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The Audacity Of Hoops
Alexander Wolff
January 19, 2009
IF THERE'S ANY ONE REASON BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, IT MIGHT JUST BE THIS: AS A BOY HE BEGAN PLAYING BASKETBALL, AND HE NEVER STOPPED
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January 19, 2009

The Audacity Of Hoops

IF THERE'S ANY ONE REASON BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, IT MIGHT JUST BE THIS: AS A BOY HE BEGAN PLAYING BASKETBALL, AND HE NEVER STOPPED

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THE OUTDOOR half-court on the White House grounds isn't up to the all-seasons, all-court basketball ambitions of the new President. Giddy at what Obama's election could mean for its product around the world, the NBA has offered to help install an indoor full court. Meanwhile, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin has offered use of the Verizon Center. At the very least, Axelrod and Nesbitt predict, there will be regular trips to the full court at Camp David.

After helping make him who he is, after helping him get elected, how might basketball influence the way Obama governs? People it will behoove him to get along with—both Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Spanish prime minister Jos� Luis Rodr�guez Zapatero play regularly—could wind up as guests in Presidential games. For Cabinet officials there will be face time with the President, and for those who play (prospective Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General--designate Eric Holder) there will be in-your-face time as well.

Much has been made of how Obama has assembled, Lincoln-like, a "team of rivals" to advise him. Last summer McLachlin, Obama's high school coach, asked an AP reporter to relay a message to the candidate: In 40 years of coaching he'd learned that there's no such thing as the perfect coach, but there is such a thing as a perfect staff if you surround yourself with people who are good at what you're not. "People seem to agree he's done an amazing job of putting together a Cabinet," says the old coach. "It says a lot about why so many people latched on to him as a dream-giver. Because he's honest about his shortcomings, he can reach for the stars."

During his family Christmas vacation on Oahu, Obama and several Chicago friends met up with a handful of the President-elect's high school buddies and Coach Mac at the Punahou gym. Over nearly two hours they squeezed in four games. Obama dished out no-look passes and finished off a spin in the lane with a finger roll. He sank several shots from deep. Twice he crossed over former Punahou teammate and NFL player John Kamana, the best athlete on the floor. McLachlin, having bought into Craig Robinson's analogy, yelled "Lenny!" from the sidelines a half-dozen times.

There's more of McLachlin and his coaching influences in Barack Obama than Barry O'Bomber would ever have imagined. "Avoid the peaks and valleys," John Wooden used to tell his teams, much as Obama told his campaign. Dean Smith was a master at setting aside a loss and moving on, as Obama did after New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In November, Rogers, the old Princeton Tiger, supplied interim offices for the Obama transition team at his firm, Ariel Investments—which meant that for three days the President-elect called world leaders from a conference room named after Pete Carril. The undomesticated high school ballplayer has fallen in with Duncan, Robinson and Rogers, ex--Ivy Leaguers who have won national three-on-three titles by using smarts and structure to school players half their age. Says Rogers, "He's around a lot of guys who know how to play and aren't just running up and down the court."

Throughout Obama's career there's been a pattern of counterweight, of his providing yin where there's yang, and vice versa. At Punahou, with order and orthodoxy all around, he chose to develop a gut-bucket game. On Chicago's South Side, where hoops and life tend toward entropy, he worked as an organizer. At a Harvard Law School roiled by ideological polarization, he was the difference-splitter. Basketball's appeal, Obama told HBO's Bryant Gumbel last year, lies in an "improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful." With its serial returns to equilibrium—cut backdoor against an overplay; shoot when the defense sags—the game represents Obama's intellectual nature come alive.

Another dialectic, as old as the ancients, poses the great challenge of government: How best to balance the rights of the individual with the welfare of the group? That tension surfaces in Obama's speeches and writings again and again. "Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values," he writes in The Audacity of Hope, "the glue upon which every healthy society depends." In the Africa of his roots he sees the pendulum swung so far toward the collective that the individual can be overburdened and paralyzed. In the America he's poised to lead he sees individuals gaming a financial system so enfeebled that the collective faces deficits and recession. Where is the golden mean, that place where We the People might find "a way of being together," where the best players stop worrying about their points and the worst players get swept up in the moment and the score only matters because that's how you sustain the trance?

The same tension sits at the heart of hoops. Titles await teams that can braid what Obama, speaking of America here, has called "these twin strands—the individualistic and the communal, autonomy and solidarity." Maybe Barry O'Bomber needed to be a Punahou reserve to become a Hawaii state champion. Maybe Barack Obama needed to be a community organizer to become a U.S. Senator. And maybe, just maybe, Americans chose him as their next president because they too have come to recognize that in the end it's not about you, it's about the team.

Perhaps on Tuesday he will say it: Come, let us get swept up in the moment. Let us create and sustain the trance.

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