- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No matter what other changes President Barack Obama brings to the District and the nation, one appears certain.

Basketball will replace baseball as the sport of choice in the White House.

The 44th president is a certified “hoops aficionado,” Illinois treasurer and fellow combatant Alex Giannoulias told the Associated Press. “[On the court,] he plays tough but not dirty, and he’s stronger than he looks.”

Obama even worked out with the North Carolina Tar Heels last spring and told Barbara Walters he once dreamed of playing professionally. If he wants to talk basketball, he can keep it all in the family. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the coach at Oregon State.

So much for baseball as the favorite presidential pastime, although Obama also is a White Sox fan.

Immediate predecessor George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers before running for governor of Texas. His daddy, George H.W. Bush, played first base at Yale and kept his old mitt in his desk. Obama might opt instead for a ball and net in the Oval Office - and not the Nerf variety either.

Indeed, most of our presidents have embraced at least one sport or physical activity as a way to ease tension and convince voters that the man with the toughest job in the world is, at heart, just a regular guy.

The trick is not to look or sound silly, lest those voters be turned off. Obama came close to disaster when he bowled a 37 for seven frames during a campaign stop last April.

“My economic plan is better than my bowling,” Obama insisted.

Replied one onlooker: “It has to be.”

Jimmy Carter was widely ridiculed in 1979 when he told of encountering a “killer rabbit” while fishing in a pond on his Georgia farm. And people hooted when Richard Nixon was photographed bowling on the White House lanes in dress shirt and tie. Never mind that Nixon really was an accomplished kegler.

He also was a big football fan, once suggesting a play to Redskins coach George Allen, father of the subsequent Virginia governor and senator, before a playoff game. If memory serves, it went nowhere.

Another GOP president, Ronald Reagan, savored sports vicariously. Long before he went to Hollywood or came to the District, “Dutch” Reagan was re-creating Chicago Cubs games on a Des Moines, Iowa, radio station. He played Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander and Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the movies, borrowing the latter’s nickname of “The Gipper” for his own. And he started the custom, for better or worse, of welcoming hordes of individual and team champions to the White House.

One way or another, sports has been a part of our national fabric since Revolutionary days, and this fascination/obsession with the games people play has extended to chief executives of all political persuasions.

Of course, myths abound among the facts. There is serious doubt that George Washington really tossed a silver dollar across Virginia’s Rappahannock River, a story probably invented by Parson Weems in an early biography. (Weems also perpetrated the fiction about George chopping down the cheery tree, but you have to admit these are neat tales.)

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