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Obama, the aging athlete

The president retreats from the physical intensity of basketball to the relative serenity of golf

The First Black President

A series exploring the cultural impact of Obama’s White House

When Barack Obama moved into the White House, he had a little work done in the yard. The outdoor tennis court was refurbished to include a regulation-size basketball court, complete with fiberglass backboards and the White House seal on the stanchions.

It was a sign that the president, a lifelong playground baller, was serious about his hoops. He played regularly with people who had real skills. And like a true hoops devotee, he played not only on his own court but whenever he could find the time and an open rim.

At one point, the president even considered making a guest appearance on a team led by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the Goodman Summer League, a vaunted D.C. Pro-Am where the celebrities who drop in to play are usually from the NBA. “We couldn’t quite pull it off,” said Duncan, a former Harvard star who played professionally in Australia. “It would have been amazing.”

The fact that the first black president not only loved but seriously played a sport so closely identified with African-Americans provided an instant racial connection. “So many black men ask me about the president’s game,” said Duncan, who started playing pickup ball with Obama in Chicago in the 1990s. “I get that question less frequently from white folks. Particularly among black men, there is real interest. The cultural tie there is real.”

But as his second term winds down, the president has retreated from the physical intensity of basketball to the relative serenity of golf. He played basketball outside the White House or Camp David in Maryland about once a month — 49 times — during his first five years in office, according to White House pool reports compiled by Mark Knoller, a CBS radio correspondent. But there is no record of the president playing since Nov. 30, 2013 (although he has been occasionally spotted shooting around at events such as the annual White House Easter Egg Roll). Meanwhile, the press corps has documented Obama playing a lot more golf, from about twice a month during his first five years in office to more than four times a month since then.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) shoots a basketball on the court at Riverview Elementary School, May 4, 2008 in Elkhart, Indiana.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) shoots a basketball on the court at Riverview Elementary School, May 4, 2008, in Elkhart, Indiana.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Giving up basketball for golf is an acknowledgment that the president is simply not as young as he used to be. He was 47 when he took office, making him the fifth youngest president in U.S. history. With his basketball habit and daily workout routine, he was arguably one of the nation’s most fit presidents as well.

Obama is still in great shape. He is 6-foot-1½ and 175 pounds. His blood pressure, cholesterol level and other health metrics are excellent. But he turns 55 on Thursday. His close-cropped hair has turned mostly gray and the lines on his face have grown deeper with each year in office. The president’s medical reports also show that he has a history of plantar fasciitis. Given all of that, perhaps his move to golf was as inevitable as time itself.

Even as he has embraced golf as his main game, some things remain the same about Obama the athlete. And many of them carry over to Obama the politician. He is a serious player. Almost never showy, he works to master the fundamentals and plays hard. And he does not like to mix business and pleasure. As it was with basketball, he rarely uses golf as a social lubricant. Instead, he sees playing as an escape from his daily pressures, not an opportunity to make personal connections with other politicians or lobby for his positions.

Obama has called the shift to golf a reluctant concession to reality. With basketball, the risk of injury is ever present. No president wants to show up to a state dinner or policy speech with a black eye, chipped tooth or a limp. There is also the ego-rattling reality that his game is not what it once was.

“I’ve been trying to work out pretty hard to try and stay in shape. I used to play basketball more,” Obama said in a podcast interview last year with comedian Marc Maron. “But these days, I’ve gotten to the point where it’s not as much fun because I’m not as good as I used to be, and I get frustrated.

“I was never great, but I was a good player and I could play seriously,” Obama continued. “Now I’m one of these old guys who’s running around. The guys I play with — who are all a lot younger — they sort of pity me and sympathize with me. They tolerate me, but we all know I’m the weak link on the court and I don’t like being the weak link.”

President Barack Obama, along with Cabinet Secretaries and Members of Congress, watch a shot during a basketball game on the White House court, Oct. 8, 2009.

President Barack Obama, along with Cabinet Secretaries and Members of Congress, watch a shot during a basketball game on the White House court, Oct. 8, 2009.

Pete Souza/White House

Obama is not the first president to have a love affair with a sport. Dwight Eisenhower was a West Point linebacker and an avid golfer who hit the links nearly 800 times over his eight years in office. Richard Nixon was a football benchwarmer at Whittier College, and a passionate fan who regularly attended Washington Redskins practices. He also loved to bowl and installed a one-lane bowling alley under the White House’s North Portico.

