- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

Harry S. Truman got a bowling alley for his birthday. Ronald Reagan rode horses. George W. Bush rides mountain bikes. John F. Kennedy liked to sail. Teddy Roosevelt wrestled and boxed and did just about everything else, always with gusto.

Most U.S. presidents during the past century enjoyed some sort of physical, stress-busting diversion from their duties (even 300-pound William Howard Taft played golf). But none loved to play basketball like our next president.

Barack Obama likely will be the first national chief executive to lead a fast break.

His sport of choice might not be as urgent as his plans to fix the economy, deal with two wars and promote energy independence. But Mr. Obama did say during this year’s election campaign that he would convert Mr. Truman’s White House bowling alley into a basketball court.

“That would be great,” said Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas, a staunch supporter who has met Mr. Obama twice and spoken at rallies and fundraisers on his behalf. “As much as he likes playing basketball, it’s really a passion of his. It doesn’t really surprise me.”

Said Thomas’ teammate, forward Antawn Jamison: “I know he’s a big basketball fan. I don’t know if I’ll get invited [to play at the White House], but it’ll be nice to have him come out to some of the games.”

Alan S. King, a Chicago lawyer and one of Mr. Obama’s close friends, said it would be “pretty cool” to shoot hoops in the White House.

“Like the rest of his campaign promises, I’m gonna hold him to that,” he said.

Mr. King chuckled at the remark. Clearly, the president-elect has more important matters to address, issues that affect the nation’s prosperity, security and well-being. But in its context, he also takes basketball seriously. While playing in Denver in May, one of his shoes practically disintegrated. It might have been an old pair of sneakers, but he had to be going at it pretty hard for that to happen.

“He’s very competitive,” Mr. King said. “He doesn’t like to lose. People would be surprised at how competitive he is.”

Then Mr. King caught himself and laughed again.

“Or perhaps they wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s no longer a big secret.”

The sport has been a vital part of Mr. Obama’s life since his father gave him a basketball when he was 10. He spent countless hours dribbling and shooting left-handed jumpers while growing up in Hawaii, earning the nickname, “Barry O’Bomber,” and playing for his state champion high school team.

“I could play basketball with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent,” Mr. Obama wrote in his book “The Audacity of Hope.”

The passion is still there. At 47, Mr. Obama remains an avid player - and Chicago Bulls fan. Basketball is a key link among his close friends and advisers, a fellowship of the hoop that regularly gets together for spirited pickup games in which the flying elbow is not uncommon. It also runs in the family. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, was captain of Princeton’s team in the 1980s, was twice named Ivy League player of the year and remains the school’s No. 4 career scoring leader. He now is the coach at Oregon State.

In an oft-told story, when Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle Robinson, were dating, she wanted to know what he was really like. Thinking competition would reveal Mr. Obama’s true character, she asked her big brother, Craig, to take him out on the basketball court and “give him the once-over,” he said. Obviously, he passed the test.

Basketball games in any available gym punctuated the long campaign. After losing the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries on days in which he did not play, Mr. Obama made sure to hit the hardwood on the day of every primary. He scrimmaged with the North Carolina basketball team, nailed a 3-point basket on a military base in Kuwait and toured the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame with former pro-star George McGinnis.

He also spent part of Election Day - a rather momentous day, all things considered - running up and down the court. About 30 of Mr. Obama’s friends, a larger group than usual, played for a couple of hours at the Attack Athletics Center on Chicago’s West Side, a sprawling, high-tech, high-security facility owned by Tim Grover, a trainer who has worked with dozens of athletes, notably Michael Jordan.

This time, the competition was a little less intense.

“It was very tame compared to other games,” Mr. Robinson said. “No one wanted to get a fat lip or a black eye. It was fun and very relaxing, and we took it easy on each other. It was really more of a celebration than anything.”

Several members of Mr. Obama’s inner circle played basketball in college, including his personal assistant, Reggie Love, a member of Duke’s 2001 national championship team. Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser nominee, played at Georgetown. When he nominated 6-foot-5 former Harvard captain Arne Duncan as his education secretary, Mr. Obama joked he might be putting together “the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history.” Mr. Duncan also played professionally in Australia.

As for his own game, Mr. Obama, 6-2 and sturdy, plays with an ease and confidence inherent to most point guards.

“Actually, he’s very good,” Mr. Grover said. “He’s got an all-around game. I would consider him an assist man. It’s kind of like, hey, he’s in a position to assist the country like he’s in a position to assist his teammates.”

Mr. King, a former point guard at Augustana College, provided this scouting report: “He’s got a pretty good outside shot, and he’s a very smart and heady player. Unselfish. He tries to get everyone involved. His game is very reflective of his personality off the court.”

Mr. Obama’s favorite move is to fake right and go left (no political comments, please).

“He’s very crafty,” said Vic Lombardi, a Denver television sports anchor who was recruited for a pickup game, the one in which Mr. Obama’s shoe fell apart. “He runs and plays like a man 10 years younger. … He’s more of a distributor. He likes to get his teammates involved, and he’s just a natural leader. He’ll let his teammates know if something’s going wrong.”

Applying a coach’s eye to his brother-in-law, Mr. Robinson said, “He can’t outathletic people, but he’s wiry-strong, very team-oriented and he really knows the game. He’s got real skills.”

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