Sen. Barack Obama got an assist from basketball before. Maybe it will work again.
The presidential hopeful used the hardwood hideaway to help him adjust to a white world as a racially mixed
teenager, and now he's trying to use hoops to beat the double-team of Hillary Clinton and political controversy.
With cameras trained on his every
46-year-old move, Obama scrimmaged on Tuesday with the North Carolina
"These guys," Obama said, "are lot better than me."
But his moves on the court may help his moves off it. Obama needs something to
deflect attention from the re-emergence of Rev. Jeremiah Wright,
his bombastic former pastor whose racially charged opinions
threaten to widen the disconnect between the Illinois senator and
white working-class voters.
More than that, Obama hopes his passion for basketball helps
soften his image as cool and aloof.
"I do think you can tell something about people by the way they
play basketball," he told HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel"
Hours before losing Pennsylvania's primary to Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton last week, Obama played a pickup game at a
well-appointed YMCA in Pittsburgh with several aides, friends and
two reporters, including one from The Associated Press. No cameras
were allowed in that game -- part of a private voting day ritual --
but Obama hasn't been so shy since the campaign moved to Indiana
and North Carolina, basketball-crazed states that hold Democratic
primaries next week.
Last Friday, he scored four baskets -- including a nifty
left-handed 3-pointer -- in a Kokomo, Ind., game tied to his
voter registration drive.
The politics are smart.
"We're a very sports-loving country and it would be unusual if
our president in one way or another was not sports connected,"
said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar who served in the
Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.
Dwight D. Eisenhower played golf, a sport as genteel and
patrician as the president who played it. John Kennedy played touch
football with the youthful "vigah" that defined his 1960
campaign. Richard Nixon bowled, badly, as he brought blue-collar
voters into the GOP fold.
Clinton played softball in high school and recalls
playing half-court basketball while growing up (only the boys could
play full court), but she's not much of a jock now. Still, the New
York senator who was born in Illinois knows the difference between
a home run and a political foul. "Well," she said of her
allegiances in a hypothetical World Series between the Chicago Cubs
and the New York Yankees, "I would probably have to alternate
The sports strategy has its limits. If not, former Sen. Bill
Bradley would have been elected president in 2000. The Hall of Fame
basketball player shot hoops on the campaign trail.
"Playing ball makes you accessible in a way that neither of
them are -- Obama and Bradley," said Eric Hauser, a Democratic
strategist who worked for Bradley. "They both deal with the
reputation of being distant and cool, and basketball transcends
Growing up in Hawaii, Obama considered basketball as a way to
find his racial identity in a diverse community.
"Here is a place," Obama told HBO, "where black was not a
Now, it's a place for a break from the campaign.
Dribbling a ball during warm-ups on the court in Pittsburgh,
Obama said he and his pals played the day of the Iowa caucuses.
"We won the caucuses then came New Hampshire and we didn't play.
We were too busy," he said. "That won't happen again. I am
Obama picked the teams in Pittsburgh, giving himself five of the
best players and two of the worst (the reporters) and immediately
took charge of the play, bringing the ball up court and dishing
soft bounce passes.
He kept score and called fouls, including one on himself.
Obama is extremely confident with his game, for good reason. He
glides more than runs, high and soft on the balls of his feet and
with graceful strides that put enough space between himself and his
opponents to launch a solid left-handed jump shot. Obama, who
usually plays with younger men, says he's a step too fast for most
"They're better off testing my jumper," he told HBO.
In the first of four games, Obama lost the ball out of bounds.
"My bad," he told teammates. "I'm sorry."
Not everybody is so honest. When an opposing player dribbled the
ball off his own leg and called a cheap foul, one of Obama's
teammates said sarcastically, "Hey, man, nice move." Typical
trash talk. But it struck Obama as funny. Over-the-top funny.
Falling to his knees, the senator giggled uncontrollably, holding
his head in his hands and writhing. He wiped tears from his eyes
while getting up.
It's hard to see how skinny Obama is until he's banging
beneath the rim, his bony hips giving way easily to
brawnier competitors. But despite his size, Obama took every
opportunity to career recklessly through the lane with his
Fake right and drive hard to the left.
A political statement? Nah," he said with a wan and sweaty
smile, "I just love to play this game."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.