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Barack Obama and basketball: In his life and in his book

With a sharp passing eye, long jumpers drained to perfection, and a swell passing game, Obama aced what Americans adore the most in sport: an ‘assist’.

Written by Shivani Naik , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: November 18, 2020 11:14:15 am
Barack Obama during a campaign trail in Indiana in 2008. AP Photo

“That’s what I do… You don’t understand. That’s what I do,” Barack Obama’s hearty preening at Michigan’s Northwestern High School basketball court left a trail of chuckles at a Joe Biden campaign pitstop two days before the American presidential election.

Wearing a pair of dress shoes on the shiny wooden floor, Obama casually sunk the smoothest lefty three pointer from zero degrees, as the few witnesses, including (now President-elect) Biden whoa-ed their approval. It was hardly a fluke.

While Indians search for keywords — approving or disapproving of their political leaders — in Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, the tome on one of the USA’s most celebrated presidencies has devoted one of its finest chapters to the author and his enduring relationship with basketball.

Describing his early days in the presidency, when he was beset by a multitude of stressful situations, Obama says he liked a game of pool with the assistant chef of the White House to de-stress. This was also when he could sneak out for a smoke — Obama recalls, though, the day his daughter Malia smelt tobacco on his breath and asked him about it. He quit smoking to coincide with the signing of The Affordable Care Act, and started to carry around nicotine gum.

But it was basketball that offered him his “reliable refuge”. Obama’s personal aide Reggie Love would organise weekend games at an indoor court at the Fort McNair army base, the FBI headquarters, or the Department of the Interior. Former Division I college players in their late 20s or early 30s would form the regulars. And although he wasn’t the best player on the floor, Obama settled into the familiar flow and camaraderie of holding his own by setting picks, feeding the hot shooter that day, hitting a jumper and running the break.

“Those pickup games represented continuity for me, a tether to my old self, and when my team beat Reggie’s, I’d make sure he heard about it all week,” he writes.

Court exploits in school

The American media has reported that Obama played on both the junior and university teams at Hawaii’s Punahou School in the 1970s, and eventually won a state championship in 1979. “Barry Obama”, an NBC report quoted former teammate Mark Bendix as saying, ought to have been a starter at Punahou. Bendix says: “He had a pretty good shot and really handled the ball well.”

Former coach Chris McLachlin told NBC: “He (Obama) would carry his books in one hand and his ball in the other. He lived across the street from school and before classes he’d shoot baskets on the outside courts, then at lunch he’d shoot more baskets, then I’d have him for three hours, then he’d go home, eat supper, and then be outside again shooting baskets.”

There’s a 1979 picture of Obama, wearing a rich mop of afro on his head, taking a jump shot over a defender at the Honolulu top private school. He’d come off the bench and help them win a state championship in his senior year.

Coach Mike Zinn at Occidental College recalled to The Los Angeles Times in 2007: “He wasn’t a great outside shooter. In basketball terminology, he was kind of a slasher. He was left-handed. He went left well, didn’t go right that well. He had a nose for the ball, always came up with loose balls and rebounds inside. So if he got 10 points in a game, most of them were probably under the basket. He didn’t hit jump shots from 15 feet or anything like that. He was a good defender, definitely a good athlete.”

Barack Obama during his senior year at Punahou School, Honolulu. Seth Poppel / Yearbook Library

Both cheerleader and coach

Obama would also be courtside, his memoir says, rooting for daughter Sasha’s fourth-grade rec league team — with all the attendant thrill and stress of being an athlete’s parent.

“They called themselves the Vipers (props to whoever thought of the name), and each Saturday morning during the season, Michelle and I would travel to a small public park field house in Maryland and sit in the bleachers with the other families, cheering wildly whenever one of the girls came remotely close to making a basket, shouting reminders to Sasha to box out or get back on defence, and doing our best not to be “those parents”, the kind who yell at the refs,” Obama recalls. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Maisy, Joe Biden’s granddaughter was the star of the team, he writes. While the coaching couple who by their own admission didn’t consider basketball their first sport, did a reasonably good job, the former President and Reggie, a former Duke hoopster, helped draw up some plays and volunteered to conduct a few informal Sunday afternoon practice sessions with the team.

