President Barack Obama next week will publicly release his final NCAA tournament bracket predictions as commander-in-chief. It’s not unexpected — basketball has been an ongoing theme during his presidency, a fact highlighted in a new book.
His opponents and critics have tried hard to use this annual March Madness “presidential” ritual against Obama, noted Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Alexander Wolff. “This is something Americans do when March rolls around. This doesn’t make you different — it makes you American,” he pointed out.
Basketball has been “a touchstone in Obama’s exercise of the power of the presidency,” said Wolff. The president used it to attract pro basketball players “to help save the Affordable Care Act,” the president’s landmark legislation. “The Obama White House used NBA players — former and current — to rally sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act. He [the president] needed young people and middle-aged people, and the NBA is a great way to reach these people.”
As a result, the Obama administration “hit the target” in ACA signups, said Wolff. “Nobody in Washington thought they would do it. Basketball has something to do with that.”
Wolff has authored or co-authored six other books about basketball, but his latest book, The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama (Temple University Press), is his first that uniquely involved a U.S. president. It charts in five main essays, 15 sidebars, and over 125 images the 44th president’s love of basketball, beginning with him as a 10-year-old with the only Christmas present from his Kenyan father, a basketball. He used his love of basketball to explore and cement his racial identity through courting his future wife, through his first presidential campaign, and throughout his historic two terms in Washington
It is “equal parts biographical sketch, political narrative, and cultural history,” but “it is not a 500-page history [book],” declared Wolff in a recent MSR phone interview.
Obama isn’t the first U.S. president for whom sport played an integral part in his life — Dwight Eisenhower played golf, for example, and Richard Nixon often called in football plays.
“I do think [Obama] is more closely identified with basketball than any other president, maybe more than Eisenhower with golf,” stated Wolff. Basketball furthermore reflects 21st century American life, he continued. “I believe the Obama era is actively reflected by basketball not because he is an African American… Basketball is not stereotypically African American. It is the new America.”
His campaign people at first advised Obama against playing basketball on the 2008 campaign trail in fear that his opponents would use it against him, explained Wolff. “I know his own campaign was a little bit hesitant to have him play basketball… They didn’t want him to fit into some stereotype narrative.”
But after Obama played pickup basketball with potential voters in New Hampshire, it became an expected exercise for him, even on Election Day 2008. Some say his cool-headed decision-making skills may be directly related to his playing style, willing to do whatever is needed to achieve the greater good, comparable to playing pickup — win and stay, lose and wait your turn.
Asked if it’s a sports book, a modern history book, or perhaps something political, Wolff said both he and the publishers wrestled with this question prior to its December release. But the book cover gives it away. “He [Obama] is going behind his back with the basketball. He’s not just posing with it. He’s being active, graceful and skilled.
“It’s a basketball book,” declared Wolff. “A lot of the book is about that. I wish I could have gotten a one-on-one with him.” He believes even those who are not fans of the president but love basketball “might be drawn” to the book as well.
The president has a copy of his book, said Wolff. “I made sure a copy went down to the White House, and an extra copy to Pete [Souza, the White House official photographer]. Pete reported back that he [Obama] got a kick out of it and was showing it around the day he got it” at a National Security Council meeting. “He loves the pictures, because it brings back a lot of memories.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.