View Full Version : Obama's Hoop Roots

01-23-2009, 12:27 PM
Obama's hoop roots
SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin Henson Updated January 22, 2009 12:00 AM

It’s customary for the NBA champion team to pay a courtesy call on the US President at the White House after the season. There’s always been a special bond between the league and the Commander-in-Chief. In fact, the championship trophy is named after the late White House political strategist Larry O’Brien, a former NBA commissioner and Postmaster General who masterminded the presidential campaigns of Democrat candidates John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Last September, the Boston Celtics carried out the tradition by calling on US President George Bush at Capitol Hill. The team presented Bush with a green Celtics jersey showing his name at the back above the No. 43. Although Kendrick Perkins wears No. 43, the Celtics gave Bush the same number to indicate he was the 43rd US Chief Executive. In 2003, Bush welcomed the San Antonio Spurs to the White House after the team won the NBA crown. Tim Duncan presented Bush with a silver Spurs jersey No. 1.

The other day, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th US President succeeding Bush. When the next NBA champion visits the White House, it will be particularly special because Obama has deep basketball roots.

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In Sports Illustrated (Jan. 19, 2009), writer Alexander Wolff – who spent several days in Manila discovering the Filipinos’ rich passion for the game many years ago to write a chapter on the enduring love affair in a book – detailed Obama’s hoop history.

Obama’s father Barack was a Kenyan exchange student at the University of Hawaii and his mother Ann Dunham, an American from Kansas. He was born in Honolulu and his parents separated when he was only two. At the age of six, Obama moved to Jakarta where his mother and her second husband, another exchange student Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia, settled. In 1971 when he was 10, Obama was sent to Honolulu to live with his mother’s parents. His father, who had moved back to Kenya, came for a visit and gave him a Christmas gift that year – a basketball.

Obama, a 6-1 1/2 left-handed guard, loved to play hoops. He was a scholar at Punahou Academy, an elite high school in Honolulu, and tried out for the varsity basketball team.

In his own words, Obama said he played “with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent...at least on the basketball court, I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own – it was there that I would make my closest white friends on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage.”

Obama played on the varsity’s practice farm teams for two years then joined the seniors in 1979. As a benchwarmer, Obama didn’t appreciate sitting on the pines too much and during the season, led a group of malcontents in appealing for more playing time from coach Chris McLachlin, known to be a disciple of John Wooden, Dean Smith and Peter Carril.

McLachlin wouldn’t succumb to the pressure from his second unit troopers.

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“I reminded him it wasn’t about him, it was about the team,” said McLachlin, quoted by Wolff. “And the end result was that we had a pretty amazing year. He was really, really good and could have started for any other team in the state. But we were really good and it was so hard to break into that group. Three kids went on to Division I scholarships, two at his position. I would have made a place for a player like him. But in those early days, I was much more conventional. Play five, maybe one or two subs, go to the bench with a big lead. Obviously, it was frustrating for him. Despite the fact that there was pushback, he never lost sight of what the goal was. We sometimes don’t get the lessons teachers teach us until years later.”

In the state championship game, Punahou crushed Moanalua High, 60-28. Obama’s stats showed a missed free throw and a bucket on a “garbage-time breakaway.”

In 2004, Obama – then a newly elected senator from Illinois – made a sentimental visit to Punahou and addressing a big campus crowd, spotted McLachlin in the audience. “Coach Mac, is that you?” asked Obama. “I’ve gotta tell you something. I really wasn’t as good as I thought I was.”

McLachlin later told Wolff, “As much as I berate myself for my own lack of maturity as a coach at that time, obviously some stuff stuck with him and helped shape his character – I didn’t screw him up, is what I mean.”

SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin Henson Updated January 23, 2009 12:00 AM

Leaving his dark days as a Punahou Academy high school varsity benchwarmer behind, US President Barack Obama continued to play basketball with a passion but never again for a school team.

From high school, Obama enrolled at Occidental, a small liberal arts college in California. He often played hoops with faculty, students and staff but it finally dawned on the 6-1 1/2 left-hander his varsity days were over.

“The greatest contribution Occidental has made to American democracy was to help Barack decide that his future wasn’t in basketball,” mused Occidental professor Eric Newhall, quoted by Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated (Jan. 19, 2009).

Obama later transferred to Columbia University and became less involved in basketball and more immersed in classwork, anti-apartheid activism and law. But he never put the game out of his system.

Wolff said in his first job after graduation, Obama used basketball as a vehicle to reach out to a troubled youth while trying to solve community problems on Chicago’s South Side. When he was at Harvard Law School, Obama joined fellow students in playing pick-up games with inmates at a nearby prison – an experience to broaden his outlook on life.

But it was marrying into a basketball family that cemented Obama’s hoop roots. His wife Michelle Robinson, a lawyer, couldn’t be more basketball-oriented. Her brother Craig was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton, where Pete Carril mentored, and is now Oregon State coach. In fact, Obama had to pass a test – on the basketball court – before he could date Michelle.

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So when Obama campaigned for critical votes in Indiana and North Carolina during the Democrat primaries last year, basketball came to mind as his connection to the people. He played h-o-r-s-e, three-on-three and a full-court scrimmage with the North Carolina varsity. Obama even tried his luck at an arcade game during a visit to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He eventually took North Carolina but narrowly lost Indiana. In the presidential polls against John McCain, Obama swept both states, each by a single percentage point. “Basketball might well have made the difference,” wrote Wolff.

