Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Obama plays hard at more than politics

Baseball has had its day; hoops will be in the House.

Guard Jack Wooten (right) of North Carolina found himself playing against an unusual opponent in April: Barack Obama.
Guard Jack Wooten (right) of North Carolina found himself playing against an unusual opponent in April: Barack Obama.Read moreJAE C. HONG / Associated Press

CHICAGO - The Texas Rangers are out, the Chicago White Sox are in, and the mountain bikes are headed for the basement. As for that White House bowling alley - that hardwood might be in for a makeover.

As promised, change is coming to Washington, and not just policy and politics. President-elect Barack Obama may be as big a sports fan as President Bush, but he's got a totally different game.

"He's a hoops aficionado," said Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois treasurer and a regular in Obama's pick-up games.

Not to mention a hard-core Chicago White Sox fan.

South Siders can no longer gripe about the crosstown rival Cubs getting all the love, not when the future leader of the free world sports his well-worn White Sox cap wherever he goes.

Remember the day after the election, when he dropped his daughters off at school wearing his beloved hat? Or when he headed off to the gym, also wearing it? TV newscasts around the country mentioned Obama and that hat 60 times in the three days after the election alone, the White Sox found, a number that equates to millions of viewers.

"To have the first fan be a White Sox fan is a pretty cool thing," White Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said.

No matter their party, recent American presidents have tended to love athletic activities.

Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly found time to play 800 rounds of golf during his eight years in office. Bill Clinton was spotted running the streets of Washington - with an occasional stop at McDonald's mixed in, of course. The first George Bush liked horseshoes so much that he built a pit near the White House swimming pool.

George W. Bush, of course, is a baseball fan. The former Texas Rangers owner even hosted T-ball games on the South Lawn - no outs, no strikes and nobody loses. Though he hung up his running shoes a few years back, after the sport got to be too much for his knees, he's an avid mountain biker.

"There's a certain power and appeal to sport," said Dave Czesniuk, the director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

"Not just basketball, but all sports provide an opportunity to come together on a common ground," Czesniuk said. ". . . It's really an opportunity to examine all sorts of behaviors and approach life through one lens, and that lens is sport."

Obama works out on a regular basis, walking on the treadmill and lifting weights. He bikes, though his speed is leisurely rides with his daughters. He plays the occasional round of golf, and Golf Digest thought enough of his game to rank him eighth among the 15 presidents who have golfed. The list appears in the January issue.

But you don't need to be spotted the H, O, R and S to know what his sport of choice is.

"For a while, I thought that I might be a basketball player," Obama said when Barbara Walters asked what he dreamed of being when he was younger. "Until I realized that I wasn't good enough to be a professional basketball player."

Pick-up games were a regular part of his schedule on primary days during the campaign, and if you're thinking of middle-age guys down at the rec center, think again. Depending upon who was around, there was some serious hooping going on.

He scrimmaged with the North Carolina Tar Heels a few weeks after they'd made the Final Four. Reggie Love, his personal aide, won an NCAA title at Duke and was the Blue Devils' captain in 2004-05. Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law, played at Princeton and now coaches Oregon State.

"People get competitive, and he's no different," Giannoulias said. "He plays tough, but not dirty, but he's a lot stronger than he looks."

So, of course, when Obama won the election the big sporting question was: Would he put a basketball court in the White House?

The White House has a court, but it's half-size and outside. The gym at Camp David has a court, but that's an hour away.

There is, however, a bowling alley at the White House. Considering that Obama isn't a threat to crash the PBA Tour - he bowled an embarrassingly bad 37 during a lavishly-photographed campaign stop - the alley would seem to be a prime spot for a basketball court.

"I hear there's a bowling alley, and obviously that hasn't gone too well," he said during the campaign. "So we're getting rid of the bowling alley and replacing it with a basketball court." He tempered that during his interview with Walters, saying he might leave the alley alone.

As much as Obama loves playing basketball, he'll watch just about anything.

"He loves sports, all sports," Giannoulias said. "Lately he's focused all his time on dealing with the economy and putting together his administration. But he used to be a huge fan of SportsCenter. He loves watching sports and talking sports."

White Sox general manager Ken Williams learned that a long time ago.

Obama has lived on the South Side since he moved to Chicago, and is a more die-hard White Sox fan than some natives. At his first news conferences as president-elect, rather than dividing the room into left and right sides, he split reporters into Cubs and White Sox sections.