Gerald Ford was a football all-America and national champion at the University of Michigan. He was also an avid swimmer who had an outdoor pool built at the White House. George H.W. Bush was a slick-fielding first baseman who played in the College World Series while at Yale. He was also an avid tennis player who once teamed up with seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras for a doubles match on the outdoor White House court he had constructed in 1989. Bush even added a basketball hoop behind the White House in 1991 — a precursor to the full-court installed under Obama. Bill Clinton enjoyed jogging along the National Mall, which drove his security detail nuts. Eventually, the Secret Service saw to it that a quarter-mile running track was built on the White House grounds. He also was a gregarious if erratic golfer. George W. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, would golf and jog, and later ride his mountain bike around his 1,500-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas.

By the time Obama arrived in office, the world knew basketball was his game. Pickup had been a regular feature of the Obama campaign. He played with police officers and firefighters, local volunteers, and former college players on the trail. He would often start his day with early-morning games with his traveling staff. The games were no political ploy. He played for fun and fitness, and to assuage a basketball jones he developed decades earlier as a young man searching for his identity in polyglot Hawaii.

Basketball was a cool sport whose biggest stars were often pop culture figures, and it was favored by the cool new cool president.

When Iowa Democrats went to caucus on what turned out to be a pivotal day for Obama’s presidential ambitions in January 2008, the candidate had a few of his boys fly into Des Moines to play. No political adviser could have recommended that the man aiming to be the nation’s first black president play what is seen as a black sport as a 95 percent white state decided his political fate. There was a time that his political handlers worried that his love of the game would play into racial stereotypes. But that concern fell away. Basketball’s biggest stars are pop culture figures and the racial boundaries of celebrity have broadened in ways that they have not in other areas such as finance or tech. Basketball may be a black game, but it has fans of every race. Rather than being divisive, the game proved to be a vehicle to showcase the candidate’s youthful vigor and create common ground to help him connect with voters.

“The public loves Michael Jordan, and it is harder to get much blacker than Michael,” said Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor who studies race and culture. “A lot of Americans love LeBron James. Many NBA stars have become celebrities in American society at large. Basketball is one of the few things in society that is black and is embraced because it is black. So Obama’s embrace of basketball was not that risky.”

Barack Obama shoots the ball while playing as a guard for the state champion Punahou School basketball team, Hawaii, 1979.

Barack Obama shoots the ball while playing as a guard for the state champion Punahou School basketball team, Hawaii, 1979.

Laura S. L. Kong/Getty Images

One of the few gifts that Obama received directly from his father was a basketball he got when he was 10 years old. It was perhaps an odd choice coming from his Kenyan dad, but Obama cherished it. And the world it unlocked helped the biracial boy who was largely raised by his white grandparents come to identify himself as a black man.

About the same time his father gave Obama his first basketball, the University of Hawaii had a nationally ranked basketball team with an all-black starting five, and he looked up to them. Obama studied their style, and he tried to emulate it. He had a poster of “Dr. J,” Julius Erving, in his bedroom, and he spent hours on a playground near his Honolulu apartment developing his shot and tightening his handle. By the time he was in high school, he was good enough to make the team. But he did not play much, and when his talented Punahou School team won the 1979 state championship in a blowout during his senior year, he got one bucket.

Still, basketball remained a passion. He was a regular pickup player through college and law school, and after he launched his political career in Chicago.

Until his body slowed him down, Obama regularly played with members of his administration, friends, and friends of friends, and, on occasion, members of Congress. He played at the FBI Building, at the Interior Department, at military installations, and in various gyms on the road. But even as president, he did not play to foster relationships or make new acquaintances. He played for the competition, the physical outlet and to find a space to be just one of the guys.

The president wasn’t averse to getting on the court with celebrities, though, athletic or otherwise. The morning after a $15 million California fundraiser in May 2012, Obama played 3-on-3 with Hollywood A-listers Don Cheadle, George Clooney, and Tobey Maguire at a Los Angeles-area recreation center. “Hail to the Chief’s jumper,” Cheadle tweeted afterward. To celebrate Obama’s 49th birthday in 2010, NBA superstars including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul joined him for a few games at Fort McNair, not far from the White House.

