Obama's style on the court reflects his persona
President-Elect Obama picked up basketball as a boy and has yet to stop
Craig Robinson likens Obama's basketball skills to that of Lenny Wilkens
Obama's playing style has become as racially ambiguous as he is
While working on the piece for this week's SI about how basketball made Barack Obama who he is, I made sure to ask people I spoke with -- from Obama's high school coach back in Hawaii; to brother-in-law and Oregon State coach Craig Robinson; to pickup buddies in Chicago; to Baller-in-Chief.com webmaster Claude Johnson -- who the 44th President of the United States most plays like.
It was like administering a Rorschach test. Check out the Barack O'Balla mixtape and see who pops into your mind.
When I suggested an Internet poster's nomination of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Johnson came back at me with, "Right team, wrong guy." Manu may be a lefty, but he's too mercurial, Johnson says; in Obama he sees instead the even temper and elegance of point guard Tony Parker.
Chicago investment executive John Rogers, who participated in the legendary pickup game in which Robinson vetted Obama as a mate for his sister, Michelle, cited a couple of ex-New York Knicks, one old school and one new -- Dick Barnett and Jamal Crawford.
Obama's erect carriage and lefthandedness led me to think of Lionel "Train" Hollins, who commanded the Portland Trail Blazers' backcourt when the kid then known as "Barry O'Bomber" was making his way through high school.
I also came upon references to Dennis Johnson, Kenny Anderson and Delonte West -- in the latter case, an Ivy League version, "without the neck tattoos."
But we did wind up with a consensus of sorts. Robinson weighed all the evidence -- size, savvy, lefthandedness and self-possession -- and came up with Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame guard who campaigned for the candidate. Read the piece and you'll see that Chris McLachlin, Obama's coach at Honolulu's Punahou School, also buys into the Wilkens analogy, even though the teenage Barry, who spent his senior season on Coach Mac's varsity squad, had too unstructured a game to bag much playing time.
These analogies are very much in the eye of the beholder, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that politics might color a beholder's eye. A John McCain attack ad last summer suggesting that Obama didn't respect the troops featured footage of the three-pointer he bottomed out in Kuwait. The ad's purpose, as New York's John Heilemann put it, was to draw a portrait of "a blinged-up, camera-hungry, NBA shooting guard, Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree."
At the other end of the spectrum, there's the "Under-crwn" T-shirt that filmmaker Spike Lee rocked on the floor of the Democratic Convention in August. An inner-city classic, it features Obama as an airborne Vince Carter and McCain as a hapless Frederic Weis, the 7-foot-2 Frenchman whom Carter posterized during the 2000 Olympics.
Each offered a fleeting thrill at the partisan margins, but both are grotesques. By the end of the campaign Obama was neither Iverson nor Carter. He had closed the deal with the electorate by selling himself essentially as Wilkens, who for several seasons in Seattle was literally "a coach on the floor," and in 1979, from the bench, guided the Sonics to an NBA title.
Basketball people have never flinched at identifying black guys who "play white" (Paul Silas, Quinn Buckner, Charles Oakley) and white guys who "play black" (Billy Cunningham, Rex Chapman, Jason Williams). The "plays white/plays black" parlor game becomes even more challenging when you factor in racial persona as well as playing style. As a teenager Obama had what he has described as "an overtly black game." As Robinson suggested in an interview with HBO's Bryant Gumbel during the campaign, as ballplayers age they're likely to play a more and more "white" game, and Obama is no exception.
What's intriguing about Obama at age 47 is that his playing style has morphed into something as racially ambiguous as his persona.
It will be fascinating to watch Obama's relationship with the game unspool during his occupancy of the White House, and to see who snares coveted invitations to participate in "the First Run."
But even if basketball helps him develop and cement new relationships in Washington, there'll be a throwback quality to the role of the game in his life, whether he's running full court at Camp David, or playing at some random D.C. community center, like the one he and aide Reggie Love, the former Duke captain, dropped in on last weekend.
As Obama's sister Maya Soetoro-Ng put it to me, basketball offers the President-Elect "constancy and kinship with friends, a way to recline into his past."
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