Fix Pick: Understanding Obama or Basketball=Life
It's no secret to anyone who has paid even passing attention to the presidential campaign over the past two(!) years that President-elect Barack Obama's abiding passion -- other than politics -- is pickup basketball.
During the campaign, Obama repeatedly carved time out of his schedule to play a game of pickup with a collection of senior aides including Reggie Love, a former player at Duke (boooo....GO HOYAS!) and now Obama's "body" man. Always superstitious, Obama insisted he play on every caucus/primary day during his race against Hillary Rodham Clinton after he passed up playing ball on the day of his New Hampshire primary loss.
The central importance of basketball (and pickup basketball in particular) is the focus of a new piece by Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated. It's a terrific read in which Wolff delves into Obama's own writings and interviews with those closest to him (including his brother-in-law Craig Robinson, the coach of the Oregon State hoops team) to provide a deeper understanding of how basketball made Obama the man, Obama the candidate and Obama the president.
The story is long but you should read every word of it -- particularly if you, like The Fix, are a pickup hoops junkie. In the event you don't have time to do that (sigh), the key points are below.
• Robinson, in perhaps the most telling quote in the piece, tells Wolff that basketball is why Barack Obama "is sitting where he's sitting." The game, according to Robinson, honed Obama's ability to understand who could and couldn't trust. "There's an ethical undertone in pickup that people miss," Robinson told Wolff. "The game has to be played fairly or it breaks down. You practice an honor code, making your own calls and giving them up. If Barack travels, he'll give it up, not sneak it by you. You play with hundreds of guys who'd never do that. It all gets back to how you can tell a guy's character on the court."
• Wolff cites excerpts from Obama's own writings that suggest that it was basketball more than any other outside influence that got him comfortable with his racial background and unique upbringing. Pickup basketball taught Obama "that respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was" and "that you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up," he wrote.
• Wolff draws an interesting contrast between pickup hoops and organized basketball as a means of arguing that Obama's limited experience in the latter led to his bipartisan approach to governance. Where organized basketball has referees who enforce the rules and keep the piece, pickup "involves collective governance and constant conflict resolution," writes Wolff. He adds: "For all its associations with inner-city pathologies, pickup ball harks back to a traditional time, when kids weren't squired to playdates or stashed with third parties but made their way to the park on their own, picked teams and -- as Obama did -- grew up along the way."
• In Obama's own words (taken from an interview with Bryant Gumbel for HBO's "Real Sports"), the appeal of hoops to him is the "improvisation within a discipline." Wolff takes it a step further, writing poetically: "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."
This piece isn't the first (the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny penned a terrific story recently on the possibility of a indoor basketball court in an Obama White House) and it certainly won't be the last to make the sports = life argument.
But, it's an important read for those seeking to understand what drives Obama, how he views the world and how he carries himself. As for whether Obama is the real deal on the court, the Fix awaits an invite to the president's game to judge for himself.
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