Even if the president wasn’t playing, other members of the administration were.

He played for the competition, the physical outlet and to find a space to be just one of the guys.

“We were playing quite often, maybe every other week,” said William Jawando, a one-time Catholic University basketball player and former deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement who also worked for Obama as a Senate aide. Sometimes Jawando would be summoned to the White House just to play some 2-on-2 with the president and others.

“It was a cool thing. You could sign up to play basketball on the White House court,” said Reggie Love, a former personal aide to Obama who captained the Duke University Blue Devils and often arranged the president’s basketball games. “You had a bunch of guys in the administration who were still young enough to play.”

Jared Bernstein, formerly Vice President Biden’s top economic adviser, said he was once headed out to the White House court to shoot around when he ran into the president. At that point, they had never played together, but the president felt him out about his game. Bernstein, who is now 60, said he was decent, but his shot had grown shaky through the years. Obama then took a few minutes to go to the court with him to check out his shot and offer a few pointers. “It actually helped me improve,” Bernstein said. “You see, he’s got nice form.”

President Barack Obama shoots hoops with his personal aide, Reggie Love, at the White House basketball court, Jan. 18, 2010.

President Barack Obama shoots hoops with his personal aide, Reggie Love, at the White House basketball court, Jan. 18, 2010.

Pete Souza/White House

Later on, during one of the few occasions that he played with the president, Bernstein hit a hook shot from the lane, prompting laughter from Obama. “Old-school,” the president teased.

People who played with Obama said he had a quick first step and a reliable midrange jumper. They also said the left-handed Obama relied on his left hand too much, and was not really a threat to break you down off the dribble. “He’s not going to give you too much razzle-dazzle,” Jawando said. “Maybe an in-and-out or a simple cross over.”

He was also tough and competitive. He called out screens and knew how to effectively overplay on defense. On offense, he liked to slash to the basket and made good, fundamental passes. And when the president played, he meant business. Love said that occasionally the president would take a few minutes to ask who was joining their game, and sometimes he would even weigh in on who should match up against whom. If a new player turned out to be a scrub, Love said Obama would tell him “you take him on your team.”

There was a period when Obama saw to it that his pickup games were divided into teams of young guys versus the older guys. For a good while, Obama and the older guys were winning regularly. Eventually, the young guys figured out how to counter the picks and backdoors favored by the older players. After that, they were able to unleash their quickness and jumping ability and started to win in a way that felt irreversible. One day at Fort McNair, they dispatched the old guys several games in a row and Obama was hot.

“The president was so upset that we beat them that he threw the ball up against the wall,” said Jawando, who is 33. “He was superfrustrated. He kind of knew it was over. The games were never going to be the same.”

US President Barack Obama tips his hat to onlookers after chipping a ball in on the 18th green21 of the Mid-Pacific Country Club's golf course December 21, 2015 in Kailua, Hawaii. Obama and the First Family are in Hawaii for vacation.

US President Barack Obama tips his hat to onlookers after chipping a ball in on the 18th green21 of the Mid-Pacific Country Club’s golf course December 21, 2015 in Kailua, Hawaii. Obama and the First Family are in Hawaii for vacation.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

As basketball has receded from Obama’s recreation agenda, he has sought to replace it with the relative peace and tranquility found on the golf course. In that way, he is following White House convention. Fifteen of the past 18 presidents — including every one since Ronald Reagan — have played golf. But if other presidents have used the game for both business and recreation, Obama retreats to the golf course mainly for a temporary escape from his presidential responsibilities and to work on his game.

Obama is often criticized for having a closed circle of friends and being aloof and cool toward lawmakers and others who are eager to socialize with him. He could use golf to broaden his reach, but he chooses not to. Most often, he plays with a revolving coterie of White House aides, and longtime friends. He also has played with a handful of foreign leaders, including former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and celebrities from Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry to NBC sports analyst Ahmad Rashad.

“Once you understand how stressful and mind-numbingly difficult his job is, you understand why he likes to get out to decompress,” said Ron Kirk, the former U.S. trade representative and a frequent golf partner of the president.

Eleanor Mariano, who served as White House physician under presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and now heads a medical practice focused on executives in high-stress jobs, called presidential exercise and escape an absolute must.

