When Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, he had the tennis court at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. converted into a basketball court.
In this bit of home improvement was as much symbolism as you wanted to see. A space that formerly hosted a sport of the ruling class was now also dedicated to one played across lines of race and income.
Basketball was many things for President Obama. It was an escape, a lifelong pastime and a key element to the narrative that propelled his meteoric rise. His funky lefty jumpshot and his steadfast dedication to hooping in sweatpants even became pillars of the mystique surrounding The Cool POTUS.
GQ on Thursday published an exhaustive oral history of Obama’s basketball jones, featuring quotes from those who played pickup with him over the past several years. It’s a delightful, fascinating read. One of many great anecdotes in the piece comes from University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team Obama scrimmaged with when he was first running to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.
At that time he was an up-and-comer. You heard, Hey, this guy may have a chance. He has [some] sneaky little lefty, old-school moves. One of my players Jack Wooten tried to block his shot and I yelled at him. I said, Jack, this guy could be the President of the United States. Whatre you trying to do that for?! And President Obama just picked up on it so quickly. He said, “You see that secret service guy over there?” He really set a great standard for me, just about how humble he was and how great he was with people. Who he was as a person was really impressive. His game was just a little impressive.
Obama hooped as a candidate, and he hooped as president. He played in private and he played surrounded by media. In the GQ piece, former advisor John Rice tells of a time Obama spent “hours” stewing over a pickup hoops loss just after taking over the presidency, with no shortage of real-world problems.
“The fact that he was so competitive in basketball helps you understand the kinds of qualities that helped him become President of the United States,” Rice says.
Indeed, for many, the images of Obama as commander-in-chief and hooper-in-chief are inseparable like Stockton and Malone. NBA stars became some of his biggest boosters. A fan site called baller-in-chief.com was launched to chronicle all things Obama and hoops. T-shirts were printed.
Another wistful read here on Obama’s final full day as White House resident comes from Sports Illustrated way back in 2007. A decade ago, before everything that followed, writer S.L. Price played one-on-one with Obama, who was at the time trying to beat out Hillary Clinton and John Edwards for the Democratic nomination.
At game-point, Price tries to ratchet up the pressure on Obama by handing him the ball while saying “All right. This is for the presidency….”
Obama coolly sinks the shot to win the game. A year later, he would win the presidency.
In five-on-five hoops, though, fellow players say Obama didn’t care who got the glory.
“He was an amazing teammate. And whether he scored 10 points or no points was absolutely irrelevant,” former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tells GQ. “All of it was about: Whos getting the loose ball? Whos going to help with defense and recovery? Getting a steal, or whatever. Ill say it: its an absolute stark contrast to the President-elect. A totally different mindset. It was all about team. It was all about winning. It was zero about him.”
On Friday, the White House gets a new resident. Will Donald Trump keep the outdoor hoops court Obama installed in 2009, or will he covert it back to its former status as a tennis-only space?
We contacted Trump’s press team to find out, but have yet to hear back.