Obama Is So Hoops
About 1,000 words from The Commish.
It had to be hoops. President Barack Obama had to be a ball fan. It’s poetic, I’m telling you.
In “The Audacity of Hoops,” a grand Sports Illustrated piece written by Alexander Wolff, David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign and now White House adviser, recalled how he shot down a suggestion for Obama to play ball with some New Hampshire high school kids prior to the state’s primary. “People didn’t know him well yet, and I didn’t want him to play into a stereotype,” said Axelrod, like that would have pigeonholed the Senator as a typical black dude. The irony is that basketball, especially in its purest pickup form, is the most inclusive of sports. Yes, basketball moves the way jazz sounds. Yes, it’s as soulful as baseball is traditional. Yes, it is, in many ways, black. But hoops is the ultimate post-racial, new-millennium sport. Even though Obama said his formative years of obsession with basketball saw him “living out a caricature of black male adolescence,” it was also where he began forging true bonds with dudes that didn’t look like him. If Obama came in the White House as a tennis fan like Bill Clinton, or a bowling fan like Tricky Dick, or a baseball fan like Dubya, then his election and presidency wouldn’t mean what it means or symbolize what is symbolizes–at least not in a sociocultural sense.
Everything about Obama is post-Baby Boomer, post-racial. He is a “not-quite Gen X” Pres (some call his generation “Generation Jones,” a post Baby-Boomer, pre-Generation X group), representative of a changing America manifested in salient form by Generation Y spawn from LeBron James to Asher Roth. Baseball is a pastime and football is a good-ol-boy bastion. It makes sense that basketball—especially now that Generations X and Y move closer to becoming the dominant opinionators and ticket-buyers, judges and juries—is the progressive sport of choice for progressive America’s progressive President. Obama is a walking hoops imprint. In fact, Jay-Z, in The Black Album‘s “Public Service Announcement,” exhorted his listeners to “look at my swag, yo, I walk like a ball player.” And who would dispute that Obama has the smooth, easy, flowing gait of a baller? Check out the Pres’ stride across a platform…resembles Dr. J to me.
A common refrain in our generation is to say certain things or people or actions that have nothing overtly to do with hip-hop, actually, embody hip-hop. The thinking is that hip-hop is so culturally pervasive, that you don’t have to be KRS-One to have your own hip-hop moments. “Did you see that dude throw two shoes at Bush?! That was so hip-hop.” Obama is plenty hip-hop, but I’d venture to say that he is, in fact, more hoops than anything. This means a lot more than just him enjoying a good pickup game. When he announced his candidacy in 2007, we started catching wind of his hoops-obsession. And then, soon after he was elected on Nov. 4, stories of him turning the cornball White House bowling alley into a ball court or morphing that lame tennis court into an all-weather hoops bubble started popping up. What, in a larger sense, does this mean?
At first, I spent hours mulling whether it meant that, in the near future, basketball would enjoy more national cachet, more prestige; or maybe it meant hoops—especially the NBA— might be shielded from much of the outsized criticism thrown its way. It might. He’s a president of crises right now, but I’m hoping that, if given the opportunity for a rare sports diversion, Obama is the dude that shows up in a press box during the NBA Finals or is filmed watching the Slam Dunk contest. Lord knows we’ve seen Presidents at the World Series or wearing football jerseys. I’m hoping there will be some high-profile pickup games. Obama, Reggie Love and Steve Nash versus Eric Holder, MJ and Derrick Rose. Stuff like that. But, then again, maybe none of this will happen.
What’s most poignant to me, as it relates to Obama and his love affair with basketball, is that his sport of choice is America’s most democratic sport, its most progressive sport and the sport that is its recreational gift to the world.
Hoops is not stuck on football’s caste-like hierarchy, and it’s more collaborative than baseball’s composite of separate-but-linked moving parts. Golf courses, tennis courts, softball leagues and flag football games can’t touch your typical playground when it comes to diversity. Sure, there are plenty of courts in the hood that are all-black, many in the suburbs and exurbs that are all-white. But how many times have you been driving somewhere in the spring or summer, saw some pickup games in progress, parked the car, popped the trunk, grabbed your ball and called “next,” no matter the racial makeup on the court? I’m guessing plenty. Obama’s sport is the one with a pro league that leads the diversity charge. Basketball—with its player-fan proximity and slate of spoofing, blogging personalities—is the sport that most closely resembles Obama’s familiarity and new-technology interaction with his constituents. Obama, he of worldwide acclaim and adoration, plays the American sport that threatens soccer’s supremacy in many countries. If Barack was a rabid football fanatic, perhaps there would be a “big, dumb, American Brute” perception that would linger and hover in some international circles. But he’s a hoops dude. This means Barack, who is, at the very least, a murky reflection of America, is the political personification of the progressive, collaborative, non-partisan, diplomatic and international game he loves to play and watch.
America is still a football country and college football and the NFL’s once-a-week, tailgate-driven atmosphere will ensure that this love affair continues. But it is basketball that typifies this younger, newer America that was the driving force behind Obama’s election.
Doesn’t this make sense to you? That the sport that gave us Earl the Pearl and the Doctor and the Iceman and Pistol Pete and the Big Red-Head and Magic and MJ and Grandmama and AI and the Chosen One would be the sport we identify with the coolest kat to ever sit in the oval office, a dude that “walks like a ballplayer”? Not a stereotype, Obama’s an archetype, a change indeed. He’s cooler than his peers, a break from the stodgy past—just like basketball. This guy is so hoops.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at email@example.com.