As he prepares to leave the presidency tomorrow at noon, Barack Obama (above with 2016 national champion Villanova) will leave a legacy of sports fandom unmatched in presidential history. Here’s a reprint of our 2008 editorial endorsing him because, among other things, of his love of the only true American sport!

By Theodore N. Beitchman

Forget issues like who’s ready from Day One or whom do you want answering a 3 a.m. phone call in the White House or the ramifications of NAFTA.

To me, the most important issue is very simple and one that no one is talking about in the battle for the Democratic nomination for president:

Who is the biggest jock?

And it is based on the answer to that obviously earth-shattering question that we proudly endorse Barack Obama for president.

The presidency has attracted politicians who have used sports as metaphors for their campaigns and their lives.

Harry Truman’s daily long walks – he called them “constitutionals” – were well-chronicled; Dwight Eisenhower was an inveterate golfer; Jack Kennedy’s touch football games and sailing excursions sparked renewed interest in both sports; Gerald Ford played football at Michigan and was by all accounts the best athlete ever to inhabit the Oval Office; Ronald Reagan’s activities were largely restricted to horseback riding; George H. W. Bush was a cigarette boat devotee and a speed-golfer; Bill Clinton played golf and evidently was a world-class cheater, not to mention a painfully slow jogger; and George W. Bush was a seven-minute-a-mile jogger before he hurt his knee and now keeps in shape riding a mountain bike.

But Obama is a real jock, and what we like is that he plays the only sport whose roots are in America. Basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield in 1891.

And Obama not only plays the sport, he follows it closely. When he was in Philadelphia a year or so ago, he was inquiring of some Comcast execs, “When are the Sixers going to get a big man?”


President Barack Obama, along with Cabinet Secretaries and Members of Congress, watch a shot during a basketball game on the White House court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Not long after Michelle Robinson started getting serious about the tall, skinny law student she was dating, she asked her brother Craig, a former basketball star at Princeton and now the head coach at Brown, to hoop it up with him, one on one.

“She had heard our father and me talk about how you can tell a lot about a person’s personality based on how they play,” Craig, recalling his first game against Barack Obama, told Time magazine. “Especially when they’re tired.”

The two played then and have played whenever possible ever since. Especially on primary days, when campaigns go silent until the results come in, Obama slips away to a gym — though it tells you something about him that he usually doesn’t let anyone watch.

Time reports that on Tuesday, March 4, Team Obama found the Concord Athletic Club near the San Antonio airport, where he played five on five with aides and his Secret Service detail. He is captain, coach and referee all at once, signaling teammates to set up plays.

A lefty, Obama keeps opponents off balance: fake right, then go left with a very quick crossover dribble and a finish to the basket with his left hand. His instinct is to play opponents very close — though nowadays, says Craig Robinson, “everybody’s being real careful not to give him a fat lip or something that would show up when he’s on TV.”

After a couple of hours, having won three of four games, Obama wanted to keep playing. “Every once in a while,” he says, smiling, “this 46-year-old body pulls out some moves.”

Obama’s on-court exploits started in Hawaii, with a pudgy junior high school student in short shorts and high socks who had a Julius Erving poster plastered on his bedroom wall.

Cut to the time he and several Harvard Law School classmates played inmates at a Massachusetts prison; the students were terrified to win or lose, because the convicts lining the court had bet on both outcomes. (“I got two packs on you!” they called out.)

Obama played with former NBA stars in a tournament fund-raiser for his Senate campaign, and at the family gatherings that always seem to end with everyone out by the hoop next to the garage.

Basketball has little to do with Obama’s presidential bid — in fact, he has trouble finding time to shoot baskets anymore — but until recently, it was one of the few constants in his life.


basketball_obama-thumbBasketball was a way for a kid with a white mother, a Kenyan father and a peripatetic childhood to establish the African-American identity that he longed for. In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama described basketball as a comfort to a boy whose father was mostly absent, and who was one of only a few black youths at his school. “At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts,” he wrote.

Craig Robinson told the New York Times: “He didn’t know who he was until he found basketball. It was the first time he really met black people.”

Now, Obama’s friends say, basketball has been his escape from the sport of politics, but also a purer version of it, with no decorous speeches, no careful consensus — just unrestrained competition.

Before Rickey Green, a former NBA all-star guard who played for the Sixers in 1990-91, played with Obama in a 2004 Senate campaign fund-raiser, “I didn’t think he could play at all, to be honest with you,” Green told the Times. But “he’s above average,” for a pickup player, Green said. “He’s got a nice little left-hand shot and some knowledge of the game.”

Robinson says that the 6-2 Obama is too skinny to be an imposing presence, but he is fast, with good wind even when he was a smoker. Obama is left-handed, and his signature move is to fake right and veer left, surprising players used to guarding right-handed competitors.

“He’s very left-handed,” Robinson assessed. “He’s one of those lefties that is really left-handed. You know how some lefties can go back right? He’s not one of them. He’s long. He’s long. He’s small. He’s very slight. If you bump into him, you knock him over. He’s got a nice little shot, and he likes to go to the basket. He’s not a passer.”

“If he would hit a couple buckets, he would let you know about it,” said Alexi Giannoulias, who played in the late 1990s with Obama at the East Bank Club, a trendy spot in downtown Chicago.

He is gentleman enough to call fouls on himself: Steven Donziger, a law school classmate, has heard Obama mutter, “my bad,” tossing the other team the ball. The men who play with Obama are not the paunchy, lumbering type. “Most of the guys who played in our little circle are former players in college or pros,” said Robinson, who is still Princeton’s fourth-leading scorer of all time. “They’re real high level.”

At country clubs across the land, politicians network and raise money over rounds of golf, a sport Obama also plays. But Chicago is a basketball town, and over the years, Obama’s gymmates have become loyal allies and generous backers.

Giannoulias met Obama on the court, and thanks in part to his backing, is now the Illinois state treasurer. Other regular gymmates include the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health and several investment bankers who were early and energetic fund-raisers.

It is a theme that runs throughout Obama’s basketball career: a desire to be perceived as a regular guy despite great advantage and success. As a teenager, he slipped away from his tony school to university courts populated by “gym rats and has-beens” who taught him “that respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was,” Obama wrote.

Now, for exercise, Mr. Obama pounds treadmills at hotel gyms. He played a bit in 2006, with American troops on military bases in Kuwait and Djibouti, and again at Christmas. His staff members laugh when asked if the senator has had any playing time since coming to Washington or hitting the campaign trail. Before the first Democratic debate in South Carolina, Robinson reserved a court and a slot on Obama’s schedule, hoping the candidate could blow off some steam before the big night. It did not happen.

The solution, Obama’s friends say, is for him to win the presidency, so they can all play together at the White House.

“I always tease him about that,” one friend told the Times. “If you win, you gotta have a hoop.”


It is 3 a.m., and the phone rings in the Oval Office, and there, sitting at his desk in his gym shorts, munching on a ham and cheese sandwich, is the 44th president of the United States.

The TV is on and Barack Obama is busy surfing between ESPN, ESPN2 and WGN in Chicago (he must have a Dish, not Comcast), catching up on that day’s and night’s sports.

The caller interrupts the sports junkie with a critical question:

“Mr. President,” the tremulous voice begins, “did you see that dunk by Thaddeus Young!?!”

“Saw it,” he replies to one of his hoop junkie friends. “Now if the Sixers can only get a power forward.”

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