As presidential decisions go, this one must have been about as difficult as deciding to get up in the morning. Visit with Ted Koppel? Nah. Bring Sam Donaldson, Mike Wallace or some other electronic pit bull in for a chat? Not on this Saturday. Not when the First Fan could talk college basketball and then get in nine holes of golf before catching the First Team—his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks—on TV as they took on Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. On a brilliant, cloudless Washington morning that could have brightened even Bob Dole's disposition, the worst Bill Clinton figured to get from a couple of sportswriters who wanted to talk some college hoops was a question about...Wisconsin-Whitewater.
It's an old White House recourse: When the going gets tough, the tough talk sports. In 1989, just as a failed attempt to overthrow Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was about to embarrass the U.S., George Bush invited a few baseball writers over to broot the sheeze about the national pastime. At the height of the Vietnam War, seeing a mass of student protesters camped out near the Lincoln Memorial early one morning, Richard Nixon waded into them and tried in vain to talk a little football. Could the Whitewater imbroglio have been why Clinton agreed to share with SI his thoughts about the Arkansas basketball team, over which, presidential dignity be damned, he goes piiiiiiiiiiig sooey?
Probably not. For Clinton, who at age 47 is the youngest occupant of the White House since John Kennedy, sports is no subject of expediency. It's an abiding passion. On the phone with Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones and Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson after the Super Bowl, the President could be heard to bubba with his fellow Arkansans, raving about how Dallas had dominated the Buffalo Bills "from tackle to tackle." Only a week ago Clinton bowled a league-night-creditable 220. As a golfer he is no slouch, either, even if he does freely take the executive mulligan. And despite the slightly porcine figure he cuts in jogging shorts, the President pounds the pavement well enough for aides to warn those joining him for a run that they had best be in at least decent shape. A security van often has to sweep up tuckered-out stragglers.
More than anything, though, the President believes in a place called hoop. "It's a fabulous game, isn't it?" he says. "It makes me wish I were two inches taller and 20 pounds lighter. With a four-foot vertical jump, I could be doing something else."
For the next three weeks the Oval Office will take on a decidedly roundball cast. The 25-3 Razorbacks have been the closest thing to a preeminent team this convulsive season, and followers of Arkansas basketball haven't lived so large since 1978-79. (That was the heyday of a guy who played high school ball in Little Rock for Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's husband, Oliver—a player named Sidney Moncrief.) The First Fan rarely misses the Hogs when they're on TV. Further, when he dropped in on their 129-63 rout of Texas Southern in Fayetteville just after Christmas, Clinton was believed to be the first sitting President to attend a basketball game. Or, more precisely, the first hoops-savvy, Hog-calling, standing sitting President.
"If you want to be calm and quiet, you shouldn't watch a game with me," he says of his behavior, whether watching hoops on TV or in person. "I call the Hog. I change the defenses. I talk to all the players. I do all kinds of stuff. But it's a great tension-reliever."
During Arkansas's 96-78 victory over Memphis State on Dec. 8, a certain clean-headed ESPN commentator wondered on air whether the President was watching. "Yeah, he is!" Clinton called out.
Goodness. A Chief Executive who not only listens to Dick Vitale but also talks back to him'? Quick, someone: Could this be grounds for invoking the 25th Amendment?
"Growing up in Arkansas, we had good basketball teams in high school, but football was always the Southern sport," Clinton says. "Then, in the '70s, [Coach] Eddie Sutton came to Arkansas. I learned a lot from him and from watching his teams. Then when Nolan Richardson came, he brought a whole different dimension of basketball to our state, and he's been terrific."
As a kid Clinton played some church-league ball. He was even a reserve on the Oxford University B team while he was a Rhodes scholar from 1968 to '70. "The game was in its incipiency in England then, and not a lot of people went out for it," he says. Thus Clinton got a fair amount of playing time, even if he was in his words, "a little too chunky and slow to be very commendable on the basketball court."