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Books | Politics | Sports

March 20, 2016

Balling with the President

SI's Alexander Wolff looks at Obama through the lens of his basketball game.

Michael Gluckstadt

One of my life goals that I'll almost certainly never achieve is to play basketball with Barack Obama. I've had this dream since seeing him shooting around on the campaign trail in 2007—his silky lefty jumper as inspiring to me as his soaring rhetoric.

Alexander Wolff. Photo credit: Michael Lebrecht II
"Likes to dart into the lane with that left hand, after setting his man up with a hard jab step right that shouldn't really fool anybody."

Alexander Wolff. Photo credit: Michael Lebrecht II

The closest I'm likely to come is reading Alexander Wolff's new book The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. Wolff, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who has been with the magazine since 1980, chronicles Obama's game from his early years through his second term in the White House. He tells Gelf, "If you happen to sit in that sweet spot where hoop and politics overlap, and your leanings are sympathetic to Obama, well, it's almost made-to-order as a kind of yearbook of the cool and style of his presidency." Sign me up.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email, Wolff discusses Obama's trash talk, tells us what happened to the guy who busted the president's lip, and predicts who would win a one-on-one game between Obama and Justin Bieber.

Gelf Magazine: How would you describe Obama's game?

Alexander Wolff: He's very left-handed. Likes to dart into the lane with that left hand, after setting his man up with a hard jab step right that shouldn't really fool anybody. He can shoot, but tends to be streaky. And over the course of his pick-up career—especially after falling in with serious and pedigreed players in Chicago like Arne Duncan and John Rogers, who were both Ivy League captains—he has evolved from a self-taught guy whose playground roots played at the surface in those early days, to a much more buttoned-up on-court persona. Keeps the ball moving, plays his role, etc. The "plays like" reference point I like best is Lenny Wilkens—literally, a player-coach.

Gelf Magazine: How do you think he'd fare in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game?

Alexander Wolff: If given a month or so to get his wind and court legs back, I think he'd be more than capable in that setting. In fact, there's currently a petition on WhiteHouse.gov urging the (then ex-) POTUS to play or coach in that very game, in Charlotte next February.

Gelf Magazine: Is Obama's personality and presidential style reflected in his game?

Alexander Wolff: That theme surfaced again and again when I spoke with people who have played with him, dating back to Harvard Law School. Even temper. Knows how to play with people who are better than he is. Defuses tense situations. That sort of stuff. Much of the fun in working on the book was extrapolating larger things from basketball. In teasing out these kinds of insights I don't think I was going out on a limb—though several reviewers have suggested that, in a few instances, I may have been a little over-exuberant.

Gelf Magazine: Do opponents avoid fouling or guarding him?


Alexander Wolff: I don't think so, necessarily. But there must have been an understanding among the well-vetted guys he played with during his first term that certain moves and recklessness around the president were frowned upon. Indeed, in a game in November 2010 he took an elbow to the lip that required a dozen stitches to close. It was inadvertent. But the gym fell silent in the aftermath and there was no more ball played that morning. The guy who hit him—a good guy who felt horrible about it all—wasn't invited back.

Gelf Magazine: Does he talk trash?

Alexander Wolff: He does talk trash. My SI colleague Scott Price played him one-on-one in late 2007, just before the Iowa caucuses, when Obama picked up so much political velocity that he wouldn't again put himself in that situation with a member of the media. And Scott tells of a few instances of it. Always good-natured, but definitely attempts to get in your head. The most interesting part of that side of him is that the First Lady considers it a trait passed down from her husband's Kansas-raised mother. Ann Dunham, Michelle Obama says, was a mean trash-talker during family games of Scrabble.

Gelf Magazine: Do you put any significance in Bernie Sanders's and Ted Cruz's professed love of basketball?

Alexander Wolff: I live in Vermont and have neighbors who vouch for Sanders's jones for the game, at least when he was younger. You don't play regular pickup and on teams in men's leagues, as he did in and around Burlington, unless basketball is in your blood—and anyone who grew up in Brooklyn when he did would become conversant with it. I have less evidence to go on with respect to Ted Cruz. But I do know that, during law-school days at Harvard, he played intramurals and was a regular in Hemenway Gym—where Obama hung out, too (although Cruz arrived just after Obama left).

Gelf Magazine: In his most recent Bracketology interview, Obama said he's not playing as much these days. Will we see him back on the court?

Alexander Wolff: I'm guessing he'll play more once he has left office. Plenty of guys still play pickup into their 70s, and he'll only be in his mid-50s in January. That 2010 incident pretty much ended his five-on-five play. Didn't want to deliver the State of the Union on crutches, basically. But given his age, and the deterioration of his skills that he talks pretty openly about, he'll need to ramp it back up slowly. There are signs that he's going to transition his My Brother's Keeper initiative for at-risk young urban men to an independent foundation after he leaves the White House, and basketball would be an easy way to establish a rapport with many of the guys who go through that program. If he's still at least functional on the court, he'll have that much more cred with them.

Gelf Magazine: Who is this book for?

Alexander Wolff: The book is for anyone with a thing for basketball or politics, or just the cross-currents of American culture at this moment. If you happen to sit in that sweet spot where hoop and politics overlap, and your leanings are sympathetic to Obama, well, it's almost made-to-order as a kind of yearbook of the cool and style of his presidency. Lots of photos, so you don't have to give it a formal read to derive some pleasure from it. (Official White House photographer Pete Souza took most of the best, and I'm hugely indebted to him—he was able to get permission from the First Family to let us use several of POTUS playing with his daughters, whose likenesses are usually off-limits to the media.) I'm just vain and ambitious enough to hope that serious political scientists and historians might find it useful, too, in terms of how the book goes into how Obama used the game to connect with voters and govern.

Gelf Magazine: One-on-one, game to 11. Name the scores for the following games:
Obama vs. Bill Bradley
Obama vs. Justin Bieber
Obama vs. Alex Wolff

Alexander Wolff: I'm assuming you're talking about a game between their "today selves."
In which case I'm guessing Bradley, by posting Obama up, would be able to score fairly easily; and Obama, by getting up shots quickly, would do the same. I'd give the nod to Obama, narrowly, based on fitness: say, 11-9.
Bieber is no taller than 5'9", and his basketball rep seems to be a bit inflated. (Bieber? Inflated? Just imagine…) But youth alone tells me he wins, 11-6.
As for me, I wouldn't do any better than Scott did, and he lost both games he played. POTUS whups
my 59-year-old rear end, 11-7.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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