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Fix Pick: Understanding Obama or Basketball=Life

The University of North Carolina's Jack Wooten, right, pressures then-Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during a basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 15, 2009; 5:50 AM ET
Categories:  Fix Picks , White House  
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"Maybe Barry O'Bomber needed to be a Punahou reserve to become a Hawaii state champion. Maybe Barack Obama needed to be a community organizer to become a U.S. Senator. And maybe, just maybe, Americans chose him as their next president because they too have come to recognize that in the end it's not about you, it's about the team."


Posted by: donmark82 | January 16, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Unless this is some esoteric basketball usage, somebody's editor goofed, I believe it should be peace:
"Where organized basketball has referees who enforce the rules and keep the piece, pickup "involves collective governance and constant conflict resolution,""

Posted by: annieb346 | January 15, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

For those biographically inclined, it's also worth noting that Obama's father gave him a basketball as a present during his Christmas visit to Hawaii years after the divorce.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | January 15, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Those Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats currently vowing to vote

against the stimulus bill are once again trotting forth fresh

evidence of their criminal Stupidity.

WHILE the Federal government can now borrow at Rates ranging from

ZERO to ONE PERCENT -said Congressional Morons refuse to Borrow &

spend...WHEN...they have been doing exactly that for the past 8

years at interest rates many times higher!

Given the unprecedented OPPORTUNITY to rebuild our infrastructure

(criminally starved for decades by same morons)
...@ not more than 1% stupid do you have to be to

pass up such a golden opportunity?

While we're at it we need to bump up the total from $850 Billion

to a Whole $Trillion or a $Trillion and a half.

Double the Tax Break/welfare (whatever you want to call it) for

that 95% of consumers - from $500 individual and $1,000 family -

to $1,000 individual and $2,000 family.

Those politicos currently blabbling

"no tax cuts, no money for the 95% because the Bush stimulus just

didn't work."
--- never cite any SOURCE for said "info" & conveniently forget

the previous $300 and $600 stimulus was far more than WIPED OUT by
the GAS PRICE increases.

Posted by: elme13 | January 15, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Hey Chris,

Let's shoot hoops some time!

Claude Johnson

Posted by: claude203 | January 15, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Chris, I've been trying to think of a way to find a run with the Pres-elect as well. It looks like Fenty is the man to talk to: Obama plays hoops, goes church shopping in D.C.

WASHINGTON - The president-elect is making himself right at home in the nation's capital.

Barack Obama got a first-hand look at a D.C. public school earlier this week while playing some basketball at the Marie Reed Community Learning Center on Champlain Street in Northwest. An Obama spokesperson says the president-elect left the Hay Adams Hotel about 5:15 p.m. Sunday and motorcaded the two miles to the recreational center.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty directed school leaders to open the school, which was closed, according to Fenty spokesperson Mafara Hobson. Hobson would not say whether Fenty played in the game.

Posted by: Arlingdude | January 15, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

If nothing else, this at last gives Saturday Night Live a new skit: Obama V Putin on the court. Putin could keep claiming to be playing, but every time they start up, Putin steps back and lets some random young guy step up.

Posted by: hiberniantears | January 15, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Yet another difference between the Obama and Bill Clinton. There is honesty and integrity shown by Obama whereas Bill Clinton is famous for cheating at golf and not accepting his errors.

Maybe this administration won't be so bad after all.

Posted by: zonker2 | January 15, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm sure Nike is loving the photo above with the nike clothes and shoes on the Prez-elect and the nike ball.

Posted by: GC4Life | January 15, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

thanks chris - i just know your mom beams whenever you appear on say hardball :) for bringing to our attention what sounds like a great article on soon-to-be president obama. so much better information on the man so much rests for the renewal of our great country, than say talking about the latest poll on obama's popularity!

Posted by: sbvpav | January 15, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse



• What happened to Homeland Security warnings of "heightened risk" during Presidential transition?

• How about the late November FBI warning about possible Northeast train station attacks?

• "Amtrak Joe" Biden's longstanding warnings about security flaws along the Amtrak Northeast corridor -- why isn't he waving this whistle stop tour to a halt?

It is both mystifying and frightening to contemplate the unnecessary risk to which President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden are subjecting themselves by going through with Saturday's planned pre-inauguration "whistle stop" train ride from Philadelphia to Washington.

In his farewell press conference on Monday, President Bush seemed to go out of his way to twice repeat that the greatest threat the nation faces is another terrorist attack. At one point in his presser, he said that by giving official voice to the threat, he was not "trying to set something up." Here are President Bush's exact words:

"There is an enemy that still is out there.

"You know, people can maybe try to write that off as, you know, 'he's trying to set something up.'

"I'm telling you there's an enemy that would like to attack America -- Americans -- again. There just is. That's the reality of the world."

George W. Bush could not have been more plain-spoken, candid and direct. The incoming White House team ignores his words -- which he most likely thought about before uttering them -- at their peril.


OR (if link is corrupted):

Posted by: scrivener50 | January 15, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

An executive branch featuring Obama vs. legislative branch charity basketball game would raise an astronomical amount of money for some good cause.

Posted by: WhigParty | January 15, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I'm looking forward to those photo-op visits by championship teams visiting the White House.

Barack in a White House pickup game against, or with, LeBron James will be fabulous.

Posted by: jimk8mr | January 15, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

I grew up, first on a farm where we bicycled as far as 3 mi to pickup hardball games. I went to HS in a small city [we lost the farm in a bankruptcy] where I bicycled to concrete, lit outdoor courts or to school gyms that remained open at night for pickup basketball. I understand what this article is apparently saying about lessons from pick-up games.

Some learn different lessons from pick-up games. Some learn to cheat. Some learn to bully. Some learn, not who can be trusted, but who can be conned. Some learn to meet bullying with fierce bravado while others learn to evade it with humor, and still others submit.

Indeed, the lessons may depend more on the the person learning them than on the teaching milieu.

As a cultural aside, the recent loss of pick-up sports as part of a boy's ordinary life is indeed something to lament. However, I suspect that BHO's tendencies were reinforced by informal bb, not created by them.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | January 15, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

That's right -- Duck Fuke! (Though less "go Hoyas" and more "go Heels.")

Posted by: jesyke | January 15, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

What a Yawn article...

Posted by: crrobin | January 15, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Don't be surprised, Chris, when the Hoopster-in-Chief gives you the call. Brush up on your trash talk and please let us know what a White House basketball court looks like.

Who knows, you might even chat a bit about field hockey.

Posted by: dognabbit | January 15, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

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