Gregory Dennis: Obama, Wolff and ‘The Audacity of Hoop’

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer Alex Wolff did a piece for the magazine about Obama and basketball.
That began a long journey for Wolff, a Cornwall resident, tracing the president’s heartfelt ties to this most American of games. (Basketball was, after all, invented just a few hours down the road from here in Springfield, Mass.)
Wolff has now brought out a book on the subject, aptly titled “The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama.” He’ll be reading and showing slides from the book at a fundraiser in Middlebury this Saturday (details below).
Even seven years ago, Wolff could write a story for the preeminent sports magazine about a president-elect, because Obama wasn’t just a fan.
The game has been an integral part of Obama’s life since the day when he was 10 and his father gave him a basketball. It was the last time he would see his father.
Basketball helped the future president forge an identity as he was growing up in Hawaii, where he played on the island’s outdoor courts. He was mostly a benchwarmer on his high school team that won the state championship. He was known then as Barry instead of Barack, and his shot-taking propensity earned him the nickname “Barry Obomber.”
First in college, then as a community organizer in Chicago and a law student at Harvard, Obama regularly played in highly competitive pickup games. It was a way to have fun, connect with people — poor inner-city blacks and rich white classmates alike — and also connect with his past.
When Obama ran for president, his campaign mulled if and how to use the candidate’s love for basketball. Was the game too much “a black thing”?
As Wolff remarked this week when we sat down to talk about the book, featuring basketball in such a political campaign would have been a bad idea in the 1970s. Back then the NBA game had an (undeserved) negative image among many whites — even as some of the greatest players ever were on the court.
That had changed by the end of the century. Immensely popular black stars like Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan had become household names.
Even so, when New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley ran against Al Gore, the Bradley campaign played down the white candidate’s pedigree as a basketball star for Princeton and the New York Knicks.
By 2008, however, basketball was not just a safe bet for a black candidate. It was a good idea.
As Wolff notes, “For men in our Baby Boomer generation, pickup basketball has served the purpose that golf did for a previous generation.” It’s been a form of male bonding for millions of us — from the high school gyms where Wolff and I played in the sectional championships a few years apart in western New York state, to inner city neighborhoods and on countless other courts with netless rims across America.
When Sport illustrated writer S.L. Price interviewed Obama and played some one-on-one, the two men discovered that as boys, they both had the same poster of Julius Erving over their beds.
In his years as a star, Dr. J. had made house calls at black and white homes alike.
When it came time to introduce the little known Obama to voters in 2008, a campaign strategy was born.
Basketball was, for example, a key part of the push in hoop-mad Indiana and North Carolina. “If you were a voter in either one of those states, you knew Obama loved basketball,” Wolff told me.
Obama won those states by a percentage point — a razor-thin margin that nailed down key electoral votes.
After settling in the White House, Obama had a tennis court on the grounds converted into a basketball court. He often played there with aides and friends.
The president’s game is universally judged to be competitive, marked by the improvisation that comes from thousands of hours of pickup ball — and “extremely left-handed.”
Obama’s picking of his March Madness brackets has become an annual television event. It’s a happenstance-turned-media-circus that is nicely told in the book.
Basketball has continued to serve other political purposes. When the launch of Obamacare floundered amid computer woes, the administration enlisted high-profile NBA stars to do public service ads promoting enrollment by young people. Republicans like John McCain objected, to no avail, as NBA luminaries (and patients) like Magic Johnson and Alonzo Mourning helped build the case for expanding health insurance to millions more Americans.
Among the many appealing elements of Wolff’s new book are its coffee table format and the scores of basketball-related photos of Obama.
There’s a nicely illustrated timeline of the president’s basketball history; a chapter on “the inevitability of golf” and how Obama gravitated to golf after a split lip in a basketball game required 12 stiches; a section on the links that many other administration figures have to basketball — and even a bit about Dennis Rodman’s “Ding-Dong Diplomacy” with North Korea.
My favorite photo in the book is one of the president tossing a basketball toward the domed ceiling of the Oval Office.
There’s something about the simple joy contained in a basketball.
Everyone in the photo is smiling.
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In an event cohosted by the Vermont Book Shop, Alex Wolff will read and show slides from “The Audacity of Hoop” this Saturday, Nov. 14, 7-9 p.m. in the Middlebury municipal gym. Admission is free. Wolff will be signing copies of the book, and a portion of proceeds from sales will benefit the Everybody Wins! reading mentoring program at Mary Hogan Elementary School and the scholarship program of the Middlebury Recreation Department.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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