“We worked on the basics (dribbling, passing, making sure your shoelaces were tied before you ran onto the court). When the Vipers won Reggie I celebrated like it was the NCAA finals,” he writes about enjoying the normal “dad stuff”. Rival parents would raise a stink though about these “special sessions”, complaining their kids weren’t extended the same privilege of being coached by the President. So Obama would go back quietly to being a regular noisy dad fan.

“A Promised Land,” by former US president Barack Obama, released on November 17. Image: Penguin Random House

The one-shot President

With a sharp passing eye, long jumpers drained to perfection, and a swell passing game, Obama aced what Americans adore the most in sport: an ‘assist’. Old footage shows his outside shot sharpening up, and finding new admirers. The breezily sailing three pointer at the Biden rally wasn’t a freak — back when he was Senator Obama of Illinois, standing out in black tracks and his accurate jump-passes, he had famously nailed a three-pointer on his first try; and a repeat was to follow in 2010 in front of troops in Kuwait, according to a report by USA Today.

Playing a game of ‘Horse’ with basketball legend Clark Kellogg, who had been invited to the White House backyard, Obama would quip, “I have a few other things on my mind, but I will not be humiliated on national television.” He would chortle away to make up the lead, finding his range with 3-P shots.

While special assistant and personal aide Reggie Love played at Duke and was the perfect Friend Friday, Obama’s other high profile playmates included Illinois ex-treasurer Alexi Giannoulias — a former pro from Greece — and the mightily competent former Secretary of Education and Harvard co-captain Arne Duncan, who could more than drive in and throw.

Duncan, who described Obama as “cerebral”, would tell ‘For the Win’ that the former POTUS was offensively very crafty and deceptive, with a very good crossover dribble. “It was not infrequent to see him literally not shoot the ball all game and then would score the final basket or the final two baskets of the game. There are lots of guys who love to get shots up early in games, but when things get a little tight, they’d disappear. He was just the opposite. He wanted to take the big shot.” Not a ball hog and great at passing assists was the common verdict.

Near the end of his presidency in 2015 though, Obama would switch to golf — and candidly admit to his depreciating powers. “I used to play basketball more but these days I’ve gotten to the point where it is not much fun. Because I’m not as good as I used to be and I get frustrated. I was never great but I was a good player and I could play seriously. Now I’m like one of these old guys who’s running around.”

The connoisseur of greatness

Widely considered to be one of the wittiest speech-giving Presidents, Obama saved one of his best for the citation to Michael Jordan when awarding him the President’s Medal of Freedom. “Michael Jordan is more than those moments. More than just the best player on two greatest teams of all time. The dream team and the 1996 Chicago Bulls. He’s more than just a logo. More than just an Internet meme. More than just a charitable donor, a business owner committed to diversity. There’s a reason you call somebody the “Michael Jordan of …”. Michael Jordan of surgery, or of rabbis. Michael Jordan of canoeing. They know what you are talking about. Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do that everybody recognises them.”

He would brag on behalf of Kareem Abdul Jabbar at the same ceremony: “Here’s how great Kareem Abdul Jabbar was. 1967 he’d spent a year dominating college basketball. The NCAA bans the dunk. They didn’t say it was ban Kareem …but it was (wide grin) ban Kareem.”

In the recent docu-series ‘Last Dance on Jordan’, controversy would erupt around Obama being organically described as a “former Chicago resident”, following the Bulls in their glory years. But it was his contextualising of Jordan — appreciating his greatness while stating plainly that he hadn’t quite spoken up on diversity issues back then — that added value to the testimonial as more than just a famous voice.

Also read | ‘Spent part of my childhood listening to Ramayana and Mahabharata’: Barack Obama in new book

Most recently he would come to the aid of LeBron James amid nationwide protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake in August, when the infuriated Lakers were on the verge of calling off the season to focus on fighting for reform.

James would say: “I’m lucky enough to have a friend, you know, the 44th President, that allowed me and allowed [Chris Paul] and allowed us to get on the phone with him and get guidance. You know, when there’s things going on, when there’s chaos where people don’t know which move to make or how to handle a situation, the best thing you can do is have someone that you can talk to and give you guidance and have that type of leadership….and those words of saying ‘OK, this can be plan of action. This can be something that you guys can ask for, and if we can get that then we can continue to push the needle and you guys can also continue the season as well.”

The NBA announced its plan for a social justice coalition soon after.

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