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Ball Don't Lie

This is what it’s like to elbow President Barack Obama in the mouth during a pickup game

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Elbower and elbowee. (CHCI.org/Getty Images)

When you love playing basketball, you're eventually going to catch a stray shot in the midst of some physical play — even if you're the President of the United States. Barack Obama suffered the sting back in 2010, when a Thanksgiving weekend pickup run resulted in an elbow to the chops and a split lip that required 12 stitches.

We know getting chin-checked hasn't stopped POTUS from playing pickup, but we never really knew much about the guy who touched him up beyond his name and where he worked — Reynaldo Decerega of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. After the incident, Decerega implored the press to respect his privacy because, he says, “I didn’t want that to define my life.” Now, though, he's apparently totally cool with talking about it, and did so at length with Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe:

“I felt horrible,” said Decerega. “I’ve played basketball a million times in my life and I’ve never elbowed anybody. So the first time I do this, it’s to the President of the United States? What is the probability of that? Nil, right?”

Well, apparently not.

Even now, nearly 2 1/2 years after the fact, the 40-year-old Decerega still "hesitates before speaking" about the play, according to Grossfeld. When he does, though, what we hear is a story about a pretty run-of-the-mill basketball play:

“I was driving hard to the left, [Obama] cut me off and then he started pressuring me,” said Decerega. “He was just playing solid defense. Things weren’t chippy.”

(Clearly, the president believes in the importance of strong, proactive defense.)

Decerega shoots both his hands skyward, demonstrating what Obama did that day.

“He was crowding me,” he said. “Instinctively, you crowd the person you’re guarding once he stops his dribble. And instinctively, as the offensive person, I felt the pressure, so I was trying to clear some space. You swing your arms to see what options you have.

“So I swung the ball from my left side to my right side. And in that swing — I’m obviously leading with this elbow — I hit him in the lip and he fell to the ground from the contact. And that’s a very surreal moment."

Yeah, I'd imagine "knocking the president to the ground and splitting his lip with his elbow" is pretty intense, unbelievable and terrifying. Even if the Commander in Chief respects hard fouls, that still seems like the kind of thing that could get you sent to a secret facility. (Not that any of those really exist, hahahaha, just kidding, nobody come here, please.)

After Obama and Decerega left to tend to their wounds and the reality of the moment set in, Decerega released a brief White House-approved statement ("I learned today the president is both a tough competitor and a good sport. I enjoyed playing basketball with him this morning. I'm sure he'll be back out on the court again soon."), politely asked the media to respect his privacy and sent the president a written apology. Savvy political strategy, if you ask me.

Luckily for him, the president appears to be a good sport with an even better sense of humor:

Three days [after sending the apology], he received a large gift-wrapped package with the presidential seal on it. It contained a framed three-picture sequence.

"Him guarding me, me swinging through, and then him holding his mouth," said Decerega.

The president inscribed it: "For Rey, the only guy that ever hit the president and never got arrested. Barack."

As conversation pieces go, that's a pretty freakin' good one, don't you think?

While Obama's response was good-natured and pitch-perfect, he hasn't welcomed Decerega back into the pickup fold — the CHCI director of programs hasn't received an invitation to play again since "The Elbow." Decerega isn't bitter, though: "Most people wish they could play ball with the President of the United States just once. I did it twice.”

Yeah, and that second one was a doozy.

Hat-tip to Chris Chase of For the Win.

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