Inside Obama’s Basketball Game

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. 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.Basketball surely helped make obama who he is. The turbulent childhood with a father who left, a mother often absent; deposited in Indonesia from Honolulu as if he were brought in on some weird Pacific current – yet he remains the picture of grace under pressure. There are other reasons for that, of course. Obama writes about his grandmother’s steadfastness, and Hawaii’s aloha style certainly put a premium on being laid-back. And in a sense, it is perhaps not too surprising that a child who had to handle all that family disruption would end up so levelheaded. But in hoops, Obama found an island. Growing up a mixed-race child in mixed-race Hawaii, he discovered his African-American identity as much on the public courts of Honolulu as he did by reading James Baldwin or Langston Hughes. He played a black style, more showy, with behind-the-back passes and more trash talk. He kept a poster of Julius Erving on his wall, the one of him soaring toward the basket, with his knee braces and huge Afro.

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:

Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education
44, 6’5″

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.

Eric Holder
Attorney General
58, 6’3″

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.

Susan Rice
United Nations Ambassador
44, 5’3″

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.

James Jones
National Security Adviser
65, 6’4″

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.

Reggie Love
Body Man
27, 6’4″

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.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!