Today at 47, Obama still plays hoops, unmindful of critics who can’t seem to understand how basketball is such a way of life for those with deep roots in the game. He was ridiculed for shooting baskets with US troops while on a Kuwait trip last July and called an Allen Iverson with a Harvard law degree. But to Obama, there’s more to basketball than just knocking down a three-pointer – which is, by the way, what he did in Kuwait.

Craig Robinson likened him to former NBA All-Star guard Lenny Wilkens who is also half-African-American, a southpaw and brainy. Wilkens, the NBA’s winningest coach, campaigned for Obama and his autographed basketball has a special place in the President’s office. In Obama’s mind, basketball is “an improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful.” Wolff added, “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.”

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It’s no wonder that in Obama’s Cabinet are hoopsters who share his love for the game. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a 6-5 USBL and Australian league veteran, was co-captain of the Harvard varsity in the 1980s. Attorney General Eric Holder was a 6-2 guard at Columbia. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, a 6-5 forward, played at Georgetown in 1963-65. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was a 5-3 point guard at National Cathedral School and suited up for Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

Wolff said because of Obama’s passion for basketball, the NBA has offered to assist in constructing an indoor full court on Capitol Hill. Right now, there’s just an outdoor half-court on the White House grounds. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin reportedly volunteered the Verizon Center for Obama and his playmates to shoot hoops in their leisure hours.

Surely, Obama’s basketball background has contributed in some way to preparing him for his new job. Teamwork, after all, is essential for Obama to succeed. As President, he’s the point guard of Team USA, the Baller-in-Chief.

“Americans chose him as their next President because they have come to recognize that in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” said Wolff.

Before his first presidential debate against McCain, Obama told his senior adviser David Axelrod (who met his wife in a Chicago co-ed basketball league), “I’m a little nervous but it’s a good nervous – give me the ball, let’s play the game.”

That’s probably what was in Obama’s mind, too, when he was sworn in last Tuesday.

01-26-2009, 10:07 AM
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01-27-2009, 03:24 PM
Obama's passion for basketball
SPORTS FOR ALL By Philip Ella Juico Updated January 27, 2009 12:00 AM

By all standards, the inaugural speech of United States President Barack Obama, watched by billions around the world, was truly praiseworthy. It had just about the right mix of looking back at history, raising expectations (without scaring people into giving up on the ruin left behind by the George W. Bush administration) and exhorting people to keep on fighting those who threaten the security of America and the world, “...and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

The election of Obama, who himself is a symbol of America’s internal struggle with race, is, in a sense, a sign of America moving forward and discarding its past. Obama himself represents what University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy calls “past polarities.” And what makes this act of shedding baggage of the past even more remarkable is Obama’s plain speaking, minus empty rhetoric and ultra lofty goals that just serve to undermine the sincerity of the conversation that the leader is having with the world.

Perhaps, not known to many is, that like most African Americans, the 6’2” Obama is, to put it simply, in love with basketball. In an article, “My Sportsman: Barack Obama,” Beth Davis writes about one Sports Illustrated (SI) writer nominating Obama for SI’s Sportsman of the Year 2008 (an award subsequently given to “Super Champ,” American swimmer and multi Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps).

Obama was 10 years old when he first fell in love with basketball. His grandfather had taken him to a game at the University of Hawaii, which had climbed into the national rankings behind an all-black starting five, and young Barry was hooked. So, he spent much of his teenage years seeking out pick-up games at playgrounds and recreation centers around his native Honolulu.

Davis says that Obama later conceded in his memoir “Dreams from My Father” that he was “living out a caricature of black male adolescence, he also wrote of how the city game taught him truisms about life that his absent father could not: “That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn’t back it up. That you didn’t let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions - like hurt or fear - you didn’t want them to see.”

Listening to Obama reminds one of another great African American, Muhammad Ali (who confesses to be an admirer of Obama). In his autobiography, “The Greatest,” Ali said that, for all his braggadocio and straight talk, “I never say things I can’t back up.”

Basketball, according to the SI nominator, reinforced those precepts throughout Obama’s life, from his lone season on the varsity at Punahou High School (where he bridled at not being good enough to start for a state-championship team); to the night that he joined some Harvard Law School buddies to play against inmates at a Massachusetts prison; to the day his girlfriend, Michelle, secretly for him to play with her brother so she could assess whether Barack was worthy enough to join the family.

And in 2008, Obama put those rules of (the cracked asphalt courts) to the ultimate test, betting his career on the belief that American voters would judge him not on the color of his skin but on whether he had the skills and the toughness they wanted in a president. When he hit the electoral game point on Nov. 4, he made history by winning the right to become America’s first-ever Hoopster-in-Chief.

Basketball has always been a part of Obama’s life. The last gift his father gave him before the older Obama separated from the President’s mother was a basketball. He is perhaps, together with John F. Kennedy who played touch football with great “vigah,” the most athletic President of the USA. He is, to be sure, the first US Chief Executive to be a dedicated hoopster.

Obama has often promised that if he became president he would have a basketball court built inside the White House. Now that he’s President, even if his promise is not fulfilled, given the reported severe space constraints in his new residence, it probably would not really matter since he has proven on several occasions his genuine passion for the game. It would also be good as a stress-relieving gesture for him to simply put on his sneakers and go the nearest asphalt-cracked community basketball court and play three-on-three as he used to when times were less complicated.