Obama's victory gives basketball another term in the spotlight
Basketball will remain prevalent in the White House thanks to Barack Obama's win
Obama is an avid player; he played a pickup game in Chicago on Election Day
The president knows the NBA game well, and his NCAA picks are of annual interest
The nation remains divided between elation and anger, between optimism and pessimism. Amid the polarization of America there is one outcome on which we can all agree.
Barack Obama's re-election is a victory for basketball.
We can fight endlessly over taxes, health care and the national debt, but there is no debating President Obama's impact here: Basketball will continue to be more prominent because he is in the White House.
On Tuesday, after he was finished campaigning and before the voting results began to come in, the president spent his narrow window of free time on a basketball court in Chicago. He played with former Bulls Scottie Pippen and Randy Brown; his former aide Reggie Love, who played for Duke; Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who played for Harvard; and his brother-in-law, Oregon State basketball coach Craig Robinson.
There were others on the court as well, of course, because the pent-up release of playing pickup basketball on Election Day has become a tradition for Obama. He is, unofficially, the president of basketball.
Basketball had stood last in line and largely neglected among presidents for the last century. Richard Nixon was a bowler. Golf had Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, among others. Football and baseball had too many presidents to mention. George W. Bush was a former owner of the Texas Rangers, and during his two terms he threw out first pitches at the World Series for little leaguers as well as big leaguers.
Bush's passion for baseball appeared to elevate (or at the very least articulate) the government's interest in prosecuting the drug cheats of the steroids era during his terms in office. The concerns of the president tend to be extended throughout the land. Baseball was the White House pastime from 2001-08.
Obama has many interests. He is a poor bowler, he plays golf (or tries to, like most of us) and he is a fan of football (he wants to see an eight-team playoff in the college game) and baseball (he thanked the Red Sox for trading Kevin Youkilis to his White Sox last summer). But basketball is his love. He played for a state high school championship team at Punahou School in Honolulu. He is a slim, 6-foot-1 left-handed shooter who talks trash when he plays.
Only a few of the many who make their living from basketball are doing more for their sport than Obama. Anytime Obama attends an NBA game, his presence dwarfs the players on the floor. His annual NCAA tournament selections become the standard against which millions of Americans compare their own March Madness brackets. Basketball recognizes that the president has amplified its voice and role. In Celtics coach Doc Rivers' Orlando home, a large, framed photo shows him posing with Obama. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and other NBA stars have played pickup ball against the president.
"If he makes a nice move, you catch yourself thinking, I'm going to steal the ball from him," Bryant said on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show a few weeks ago. "Then I start looking around looking for the CIA. I'm thinking I should just let him go.''
Michael Jordan didn't dare support an African-American Democrat's candidacy in 1990 against North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, explaining at the time, "Republicans buy shoes, too.'' But Jordan offered to help raise funds at the "Obama Classic'' celebrity basketball game earlier this year with Carmelo Anthony, Alonzo Mourning and other NBA names.
Obama had an outdoor basketball court installed at the White House. "These days I probably play once every two to three weeks, not as often as I'd like,'' he told TNT's Marv Albert during an interview on that court in 2010. "But during, say, the health-care debate, when things are just going crazy over on Capitol Hill, a lot of times I'll just come out here and shoot or I'll play a game of H-O-R-S-E and it takes an edge off things."
It may be that no president knows any sport better than Obama knows basketball. During that interview with Albert, he broke down the games of John Wall, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol while also summing up James' impending free agency as wisely as anyone.
"I think that the most important thing for LeBron right now is actually to find a structure where he's got a coach that he respects and is working hard with teammates who care about him,'' the president said. "The one thing I remember about the Bulls was it wasn't until Michael [Jordan] had confidence in Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant -- it wasn't until you got that framework around you that you could be a champion.''
Obama's love for basketball doesn't inhabit a bubble. Support for him divided the basketball community as well as the larger population. As of Nov. 3, according to a list compiled by HoopsHype, 74 NBA players, coaches, executives and owners had donated to the two presidential candidates. Five players donated money to Obama, and no player gave money to Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The Republicans were supported by a group of 32 that included executives Pat Riley, Danny Ainge and Daryl Morey, as well as owners Jim Dolan, Dan Gilbert and Clay Bennett. They gave $118,500 to Romney.
Obama received $128,145 from a more diverse group of 42 NBA donors that included players Carmelo Anthony and Grant Hill; referee Danny Crawford; players' union chief Billy Hunter; coaches Rivers and Gregg Popovich; owners Jordan and Ted Leonsis; and commissioner David Stern and his 2014 successor, Adam Silver.
The larger goal now for Obama is to emulate the champions of the sport he loves. He needs to somehow pull together the talent around him and create a sense of team.
LeBron's achievement was far more simple.