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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A president, a ball ... and a book

Early on in in Alexander Wolff’s new book The Audacity of Hoop — Basketball and the Age of Obama, there’s a photo of a ten-year-old boy and his dad. The setting is San Francisco airport. This is the last time Barack Obama will ever see his father, who abandoned the family when his son was an infant and had only now come back, to visit, for Christmas.

Young Barack clasps his dad’s hand to his chest with both of his, and smiles like a kid who finally has what he wants most. His dad looks off to the side, smiling faintly, but — you can see it — he is already gone. The image is both touching and infuriating. But that Christmas, Barack Sr. bought his boy a gift. It was a basketball.

The hole his father left in young Barry’s life, and the way as a young man he sought to fill it with this game and with hoop dreams — “We go play hoop” was the inscription Obama added to his high-school yearbook profile — is the most revealing depth of this eloquent book, whose author is the senior staff writer at Sports Illustrated, and is my friend and neighbor. Could a mixed-race teenager in Hawaii find his identity as a young black man on the court? And could he get good enough to make basketball his life?

He couldn’t quite do either. Obama was a reserve on his state-champion Punahou School team, and at Occidental College he began moving on, in a life-direction way, toward public-issue activism — but basketball has stayed a vital, very active part of our president’s life. And this too is revealing. The president’s many pickup games on the converted White House tennis court have been, Alex tells us, serious and intense. 

Maybe that's because he just loves the game and the competition. Maybe, as a guy who never became a star at it, he always has something to prove; or maybe it’s both. But, as Reggie Love, his longtime personal aide who played in so many pickup contests with the president, said: “He’s a person who bleeds it. It’s not a hobby thing.”

And that’s the other side of the man’s famous casual cool. President Obama is complex and can seem opaque — but in his relationship to the game we glimpse the man who could work through every possible challenge, every conceivable resistance to reach his goals. He’s still doing that, every day in today’s hypercompetitive Washington, in the surprisingly consequential fourth quarter of his presidency.

Anyway this is a really good book. I asked for it and gave it as Christmas presents, and gave a copy as a birthday gift to my son Brad, who knows the author from many noontime pickup games at Middlebury College. So this week I asked Alex a few questions.

Where did you get the idea?
“After he was elected in ‘08, I suggested a story to the magazine about the game’s role in this guy’s life. It was clear that the game had a lot to do with shaping who he was. The profile ran just before his inauguration, and I started thinking, I wonder if that’s it?”

But as the president converted the tennis court and talked basketball with foreign leaders, “I saw that he was actually governing with the game, along with filling out his [NCAA tournament] bracket,” Alex said. The material was adding up. So were the photos, by White House photographer Pete Souza, that would so beautifully illustrate the book. When Obama was re-elected, “I thought, Okay. Let’s do it.”

Do you have a favorite story in here?
“Well, I love that when asked whether her husband talked trash on the basketball court, Michelle Obama said, ‘Oh yeah — but you should have seen his mother! When she was alive, and we played Scrabble and so forth, she was the worst.’”

How about a favorite photo?
"The one that has real layers of meaning ... you know, he didn’t play much on his high school team, and that stuck in his craw for a while.” But Obama began to realize that had his own dad stuck around, Barack Sr. might have worked with him, helped him improve his game — maybe helped him learn to use his right hand. (As a pickup player, Obama is described as “extremely left-handed.”)

“So,” Alex said, “there’s this picture in the book of Obama with his daughters.” Yes, they’re each dribbling upcourt, side by side. “Yeah — he’s clearly dribbling with his daughters, being a dad. And he’s dribbling with his right hand!”   

Yes. And paired with the photo of a boy whose dad is slipping back out of his life, that one image of our president with his daughters, dribbling upcourt together, says pretty much all we really need to know about this man. As president, this is his final quarter. But if we could pick him for our side again, this unique approach to a presidential biography — to me, at least, that's what it is — makes it vividly clear why we would.

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