Sports Illustrated writer explains how basketball shaped President Obama

Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff gives a lecture on his book "The Audacity of Hoop" in the Konover Auditorium at the Dodd Center on Monday, March 22. (Zhelan Lang/The Daily Campus)

Basketball has been a huge part of the lives of millions of people, but no one has been influenced by the sport quite like President Barack Obama. Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff, author of “The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama,” explained exactly how the commander in chief was shaped by the sport from a young age in a talk on campus Monday.

“This book grew out of an assignment I got from Sports Illustrated,” Wolff began. “By the end of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that this man had always had basketball in his life in some way or another.”

Wolff explained that basketball was a part of Obama’s life from a very young age, as he played basketball in high school and played pickup games for years afterwards.

“In Chicago, he put together a group of people that would be a part of his political career for years, and many of those people were basketball people…Basketball is very much a part of what he does,” Wolff said.

From there, the would-be president went on to incorporate basketball into his campaign, including playing games of basketball with police and firefighters.

 “In 2008 we’ve got the campaign going, and there are people who work on the campaign who know that he loves the game, but his chief political strategist, David Axelrod, is wary about having him too identified with basketball too quickly because of racial connotations, and he didn’t want voters to learn about him first as a basketball player,” Wolff explained.

“There came a point where, in New Hampshire, that they had him playing casually with patrolmen and firefighters. By the spring of ’08, the campaign moved to Indiana and North Carolina, both big basketball states, and they found time for him to have a scrimmage with the North Carolina varsity team in Chapel Hill.”

Wolff also implied that basketball played a role in helping Obama win North Carolina and Indiana, two states that traditionally vote Republican.

“I don’t think there’s any coincidence that the two reddest states that he flipped to blue were Indiana and North Carolina…He said that I can converse with you in this local idiom,” Wolff said. “Try as they might, guys from the McCain campaign couldn’t spin this as anything but a new guy with a magic touch.”

The political influence that basketball had upon voters and supporters did not end when Obama entered office, however. Wolff explained the challenges that President Obama faced in getting people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

“So Obamacare is passed, and Health and Human Services are trying to get people to sign up. The whole success of the law is hanging in the balance because they had to get young people to sign up to offset the old people who would sign up. Everyone in Washington said it was DOA and there was no way, so the President went to Magic Johnson and got him to do public service announcements. Guys like Lebron James used their social media to get people to sign up, and the threshold is met,” Wolff said. “I posit in the book that basketball helped save the Affordable Care Act.”

The approach of using basketball and sports to connect with people who typically didn’t follow politics, Wolff said, was also used by other parts of the US government, such as the State department sending WNBA players overseas to talk to young women in developing countries.

“The State department uses basketball, and especially women’s basketball, sending WNBA players into developing countries to talk to women and young girls and get them to raise their sights a bit,” Wolff said.

Obama’s approach has also made basketball players more willing to get involved with current affairs, Wolff said, citing the example of NBA player Derrick Rose wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, bringing attention to the death of Eric Garner.

“The age of Obama has served to politicize the NBA locker room. In the early 2000s, the attitude was just ‘show me the money’ and ‘don’t leave any sneaker sales on the table,’” Wolff said. “The Obama campaign politicized a lot of these players, and they jumped on the bandwagon so when there were real issues to be addressed, many of them wanted to step out. [University of Connecticut] alumnus Ray Allen, of whom you should be proud, said ‘we make so much money, it’s impossible not to have a foundation.’ It’s a little bit of that attitude that the Obama generation is creating.”

Students enjoyed the lecture, commenting that it was a rare but interesting blend of sports, politics and journalism.

“I don’t really follow basketball, but I thought it was interesting,” Monica Khersonsky, a sixth semester economics major said.

When one examines the timeline of Obama’s life, Wolff argued, the evidence that basketball was one of the defining parts of his life is undeniable.

“If you think about the journey of his life and the effect that basketball had on him, I think it’s undeniable that it had a unifying effect on him,” Wolff said.


Edward Pankowski is the life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.