“Those jobs are nonstop, like a marathon. These guys are in an absolute pressure cooker,” she said. “A lot of times they have difficulty sleeping. The best prescription for that is some sort of exercise where they can get their mind off their work.”

Obama came into office a good, if fairly raw golfer. He scored in the 90s and has what experts have described as a good, athletic stance as he prepares to strike the ball. But experts say his swing needed work to lengthen his drives and long iron shots. A couple of years ago, Michael Jordan was askedin an interview about his dream foursome and responded by calling the First Golfer “a hack,” prompting a tart reply from Obama.

President Barack Obama practices his golf swing at an outdoor hold prior to an event at the Miguel Contreras Learning Center, Los Angeles, California 3/19/09.

President Barack Obama practices his golf swing at an outdoor hold prior to an event at the Miguel Contreras Learning Center, Los Angeles, California 3/19/09.

Pete Souza/White House

“There is no doubt that Michael is a better golfer than I am. Of course if I was playing twice a day for the last 15 years, then that might not be the case,” the president said in a 2014 radio interview, adding: “He might want to spend more time thinking about the Bobcats — or the Hornets.” (The Charlotte Hornets, which are owned by Jordan, finished 33-49 in the 2014-15 season, its first season after changing its name.)

By all accounts, Obama has gotten much better at golf in recent years. He approaches the game seriously, friends say, counting every swing and adhering closely to the rules. Love and others said the president now shoots in the low 80s. As with basketball, the president’s aim is to make the fundamental play, not the spectacular one. “He manages the course,” said Love, who, after leaving the White House, earned a master of business administration and is now a partner and vice president of Transatlantic Holdings, a Washington, D.C., financial holding company.

Obama has played on numerous golf courses, but more than one-third of his nearly 300 presidential golf outings have come at Joint Base Andrews, the suburban Washington military installation that is home to Air Force One. The president’s frequent golfing has been a target for political opponents who say he should focus more closely on his job. That criticism reached a crescendo two years ago when Obama condemned the extremist group ISIS for its barbaric execution of journalist James Foley, and then moments later teed off for a round of golf during a summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Obama later acknowledged that was a mistake, but for the most part, Americans do not seem to mind the time he spends on the golf course.

Obama has called the shift to golf a reluctant concession to reality.

Republican Saxby Chambliss, the former Georgia senator, was part of a bipartisan group that played with Obama at Andrews at the start of the president’s second term in 2013. He said he rode in the cart with Obama, but the two did not talk much business. “We had a couple things about cyber security to talk about, but mostly it was just a matter of going out and playing,” Chambliss said.

The biggest source of conversation that day was the hole-in-one Chambliss scored on the course’s 156-yard 11th hole. Chambliss said he does not begrudge Obama’s approach to golf, and he understands the appeal a few hours of walking around in the open air for the president. “The guy has the toughest job in the world. He has to get some relief,” Chambliss said.

 

Some of Obama’s friends say the event that may have nudged him toward golf and away from basketball was an inadvertent elbow he caught while playing at Fort McNair on the day after Thanksgiving in 2010. The guys had just playing four tough games, and Obama urged everyone to play one more.

Reynaldo Decerega, a former high school point guard and senior director of leadership programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was matched up against Obama, who took him baseline for a layup. Decerega came back down and made a hard move to his left, only to find himself cut off by Obama, forcing him to pick up his dribble. Swinging through to create space, Decerega’s right elbow hit Obama on the upper lip. The president fell to the ground holding his mouth. He needed 12 stitches to repair the damage. Decerega needed four stitches in his elbow.

“It was surreal,” Decerega recalled. “I had played a lot of ball and never elbowed anybody. And the one time I did it, it was to the president of the United States. It was a sensation like having a car accident. It was a very disconcerting moment.”

Decerega apologized. The game ended and Obama returned to the White House holding an ice pack to his mouth. But he took it like a good sport. A few days later, Decerega received a framed three-panel photo series from the president. They showed Obama guarding him, Decerega swinging through, and then Obama holding his mouth. It was inscribed: “For Rey, the only guy who ever hit the president and never got arrested. Barack.”

As it turned out, Decerega’s punishment was more subtle: He was never invited back to play ball with the president.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.