Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama and the Audacity of Hoops

As Americans watched the inauguration today of our 44th president, many probably wondered: "What is this guy all about?"

The sense of mystery is heightened by the fact that Barack Obama has a peculiar name, and he is our first African-American president.

So what is Barack Obama all about? Many words already have been written on that subject. And many more undoubtedly will be written in the months and years ahead.

But my favorite article about the "essence" of our new president can be found in, of all places, the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated. "The Audacity of Hoops," by longtime SI staff writer Alexander Wolff, is a superb piece of reporting and analysis, mixing personal and national history, psychology, sociology, geography, politics, and, yes, sports--in this case, Obama's long fascination with basketball.

Basketball has played a central role in Obama's development, and Craig Robinson has held a front-row seat. Robinson is Michelle Obama's older brother and our new president's brother-in-law. He also has some serious hoops "cred." The 6-6 Robinson was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton University and played professionally in Europe. He was head coach at Brown University before taking over at Oregon State last April.

What has basketball meant to Obama. The sport, Robinson says, is why Obama is "sitting where he's sitting."

Here's how Wolff puts it:

The game provided space in which the young Obama explored his identity as an African-American. He won a reputation as a consensus builder while playing recreationally in college and law school. A pickup game with Robinson did nothing less than confirm Obama as a worthy suitor to his wife-to-be. In Chicago, basketball helped him connect with the South Siders he worked with as a community organizer and with the circle of professionals who would help launch his political career. He began to scratch out notes for his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, the one that loosed his career from the D league of state politics, while in a hotel room watching the NBA on TNT.

As for the two reddest states Obama flipped in the '08 general election, Indiana and North Carolina, each narrowly chose him after he made a basketball lover's case to basketball-loving people.

All of this has special resonance here at Legal Schnauzer. Regular readers know that I am a sports fan and a former sportswriter. Basketball is, by far, my favorite team sport. In my mind, basketball is the greatest team sport ever invented, in part because it's the only one I can think of where every player, at some point, is going to have to apply every skill. Basketball has positions but no specialists. You might be a 7-foot center, but at some point you are going to have to handle the ball. You might be a 5-5 point guard, but at some point you are going to have to battle for rebounds under the hoop.

Basketball is perhaps our most democratic sport. No wonder Obama was drawn to it.

Like Obama, I had a modest high-school "career." He was a reserve on a 1979 state-championship team at Punahou School in Hawaii. I played four years of high-school ball, the last three at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri. For much of that time, my fanny was firmly planted on the bench. During my two-year varsity career, I started six games, and those came only because a couple of guys got kicked off the team. My high-water mark was a 14-point outing against Jefferson City in 1974. When I did crack the scoreboard, my normal range was four to eight points.

Perhaps my greatest hoops accomplishment was scoring the first two baskets in Kickapoo High School history. I spent my freshman year at Glendale High School, and then was rezoned when our city's new school was built. Our first game was in November 1971 at Fort Smith Southside High School in Arkansas. As a sophomore, I was on the junior varsity, and we played before the varsity game that night.

For some reason, Southside left me wide open in the right corner on two of our first trips down the floor, and I hit both shots. Southside decided to guard me after that, and I didn't score again the rest of the game. In fact, I didn't start again the rest of that season.

To tell the whole story, my name probably is not in the Kickapoo High School record books. When folks think of the first basket in school history, they probably think of the varsity. And I think that basket was made by a fellow named Kirk May, who I think was a good enough athlete to play a little football at Duke University.

But chronologically speaking, the first two hoops in Kickapoo history belong to your very own Legal Schnauzer. Some might say I haven't accomplished a whole lot since that night, but that distinction will stay with me forever.

(Probably a more important distinction is that I went to the same high school as Brad Pitt. Brad is a 1982 Kickapoo grad, and both of my younger brothers knew him fairly well--or at least they claim they did. Brad might have had romances with Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Anniston. But I still have my historic two baskets, and I cling to them for dear life.)

While I treasure my time in organized basketball, my favorite memories are of countless pickup games--playing on driveways with neighborhood kids, playing on playgrounds or local gyms with high-school chums, playing in campus gyms with dorm friends in college, getting together on Saturday mornings with coworkers.

Obama, too, seems to cherish his times in "pickup" games. Wolff writes expertly about the social nature of pick-up basketball--and what Obama might have drawn from the game:

Pickup ballplayers don't talk as much as golfers during a round, but they more quickly reach judgments about temperament and collaborative aptitude. And there's the emotional containment that ballers learn to bring to the court, even if only to ensure that no one can sneak up behind you to see emotions... you didn't want them to see. Asked the boxers-versus-briefs question, Obama gave the pitch-perfect pickup baller's reply: "I don't answer those humiliating questions, but whichever one it is, I look good in 'em."

Organized basketball, particularly in high school, is an exercise in submission to social control. Pickup ball, by contrast, involves collective governance and constant conflict resolution. It is, to borrow Sarah Palin's phrase, community organizing in which everyone has "actual responsibilities." For all its associations with inner-city pathologies, pickup ball harks back to a traditional time, when kids weren't squired to playdates or stashed with third parties but made their way to the park on their own, picked teams and -- as Obama did -- grew up along the way.

I, too, did a lot of growing up in pickup basketball games. And I learned that the give and take of playground hoops can teach a lot about right and wrong.

So what is our new president really like? I think Craig Robinson makes an important point:

"There's an ethical undertone in pickup that people miss," Robinson says. "The game has to be played fairly or it breaks down. You practice an honor code, making your own calls and giving them up. If Barack travels, he'll give it up, not sneak it by you. You play with hundreds of guys who'd never do that. It all gets back to how you can tell a guy's character on the court."

Obama's character now is playing out on a world stage. But when it comes to the "crunch time" of politics, remember that Obama already has experienced crunch time on the basketball court. And it shaped who he is.

Want to check out the future president in action? Here he is, making a layup and missing a free throw, in that 1979 Hawaii state championship game:

And here is Obama in pickup action on the campaign trail in Indiana:

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