President Obama’s Vanity Fair feature details his (hollering) obsession with pickup hoops

As a fan of American history or American politics, no matter your political leaning, Michael Lewis' Vanity Fair profile on President Barack Obama will rank as a must-read. Stuck in the middle of our own working day, we're looking forward to giving it a lengthy run-through once the whistle blows.

As a fan of basketball? Reading an NBA blog in the afternoon stuck in the slowest point of the NBA's offseason? An insight into President Barack Obama's personal influence on the game he appears to enjoy above all others is nearly as fascinating as reading Lewis' borderline-unprecedented access into Obama's day-to-day affairs as sitting president. And between an NPR interview from Wednesday and Vanity Fair's nine-page feature there are unending sources of material to glom on to just within the realm of The First Fan, governing aside.

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Obama doesn't play as much as he'd like to anymore, those year-old Under Armour kicks he debuted last fall are apparently still court-worthy nearly a year later, but the caliber of opponent and his apparent devotion to efficiency (and, apparently, teeth-rocking physical play against players that were sometimes half the president's age) appeared to surprise Lewis.

Lewis, who counts the fabled "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side" amongst his works within the realm of sportswriting, did hand over quote approval to the White House for his story. The quotes, scrubbed though they may be, are still worth a look. From the NPR interview:

And he had kind of orchestrated himself to - he had worked very hard to get to the point where he could take the shot and get a good shot. He also screams at you if you - if you're on his team and you take bad shots, he doesn't put up with it. He was hollering at me.

In fact, he hollered at me so much - he hollered at me - he was so - I was so embarrassed by being outclassed and feeling like he was going to be pissed off at me if we lost, that I, at some point, I kind of snuck out of the game and went and sat with the scorekeeper. But the first time I jacked up a shot that he thought I shouldn't take, he started screaming at me.

And at that the - when the game was over and it was clear his team had won four of the six games, you could see that the reason that his team had won was that the players on his team didn't take stupid shots because they were afraid the president was going to scream at them if they did.

The president, according to Lewis, doesn't want to be counted on as the president once he steps between the lines. Lewis relayed how Obama didn't pout when taken advantage of by younger, better players on defense. He apparently was keen to make the extra pass, even while open himself, and doesn't enjoy counting kowtowers amongst his practice mates. "If you defer to him," Lewis told NPW's Terry Gross, "you're not invited back."


A welcome respite, no doubt, from a political life spent either discussing affairs of state with those attempting to only tell the president what he wants to hear, or those saturating every bit of advice or counsel relayed to the commander in chief with agenda and bias. Those unfortunate realities are explained in detail in Lewis' Vanity Fair feature.

For now, though, we'll highlight the hoop-centric aspects of his piece. Such as the caliber of opponent Obama likes to choose for his run.

From Vanity Fair:

A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. "How many of you played in college?" I asked the only player even close to my height. "All of us," he replied cheerfully and said he'd played point guard at Florida State. "Most everyone played pro too—except for the president." Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.

Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, "That's my dad on your shirt. He's the head coach at Miami." Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn't played in college, and even in high school he hadn't started. Plus, he hadn't played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?


To start, the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes is former George Mason head man Jim Larranaga; and he has two sons. Jay, a former Bowling Green point man who played alongside longtime NBA journeyman Antonio Daniels in college, is now an assistant coach under Doc Rivers in Boston. The second, and more likely candidate is Jon Larranaga — who played at George Mason and currently works out of the Washington, D.C., area. Either way, these are relatively young college veterans, and hardly a group of golden-oldies meant to make Obama's uneasy jump shot look true.

As if he could fire one off against that competition, anyway. From Lewis' NPR interview:

So he took, in the course of five games we played, or six games, he took maybe five shots and made all but one of them.

This, according to the Vanity Fair feature, is by design. In his advancing age, Obama is trying to turn himself into a no-stats All-Star:


"What happens is, as I get older, the chances I'm going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four." He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he's switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he's maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.

All of this is revelatory, but it pales in comparison to the overall work Lewis has done here; both in his recounts on NPR, and the Vanity Fair piece. We might be uneasy with the White House's filter on Lewis quotes, and you might be uneasy with Obama's politics and the idea that he could be re-elected to a second term. Vote how you will, make pointless comments however you see fit -- as a document, this is something worth taking your time with. Both his interview and the feature are something you must work through if you have any interest in domestic or international politics. Or leadership within that realm.

On a smaller scale, as always, is the basketball. And Obama's style of on-court politicking, and leadership, is pretty telling as well.

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