Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

What's it like to play basketball with Barack Obama?

Published on
June 6, 2016

Some people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they die. Others have a list of people they want to meet. Sometimes the two lists coincide. There are only a few people who get to meet the most powerful man on earth (or at least as far movies would have us believe), the president of the United States of America.

Getting to meet Obama is a dignified honour in its own right. There are numerous ways one can meet the President; at a fundraiser gala dinner, at public appearances, at the White House, on the street when he is rescuing stray cats, etc. Regardless of the location or situation mentioned above, the President is expected to be found looking presidentially. Exuding an aura of power. Another situation where you can meet him is when he is exuding body odour. While playing basketball.

What is it like playing basketball with the most powerful man on earth? The president of the USA is an avid basketball fan and he is more than capable of hooping it up. He plays with a semi regular crowd and much as I’d like to meet him, I don’t envy those guys who play with him.

An age old condurum in basketball arises from there being only one basketball and five players on one team. As a point guard, when you have the ball you should see the other nine players on the court at all times. Or at least be aware of them. Imagine being on Obama’s team and having the ball. All you can be aware of is the fact that the president is standing without the ball. The ball must feel like a hot potato to his teammates.

The players may be extra aware of him, but to a spectator on the sidelines, the game looks just like a regular game. The President isn’t jacking up shots like a jackrabbit lapping up carrots. Obama is a team player and the shortest way to describe him as a player is ‘solid role player’. He isn’t a aggressive scorer, but he has a respectable outside shot. He isn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest player but he knows where to be and his smarts make up for him not being an outstanding baller.

All scouting inferences of Obama’s game here are from accounts of two people, two who have played with him. Obama doesn’t seek out competition which he can dominate. He plays with players who pose a challenge to him. All former college players or professionals. And they don’t play like they are playing with the President either.

President Obama laughs with first lady Michelle as they appear on the ‘Kiss Cam’ as the US Men’s National Team and Brazil play during a pre-Olympic exhibition basketball game.

If a player defers to Obama too much, he isn’t invited back. The players are told to treat Obama just as another player. The President plays with a mouthguard, a smile with knocked out teeth doesn’t look good when you flash your thirty two in front of a gazillion cameras. And the way he plays basketball, having teeth knocked out is not a remote possibility.

Hustle and flow. Smart movement. Quick cuts. Decisive passes. The standout attribute of Obama as a player is that he is always cool, calm, composed and collected. Not saying that upon a dubious call he politely clears his throat and murmers, “I beg to differ old chap.” Obama yells out when he has to, usually at his teammates when they take ‘stupid shots’. But his tone is always measured and whatever he says is geared towards conflict resolution

One of the accounts of his game comes from Tucker Max. He said “I do remember that he had a good understanding of the game. He knew when to backdoor cut, how to pick and roll, when to take his man away so you could drive, how to block out for rebounds, etc. And he would hit open jumpshots if left alone. He was not some doofus out there trying to get exercise. He understood the basics of basketball very well, which is better than most people who play pick-up. Just this knowledge of the game made him fun to play with.”

“He never called BS ticky-tack fouls. But he also didn’t let you hack him. He was fair. He never really complained about anything — like when other people called borderline fouls for instance — unless it was an obvious wrong call, then he would say something. But only like a reproachful father. Not an arguer at all, and he was always nice, even when he was correcting you. He never made you feel bad about yourself or anything like that. He was always a very nice, sincere guy, to everyone.”

“I guess the thing that sticks out most about him is that he was always an adult. If there was some conflict on the court, over a foul called or ball out of bounds or something like that, he was always a voice of calm and reason. He was an adult before he was a basketball player. He never got wrapped up in the outcome of the game, like some people who play as if its life or death. He tried hard, but never crossed the competitiveness line, he was always under control. I can’t ever remember him rattled, like some of the other professors would get.”

In his book on basketball, Bill Simmons describes the key to winning, the ultimate holy grail, the final ingredient in a championship team, as people and the trust among them. There are two ways to get that level of trust. One is t actually have a bunch of players who trust each other, other is to know that the entire team is in deathly awe of one of the players and would do anything to play the right way and not piss him off. Being the president lets you have the latter automatically.

