President Barack Obama shoots hoops with his personal aide, Reggie Love, at the White House Basketball Court, Jan. 18, 2010.
President Barack Obama shoots hoops with his personal aide, Reggie Love, at the White House Basketball Court, Jan. 18, 2010.
Credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

The Attack Athletics center, on the west side of Chicago, is no ordinary health club. There are no balding, paunchy executives with bad knees huffing through spin class. It's a true Jock Mecca, a state-of-the-art 65,000-square-foot training facility run by Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's trainer during his Bulls days. Professional athletes work out here during the off-season; only the most serious of amateurs need apply. On the afternoon of November 4, Election Day, a bunch of high-powered 40-something weekend warriors came to Attack for hoops – including Senator Barack Obama.

Flanked by the Secret Service's counter-assault team, who were clad in black bodysuits and riding in black Suburbans, Obama pulled into the Attack facility at 2:45 p.m. and was cheered by a crowd of onlookers. Inside the gym, though, it wasn't "Senator" or "Sir." No Secret Service agent dove to protect Obama from a flying elbow. It was just Barack, one of the guys. After all, many of Obama's closest pals had suited up. There was John W. Rogers, founder of Ariel Investments and a leading African-American financier who played basketball at Princeton with Craig Robinson, Barack's brother-in-law. Robinson, who coaches basketball at Oregon State, was there too. So was entrepreneur Marty Nesbitt, the Obama campaign's treasurer and perhaps the president's best friend since the 1980s.

The ties are tight among the African-American elite of Hyde Park. Nesbitt's wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, delivered Obama's two girls, Malia and Sasha. Rogers's ex-wife, Desirée Rogers, will be the White House social secretary, in charge of state dinners and other East Wing affairs. But several white guys were also running the hard court with Obama. They included Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a former Boston University player who was a pro in Greece; and Senator Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, who played hoops at Scranton Prep and coached middle school basketball after college. All told, some 35 middle-aged guys piled into the gym and played a round-robin tournament.

On this particular day, Obama didn't win it all. His team took two out of three games, but missed the finals. For Obama, though, it was typical hoops: He nailed an outside shot, passed the ball crisply and frequently, and showed off his unusually strong move to the left. "Most left-handed guys are quicker going to their right,'' says Robinson. "He moves quicker to his left."

He also razzed his opponents for being a bit slow. "Don't go easy on me," he told them, although the men were conscious of not wanting to give him a fat lip or a bloody nose on a night on which he seemed all but certain to take the presidency and then have to address the country. "No one wanted to make him bleed," recalls Casey. Robinson termed it a "nonaggression pact."

Playing on big days became ingrained in Obama's routine in 2008, as regular as his nighttime calls to his daughters. He and his pals played in freezing Iowa last January, and Obama went on to win the caucuses. They didn't play in snowy New Hampshire, and he lost to Hillary Clinton. So on almost every important primary day during the remainder of his historic election, Obama would steal a couple of hours to shoot baskets with his friends. "It became a ritual," says Rogers, "and more than a game."

Still, he was lucky to play once a week on the stump. In the White House, however, aides predict more regular games over the next four years. It's likely to be a weekly occurrence at the very least. President Obama won't dispense with the Cabinet room, of course, but the hard court is clearly a place where he'll bond with the hoops-inclined members of his administration. So, Hillary, you might want to start working on your jump shot now.

Sports have always said a lot about our presidents. Eisenhower reportedly played 800 rounds of middling golf during his presidency, representative of the relative quiet of the 1950s and his largely somnolent White House. Jack Kennedy's sailing off Hyannisport was the epitome of Camelot glamour, as were the touch football games on the beach with Bobby and Teddy, the ferocity of which embodied the "vigah'' of the Kennedy clan and his presidency. More recently, Bill Clinton's golf schmoozeathons, with their mulligans and nattering, reflected a certain lack of discipline. George W. Bush's athletic style was slightly hostile: He seemed to take almost sadistic pleasure in outrunning younger aides on 100-plus-degree days in
Crawford, Texas.

For Obama, raised in densely populated Honolulu and Jakarta, hoops has always been a huge part of his life. Without a father in his life, Obama found on the courts male role models, racial identity, and an unalloyed joy that he would bring to the game for years to come. "I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence," he writes of basketball in his 1995 memoir 'Dreams from My Father'. "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."

When Obama's father returned to the United States from Kenya to meet the 10-year-old son he had never known, the gift he gave the boy was a basketball. The two never saw each other again.

So what does Obama's game reveal about his character? To find out I asked Coach Robinson. Robinson's own story is one of ignoring limits. He grew up with his sister Michelle on Chicago's South Side and became a star player at Princeton under the legendary coach Pete Carril, who has the most wins of any Ivy League basketball coach ever. He is the only coach to win more than 500 games without athletic scholarships, and he developed a slow-moving, pass-heavy Princeton offense that inspired protégés like Georgetown's John Thompson as well as Robinson.

A first team All-Ivy player – twice – Robinson took a high-paying Wall Street job shortly after college and drove a Porsche and a BMW, but eventually he followed his passion: He worked his way up through the ranks to become the coach at Brown University and now at Oregon State, where he leads the Beavers (who, it must be said, are having another mediocre year). "It's a game where you have to cooperate, and lead, and share," he told me. "You have to be unselfish to get better." Robinson notes that Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls only began to win championships when His Airness began to pass the ball more.

In the late '80s, Robinson had the assignment of checking out the skinny kid with the big ears who was dating his sister. Michelle had overheard Craig and their father Fraser talking about how basketball reveals character. She told them that her boyfriend, Barack, fancied himself a player and asked if Craig would give him the once-over. The older brother agreed. To judge Obama, Craig took him over to the gym at Chicago's Lab School, an elite private school, where they played five-on-five with other guys. "He didn't know I was checking him out," Robinson told me. "That would have ruined the experiment." He liked what he saw. It wasn't that Obama was a great player, of Robinson's caliber, but he was good, with a strong outside shot. He was self-aware enough not to get right under the basket, where a 6-foot-1 string bean like him could get roughed up. He played hard and passed a lot – but not too often, which Robinson liked. "That would have meant he was sucking up," he told me. When he got home he told Michelle that the kid was all right.