Sports Illustrated Senior Writer On 'Basketball And The Age Of Obama'

Dec 10, 2015

Sports Illustrated senior writer and Cornwall resident Alexander Wolff says basketball is deeply connected to President Obama's time in the country's top office. Wolff found so many connections that he wrote a book about them. It's called "The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama," and is chock full of photographs of Obama and others in action.

Wolff also says basketball is the president's common language with the American people. In the book, Wolff offers examples for his thesis and showcases hundreds of photographs, many taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza.

Audio for this piece will be available by approximately 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 11.

Alexander Wolff spoke with Vermont Edition about the president's style on the court, how basketball came into play during time on the campaign trail, and it's role during his time in the White House. 

On how his love of basketball played into the campaigns:

"Certainly in New Hampshire where you have to do a lot of retail campaigning [it factored in.] David Axelrod told me that they wanted to get him out of those kind of formal stump speech situations and get him little closer, more on the ground. His director for New Hampshire said, 'How about basketball, because we can play these games early in the day. It's hard to get exercise in these long campaign days anyway.'

"So they played with patrolmen, they played with firefighters and he didn't have to be persuaded to do it. The calculation that they made in New Hampshire was, we don't want him playing basketball too quickly before people really know who he is because it would play into a stereotype. Axelrod actually was very explicit about that, and he has a track record of introducing black candidates to white electorates. But [the campaign] seemed to find just the right time to do it. 

President Obama in action. During his first campaign, then-Senator Obama's campaign team used his love of basketball as an opportunity to connect with voters.
Credit Pete Souza / The White House

"Then there's the famous moment, in Kuwait, when he's visiting the troops and he just jacks up a three-pointer on a whim while he's wearing street shoes and he's wired for sound... [it] played into this narrative that the guy had the magic touch.

"So this is the game that he takes into the Oval Office and that actually is where my interest came in."

On basketball's impact on President Obama's time in office: 

Wolff was asked to look at the newly-minted president's relationship by Sports Illustrated, and began to wonder what role the game would play once Obama took office. "I was asked after he was elected in 2008 before the inauguration in January of 2009 to look at basketball's role in the making of this guy."

" It occurred to me, 'What's going to happen once he actually takes the oath of office? Is the game going to continue to be there?' There was talk [that he was] going to rip out the bowling alley from the White House and put in an indoor court. He didn't do that but he did retrofit the tennis court into a basketball court outdoors. Come to find out there were lots of instances where basketball figured in governing and getting what he wanted.

"And then the photographs started to come out of the White House flickr feed, where Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, was taking a lot of moody, intimate, pictures of him, either playing, or around the game or around ball players. And that was when I thought, 'oh, there is a book here. There's text and there's photographs.'"

Sports Illustrated senior writer, Alexander Wolff's new book argues that basketball has played a big role in shaping Barack Obama as a person, and subsequently in his approach to the presidency
Credit Courtesy of Alexander Wolff

On basketball's role in how Obama governs:

Wolff says that the healthcare rollout is a good example of the president using his love of the game to help move issues forward.

"When healthcare.gov goes online and it's just a disaster of a rollout ... the pundits and D.C. were all saying 'there's no way they're going to make the sign ups.' They had to get ten million people to sign up and had to get a lot of young people to sign up in order to make those exchanges work. And there was this critical sign up period from October to March. And it so happened that's precisely when the NBA season takes place. And Obama began to call in favors.

"He got Alonzo Mourning, who'd come back with a kidney transplant, Magic Johnson--HIV positive--do these very powerful Public Service Announcements. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James start tweeting out using social media saying, 'you really ought to do this, you really ought to get covered. It's important.' And they bought time [during the] NBA ... all these [TV] channels, where they could reach these audiences that they needed. They needed young people and needed ethnically diverse people - the basketball demographic. And I'm not going to sit here and tell you that basketball saved Obamacare but there is no question that it played a role."

Wolff says Obama's relationship to the game provides "a challenging and fun way to engage with this president" on a more personal level for many Americans.

"There's no question that he is projecting who he is to voters by filling out his bracket every March during the NCAA tournament. The way, during the 2008 campaign, he did use the game on the stump. I mean there's there's youth, there's vitality.

"Really he's the first president ... since J.F.K. with a young family. And he played with his daughters, he coached Sasha's youth league team. And some of the pictures in the book that I love the most are ones that have that old Life magazine, J.F.K. Camelot, John John and Caroline under the desk in the Oval, look to them - but he's playing ball with them. So I think certainly on the personal [level], getting to see who he really is, I think [the connection is] legit. Maybe some of these extrapolations I stretched a bit."

In this photo featured in Wolff's book, President Obama blocks the shot of personal aide Reggie Love in the gym at St. Bart's Church in Manhattan.
Credit Pete Souza / The White House

The role the game has played on policy can be somewhat subjective. President Obama was never a great formal player, instead honing his skills in pick-up games. Wolff says the self-taught nature of the president's skills is has been an "under-rated storyline."

"This guy who was too wild to be tamed by his coaches as a high schooler, then is suddenly around Arnie Duncan who was a co-captain at Harvard, John Rogers, and Barack Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, both played at Princeton, a number of very good Division III players, become good friends in Chicago.

"So he's playing with these guys and indeed he is becoming that, probably the least accomplished player among many, but finds this way to support, to fit in. I am struck - and I do think there's a legitimacy to this extrapolation - that's a little bit like what a president has to do. You have experts around you, people who know more than you do and you collect and you analyze and you process and that's very Obama-esque."

On the photos featured in the book:

"[We], as taxpayers, pay [White House photographer] Pete Souza's salary, so his pictures are free to use in an editorial contexts. These photos were taken, they get pushed out on the White House flickr feed and while I didn't get a one-on-one interview with the president for the book, the photo office and Pete were given instructions to cooperate where they could.

"The biggest get was, I knew that there were pictures of him playing with his daughters and I asked Pete about it. They're very reluctant to release any photos of the girls, for good reasons. But he said he would check and was able to get permission, so we have two of those [in the book].

"They're all dribbling down the court [in one of the photos]. To me [it is] a really powerful, meaningful picture if you know a little bit about Obama's back story. Obama has said that one of the reasons he had this undomesticated game and didn't play a lot in high school, now that he looks back with some objectivity, is that he didn't have a dad around who would take him out to the park and work on his off-hand. So he was a very left handed player. Well in that photograph, of him dribbling with his daughters, they are all dribbling with their right hand, which is his off-hand. So he's taking very seriously his paternal duties to make sure that his offspring can dribble with both hands."