obama’s chief rival as the most sporting modern president is probably John F. Kennedy. A friend, whom JFK called his “Undersecretary of Baseball,” kept him updated on that game, and another member of Kennedy’s inner circle assessed the touch football at the family’s Hyannis Port compound thusly: “It’s touch, but it’s murder.” Indeed, Kennedy was something of an Obama forerunner—a vigorous Democrat whose rhetorical skills, young family, and zest for the competitive arena signaled a break with the past.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama offered the public a kind of racial Rorschach test. Many whites regarded him as a redemptive figure, someone who could help them and the country move beyond a shameful chapter from the past. Others, including many African Americans, saw a tribune of history. During the 2008–2009 transition, when Obama paid for his order during a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, an institution in black D.C., the cashier asked him if he wanted change. “Nah, we straight,” the president-elect replied—a comment recorded by the flummoxed pool reporter on the scene as, “No, we’re straight.” That anecdote finds vindication in data: According to the Pew Research Center, most blacks described Obama as “black”; most whites called him “mixed race.”
On his 2010 census form, Obama could have checked “white” or “black” or both—and chose to check “black.” It’s much the same choice he made years ago, playing in places like the basketball court near his grandparents’ Honolulu apartment, where he began to develop what he called “an overtly black game.” Even as Obama edged into his fifties, the schoolyard provenance of his basketball style could be seen in a fake right, go left crossover dribble and a double-clutch pull-up jumper in the lane (see “Gaming the President Out,” page 28). But as he aged, and after falling in with a circle of pickup buddies who had played formally at Division III colleges and in the Ivy League, his game seemed also to nod at the heritage of his mother, whose own parents came from small-town Kansas. In the same way that his political career obviated much of the received wisdom about race, Obama’s game made a muddle of rigid racial categories.
Basketball insiders don’t flinch at identifying black players who “play white” (Paul Silas, Quinn Buckner, Charles Oakley) or white players who “play black” (Billy Cunningham, Rex Chapman, Jason Williams). The “plays white/plays black” parlor game becomes even more fascinating when persona is factored in along with playing style. “[In Obama] you have a laced-up professional off the court, a ‘white’ persona, who throws behind-the-back passes and busts crossovers on the court,” said Claude Johnson, who in 2008 founded Baller-in-Chief.com, a website devoted to Obama and basketball. “Persona-wise, you’d think he’d have a basically stiff game, like Tim Duncan’s. But no—he’s showing up at a North Carolina practice, and he’s playing ball with [NBA guard Chris] Duhon. So the guy on the street says, ‘Whoa, he’s got a little game!’”
More than that, Obama had long ago adopted the carriage of a ballplayer to go with the shots and moves. It was part of what made him, in the phrase of poet Ishmael Reed, “the President of the Cool.” Slam, the arbiter of the asphalt game, likened the Obama gait to that of Julius Erving, the player whose soaring silhouette had graced the poster that hung on young Barry’s bedroom wall. As the magazine put it, “Not a stereotype, Obama’s an archetype.”
During a remote broadcast from NBA All-Star Weekend in 2009, CNN’s John King gathered a handful of current and former NBA players around a set to screen for them video of Obama playing ball. After airing a clip of the candidate from the previous July, sinking a three-pointer in front of a rolling minicam during a visit to U.S. troops in Kuwait, King asked Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns whether Obama should have shown more swagger after making the shot. “No,” Nash replied, faintly irritated that King didn’t understand where cool comes from. “He’s got plenty of swagger.”