"A real rat baller," says an old high school teammate, Alan Lum. "He'd have a basketball with him in class sometimes so that between classes, when we had an hour or so, he'd get in a pickup game on the outdoor courts."
"Tall and skinny, lithe -- he was angular," says Marshall Poe, a pickup game buddy from Obama's law school days. "Because he didn't have any weight, he had to go up and over people to get the ball. He had good ups."
Now Barack Obama, presidential candidate, he once was Barry Obama, basketball player, maybe 6-1 and 170, quick, aggressive, a lefthander, a slasher with a nice double-pump shot in the lane.
A Dwyane Wade type?
"George Gervin," says Poe.
He adds this disclaimer: "Obama didn't have much of an outside shot. He wasn't a terribly skilled player, but he was good enough to play on the center court." The Harvard intramural gym had one real court with two narrow ones alongside. "The scrubs played on the side. Obama always played on the center court."
No serious basketball player has been president. Dr. Naismith, alas, put up his peach basket too late for the towering rail-splitter, Abe Lincoln. The Princeton All-American, Bill Bradley, never got much past midcourt in a presidential race. Al Gore came the closest, long after playing on Harvard's freshman team, but one doubts the old vice president had any ups, let alone good ones."
Obama. A year ago, visiting American troops in Kuwait, he played ball with soldiers from his home state, Illinois. "They might've expected an old, gray senator," says his deputy press secretary, Tommy Victor. "Instead, they get an athlete who relates to them on a different level." Obama's Occidental coach, Mike Zinn, quoted by The Washington Post: "Limited shooting range, although fairly accurate from 12 feet in. Very athletic, fast, good jumper ... a very good defender ... scored about 10 points and had six or seven rebounds per game."
At age 45, Obama still can play. Word comes from Craig Robinson, the fourth-leading scorer in Princeton basketball history and now the head coach at Brown. It's also true that Robinson is Obama's brother-in-law, a kinship that gains you nothing on the playground. Robinson says: "He can hold his own in any pickup game. He's athletic, and he knows how to play the game. So he can fit in with all kinds, from the completely dangerous to the highly skilled. As anyone knows with knowledge of pickup games, that's quite a compliment."
How cool would that be? Instead of having a cheerleader for a president, we can have a slashing small forward.By the way, I was trying to explain to Ellie the other day the difference between a jock and the gym rat. In high school, I was definitely not a jock, but I was a gym rat. Here is how I understand the difference: A jock is somebody who plays sports in large part because of the social identity that it brings, while a gym rat is more of an addict to a sport (usually basketball). The jock, from a outside, has a healthy social life. The gym rat is more solitary and, to outside observers, appears a bit twisted and sick -- a user who just can't stop. The gym rat's identity is, contrary to what some might think, more thoroughly based on a sport itself than the jock is. Both like to succeed in their sports, but for the gym rat the joy is intrinsic to the game. For the jock, the joy is picking up chicks after the game.
Does that make sense?