At the prestigious Punahou School, where he was one of a handful of black students, Obama's game was too street, too pickup for the coach, who used him sparingly. Obama was frustrated being the seventh or eighth man instead of a starter. By the time he'd arrived at Columbia University, he'd largely given up the sport, occasionally seeking out a court in Harlem but only rarely, focusing more on his studies and running. As a community organizer in Chicago after college, his playing time increased, and when he went to Harvard for his law degree, he spent even more time on the hard court. When he returned to Chicago with his J.D. and a determination to run for public office, basketball became part of his image.
In the world of pickup basketball, without refs and with plenty of trash talk, it's easy to get into fights. Not Obama's style, says Marty Nesbitt, the businessman who helped introduce the future president to Chicago. "In these pickup games things get pretty heated, with disputed calls and fouls. He never engages in that and resolves things quickly and moves on." Obama is not a trash-talker in the Charles Barkley sense but a gentle teaser more likely to say, "Is that all you've got?" than to wisecrack about someone's momma.
Don't be surprised if such ribbing continues in the Oval Office, for Obama has picked a Cabinet full of basketball stars. Eric Holder, the attorney general designate, played hoops at New York's Stuyvesant High School and at Columbia in the '70s. Arne Duncan, Obama's choice for education secretary, who ran Chicago's public schools, is, at 6-5, a longtime court mate of Obama's who played for Harvard and professionally in Australia. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner plays. The appointee for national security adviser, General James Jones, 6-4, was a top forward at Georgetown. Obama's United Nations ambassador pick, Susan Rice, was a star guard at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. His right-hand aide during the campaign, Reggie Love, played for Duke. (It was Love who carried the Nicorette and power snacks and watched SportsCenter with Obama at night.) And Paul Volcker played for Princeton, although at 81 no one expects to see him doing any pick and rolls. When Obama said in December that he was "putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history," he wasn't kidding.
Can anyone doubt that the hottest invite in Washington will be to play ball with the president? Surely the Cabinet members will wind up on the court with Obama, but others will join him too. Love will play; Nesbitt and Rogers are sure to be in DC often, although neither is moving East. One match that is already being anticipated: John Thune, the Republican senator from South Dakota and the Senate's best player, will inevitably wind up there, though he and Obama have never played each other. Obama himself has a standing invitation from the Washington Wizards to come by the Verizon Center to shoot with the team. "He can come anytime," says Ernie Grunfeld, the former college and NBA player and current president of basketball operations for the Wizards.
Some of the games will take place at the White House, too. Right now there's an outdoor half-court, but there's talk of refurbishing the tennis court so he and his friends can play their usual full-court game. (Michelle and the girls play tennis, so the court would probably be convertible for both games.) Building an indoor court at the White House won't be easy, however, given space considerations, but there's a facility at Camp David.
So, for all the fuss about his game, how good is Obama today? I asked Grunfeld to dissect the president's game based on videotape. Grunfeld liked what he saw. "He's a team-oriented player," he said, noting that Obama has a "good feel for the game" and plays "under control," never getting too harried. He likes Obama's "real range" on his jump shot and his "nice form and arch," noting, "When his shot hits the rim it doesn't always bounce off. The good form means it often goes in." Overall he sees Obama as a "solid weekend warrior" – a good middle-aged athlete.
Obama knows his limits. He's too slight to be in the paint, roughing it up under the basket. And although he dunked in his youth, the 44th president no longer plays above the rim. In a five-man game he usually plays small forward, Robinson told me. He drives some, just to keep his defender honest. "You've got to play him both ways," says Nesbitt, who praises Obama's sharp crossover dribble. "He's left, and he goes hard right and then left."
Despite the occasional cigarette, Obama remains in great shape. He has good stamina, says Robinson, and has been mercifully free of injuries, apart from the periodic creaks of middle age. For that he can thank his impressive discipline. Bush haters slammed W for his endless workouts, but he and Obama are surprisingly alike in their need to hit the gym with unsparing regularity. Obama works out six days a week, sometimes seven, usually for 45 minutes at a time and occasionally more than once a day. If he doesn't have a hoops entourage at the ready, he hits the equipment – treadmill, elliptical machine, StairMaster, and weights. The gym is "where he relaxes and clears his head," says Nesbitt. At times the routine is more intense – he worked out three times one day in July – but it never slacks off. It's a discipline that began at Columbia, where Obama found a sense of purpose in his life. He writes in Dreams that he stopped partying, ran every day, studied hard, even fasted on Sundays.
There are obvious limits to predicting a presidency from sport. Gerald Ford was a gifted athlete at Michigan and a football coach at Yale who was notorious for falling down an airplane flight of stairs. But one thing we
know for sure from Obama's game is that he is fiercely competitive. John Rogers went to a dinner party with the president-elect a few days after the Election Day game. Obama was forming his Cabinet. He had just addressed half a million Chicagoans in Grant Park. The move to Washington was under way. The economy was imploding. Amid all that, he was still talking about things he could have done differently to win that basketball game on Election Day. "We let this one guy make a three-pointer," he told Rogers at the party. "We should have guarded him."
The Other Jocks Who Occupied the Oval Office
Obama may have game, but these four ex-prezes have set a high bar for presidential fitness.
Gerald Ford – football, skiing, golf
As center and linebacker at the University of Michigan, Ford took home two national titles, was voted team MVP, and played in the College All-Star game his senior year. After graduation he was offered a contract to play for the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but he declined both offers to go to Yale Law School.
George H.W. Bush – baseball, fishing, skydiving
Bush Sr. is the undisputed presidential champ of adventure sports, taking up skydiving in his sunset years. But it was as a first baseman that he initially showed his athletic prowess. A captain of the Yale baseball team, Bush played in the first two college World Series (1947 and 1948) and was known as a slick fielder.
Theodore Roosevelt – boxing, shooting, hiking, horseback riding, singlestick
Despite childhood asthma and a heart ailment so severe that his doctor advised him to take a desk job to avoid dying, Teddy preferred living what he called "the strenuous life.'' Not even a punch that detached his retina, blinding him in one eye (or a bullet in his chest), could slow him down.
Abraham Lincoln – crowbar tossing, wrestling
He's remembered for appealing to the "better angels of our nature," but the lanky lad impressed the citizens of Illinois with feats of strength like crowbar heaving. But his most famous athletic moment came in 1831, when the 22-year-old Railsplitter beat local tough Jack Armstrong in a wrestling match.
The White House Dream Team
Obama didn't set out to create a team of hoopsters in his inner circle. But the president-elect managed to pick a number of basketball veterans in a city more associated with lobbyists playing leisurely games of golf and tennis. Plenty of junior and mid-level staffers have hoops backgrounds; at the top of the Obama pyramid, the following played ball in school and still have game:
Secretary of Education
Most accomplished player on Team Obama. Co-captain of Harvard team, played professional basketball in Australia. Led Crimson to famous near-upset of Boston College.
Strong player from Elmhurst, Queens. Was co-captain of the Peglegs at New York City's Stuyvesant High School and went on to play basketball freshman year at Columbia University.
United Nations Ambassador
Star player for National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. Nicknamed Spo', for "sporting," because she was a three-sport athlete. Ran the offense on her basketball team.
National Security Adviser
Played forward in high school and then at Georgetown. By far the oldest memberof Team Obama, Jones still has a well-rounded game with a nice shooting touch, according to insiders.
A member of the Duke basketball team that won the national championship in 2001. Played football at Duke and was recruited but then released by the Dallas Cowboys. Team Obama's best player.