Wisconsin players pose with President Obama (Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America)
Despite a two-day Twitter crusade, a formal request and some local and national publicity, Wisconsin forward Zach Bohannon's campaign to get President Obama to play a pick-up game with the Badgers was probably a long shot.
Luckily for Bohannon, one of his teammates had a little more juice.
When guard George Marshall heard his teammates talking Thursday morning about the slim chance of meeting Obama during his visit to Madison that day, it suddenly dawned on the Chicago native he had a connection who might be able to make it happen.
Marshall called former AAU teammate Alex Nesbitt, a basketball player at Harvard who is also the godson of Obama and the youngest son of the president's closest friend. Since Nesbitt's father Marty Nesbitt happened to be traveling with the president, he was able to ask Obama to carve out a few minutes in his schedule to meet privately with the Badgers.
"I heard President Obama was coming, but it never really crossed my mind until this morning I might be able to make it happen," Marshall said. "Maybe if I'd reached [Marty Nesbitt] earlier, we might have been able to play basketball with him, who knows? But it still was a great experience I'll remember the rest of my life."
Even though the Wisconsin players only had about five minutes with Obama before his speech Thursday afternoon, they still made the most of their opportunity.
One player asked the president to come back and shoot some hoops with the Badgers after the election. Another ribbed him for picking against Wisconsin in a second-round NCAA tournament game that the Badgers won last season. Dan Fahey even asked Obama for tips on studying for the LSAT because the senior guard is taking the exam this week.
President Obama waves to the crowd in Madison on Thursday (AP)
Like most basketball teams who have met Obama, what impressed the Badgers most was his basketball acumen. He knew all about Wisconsin's famed success at the Kohl Center.
"I couldn't believe it," Bohannon said. "He said, 'Now I've got a challenge for you. We all know you guys can win at home. The true test is whether you guys can win on the road.' We're like, 'Holy crap, he knows about our home-court advantage?'"
Once Obama shook hands with the team, posed for a picture and said goodbye, the Badgers figured the day was over. Instead, a White House staffer led them to a spot near the podium, where they got to listen to a speech from Obama that led off with a shout-out to them.
"I've just got to point out some members of the Badgers basketball team are here," Obama began. "They've invited me to play. I said after the election, 'I'll be raining down jumpers on them.' Actually I didn't say that. I said, 'I'm getting kind of old.'"
One of the best parts of the day for the Wisconsin players was meeting Obama got them out of running hill sprints Thursday afternoon.
At 12:45 on Thursday, one of the coaches texted the Badgers to inform them Bo Ryan wanted them to meet at Bascom Hill for their daily conditioning. It took some cajoling from some of the Badgers players, but Ryan finally relented when he learned what Marshall had arranged for them.
All of the Badgers were amazed Marshall had been able to set this up for them in less than 12 hours, but none of the players was more thrilled than Bohannon. An aspiring politician who had been tweeting Obama and the White House staff for two days to try to set up a pick-up game, Bohannon said the meeting with the president exceeded his expectations — even if the basketball will have to wait until next time.
"Zach was the most excited, but all my teammates were excited," Marshall said. "When I told them I knew President Obama's close friend, they all told me I should call him. They were all hoping I'd be able to make it happen."
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