Obama victory raises social significance of basketball   

Updated: November 11, 2008

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It's been a long time coming. Too long. Yeah for that too, but this is about something different. Finally, for America's "other" game, the time has come. You ready? Stand still. Pose. Look happy. Live the moment. Smile. FLASH! Finally … the game of basketball is ready for its official close-up.

Hope won? It's more than that.

Barack Obama

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

It's no secret basketball is important to Barack Obama, who made it a point to play on election day.

Twenty-one presidents and 117 years after Naismith invented the game, basketball has finally found a place inside the place that best symbolizes America -- inside the inside of America. Other presidents have only concerned themselves with basketball when necessary, such as playing host to NBA and NCAA champions at the White House. Barack is about to change all of that.

Obama's predecessors all treated the game as a spectator, embraced it from a distance, considered it an afterthought. All the while, over the decades the sport has become more and more intertwined into the sociofabric of America, slowly symbolizing what this country really is, what it's really about.

This makes Obama's election that much more revealing. His connection to basketball and inclusion of the game in his campaign is a testament to his message of change and the love he has for the least elitist sport to be held in high regard by anyone to occupy the White House.

"In any basketball game you can go from the leader, to a follower, to a team, all in the span of a few trips up and down the court," ESPN's Stuart Scott said after watching and playing with Obama. "That's the beauty of it. And that's what I noticed about Barack Obama. I think that's what basketball has taught him. He's got to be the leader of this country. But sometimes he's going to have to step back and let other people give him advice, let other people lead in moments, and he's always going to have to be a part of a team -- Senate, Congress, his cabinet, his most trusted advisers -- team.

"He has to be involved in all of that, but mostly he has to be the leader. And that's one of the things that having played basketball is going to benefit him greatly. I think that's how basketball has shaped him."

Yes, it's well documented that Barack balls, that his game is nice, that his brother-in-law is the men's basketball coach at Oregon State, that his wife used the game to "find out what type of person he was" before they started seriously dating. He went so far as to make it a "rule" to play the days of primaries, a ritual he continued on election day.

But it would have been so easy for Obama to distance himself from the game, to rise above it because he'd risen so high. No one who's ever run for president has had a close relationship with basketball. Why should Barack be the first? He was different enough.

But there's a deeper investment in the game of basketball that represents how he possibly views the country. Very open, flawed but of promise, accessible to all. Think about it. Of all of the sports which have played a role in the lives of our commanders in chief, how many of those sports are as diverse as basketball in terms of economics, race, culture and gender?

George Washington rode horses. George H.W. Bush played college baseball. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon played college football. Nixon was so immersed in football, he was reputed to call Redskins coach George Allen and Dolphins coach Don Shula with play ideas. Many presidents had a passion for golf.

For whatever reason, basketball was the one sport that none of them brought with them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The game finds itself in the one place in America it has yet to impact, a place where it's never been wanted. The running joke for almost two years among Obama's crew who play ball with him regularly was if he won the election, he'd have to destroy the bowling alley and put up a hoop in the White House instead.

"His character is totally revealed when he's on the ball court," said Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, a friend of Obama who plays basketball with him regularly. "Basketball reveals who you really are. You can't fake it."

What becomes evident about the future president through the game of basketball can possibly give great insight into how he's going to run the country.

"What the outside world doesn't see in (Barack) when he's playing are three things," said Duncan. "One is how much of a competitor he is. I think the country underestimated him on that. Two, how he has real courage, that he will step up with the game on the line and take the big shot when others won't. And three, how really, really smart he is. His intellectual capacity is amazing. And that translates to how he does things off the court as well."

The game lends itself to the definition of not only Obama's character, but the inclusive direction he'd like the country to take.

"All sports bring people together, but none so like basketball," said Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, days after his team went undefeated against Barack's on election day. "Playing hoops is a great way to interact, and as a team sport it really says a lot about who he is and how he wants to bring people together. If he goes to another country or if he just goes to North Carolina like he did earlier and plays basketball with the people, it shows that he is a real guy."

So, finally, the game that has come to most represent urban America while being responsible for handing out some of the largest contracts in professional sports is about to become America's "First" sport. Because of Obama's passion for basketball, the game will gain the attention bestowed upon other sports that have shared the White House experience over the next four (maybe eight) years.

In "The Games Presidents Play," author John Sayle Watterson wrote, "Increasingly, sports have defined the presidency." If that's true, the change that occurred with Obama's victory might transcend politics and policy. Basketball could finally be looked upon as something more than just a game of escapism from the ghetto and be seen for what it honestly is -- the most democratically open sport in the country.

It could be seen as a game that "people of every creed and color, from every walk of life … young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled" can help prove, as Barack said, "that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one."

This we hope. Because just as the country proved it was ready for Obama, it will prove it's ready for a different sport to define this presidency.

Can basketball finally find that embrace? Can it finally and truly become America's game because one person won an election?

Yes it can.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.


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