The other account of Obama’s play comes from Michael Lewis, when he wrote in the Vanity Fair about it.

In response to being asked what did he learn about Obama from playing basketball with him, Lewis replied “Quite a bit. I think it’s generally true that you learn much more about a person doing something with them than just talking to them. I showed up at the White House one morning, and he comes down – and actually, he was preceded by the valet caring his Under Armour red, white and blue high-top sneakers. And he comes down, and he’s looking for his mouth guard. And I said why – this is basketball. Why do you need a mouth guard? He goes: Sometimes I get teeth knocked out. And the election’s in 100 days, and I don’t want to get my teeth knocked out before the election. I said, you know, what kind of game is this? He goes, well, it’s – it can get rough.”

Of the team he said “It’s not exactly an NBA team, but they were – the guys were serious basketball players. Everybody had been in – had played at a major college level, and a lot of the guys had played professionally. And it’s a regular basketball game that meets three or four times a week that Obama slots into every now and then. And I was shocked at the level of competition. I thought, my God, the president’s 50 years old. He didn’t start for his high school basketball team. How good could he be? But he was actually good enough to function in this environment. And when you watched him play – or played with him – you noticed a few things. 

“If he found himself isolated on a better player on the other team, the other player just took it to him. If he was open for a shot on his team, but there was someone who was a better shooter who was also open, that other person got the ball.”

“And I said this to one of the players. I said, you know, it’s kind of amazing that nobody defers to him. And the player said, you know, if you defer to him, you’re not invited back. He doesn’t want that. So that told you a lot.”

“He wants to be, one, in a very challenging environment. Two, he really likes relationships between equal – he likes normalcy. He likes to be treated like some – like a normal person. And then the third thing was he was shrewd, shrewd as can be on the basketball court. He was sort of, like, was – he spaced the court very well, and he found ways to get open. And in what looked like a very riskless game, like he was playing a very low-key riskless game, every now and then, he’d strike. And he has a really good three-point shot.”

So he took, in the course of five games we played, or six games, he took maybe five shots and made all but one of them. And he had kind of orchestrated himself to – he had worked very hard to get to the point where he could take the shot and get a good shot. He also screams at you if you – if you’re on his team and you take bad shots, he doesn’t put up with it. He was hollering at me. (Laughter) “In fact, he hollered at me so much – he hollered at me – he was so – I was so embarrassed by being outclassed and feeling like he was going to be pissed off at me if we lost, that I, at some point, I kind of snuck out of the game and went and sat with the scorekeeper. But the first time I jacked up a shot that he thought I shouldn’t take, he started screaming at me.

And at that the – when the game was over and it was clear his team had won four of the six games, you could see that the reason that his team had won was that the players on his team didn’t take stupid shots because they were afraid the president was going to scream at them if they did.

So whom does Obama ball with? One of the regulars Obama balls with is Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from a couple of quite large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone is roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. Its not a normal pick-up basketball game; its a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week to play serious hoops.

Most every one of them played pro in Europe or Asia. Proof positive that the president is not looking to mess around. Another conclusion you can draw from that is that professional basketball players know better how to manage their instincts on the court and not inadvertently hurt the president in any way.

A less  flattering account of Obama’s game, which was probably said a little in jest, comes from the NBA commissioner, David Stern. Stern said Obama is “not that good.” “He’s a lefty. He goes the same way every time.”

Funnily enough, while Obama’s love for basketball and the Chicago Bulls is well known and helps basketball fans to identify with him, basketball is not the sport which Obama plays the most. For his first two years in office, the president played twice as much golf as he did basketball. CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller counted 57 rounds for Obama versus 28 basketball games through 2010. But that is a limited sample size. I guess the President gets to socialize more on the golf greens than on the basketball courts. Not every government dignitary or high class men and women are fit enough to play basketball with Obama. Also while basketball is a great game for players to bond together, golf is a better sport when you want to have a conversation.

Or maybe I’m just trying to generalize in any way that the most powerful man on earth loves basketball more than golf. Hopefully, a day will come when I’ll pen an account on what it feels like to play basketball with the President of India.

Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

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