By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 1, 2016) — It’s only a few weeks until the final March Madness of Barack Obama’s presidency. And the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors are chasing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ all-time record of 72 regular-season wins.
Indeed, basketball has grown in popularity on a global scale in the past several decades, and the commander-in-chief’s love of the game and how it has played an important role in his life is captured in Alexander Wolff’s latest tome, “The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama.” (Temple University Press published the book in November.)
The book features more than 125 pictures, many taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza.
The books tells the unforgettable tale of how the future president fell in the love with the game at age 10, in December 1971, when his father gave him a basketball for Christmas.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss has summed up the book this way: “The flow, the edge, the drive, the individual and the team, the black and white—all of that is Barack Obama playing basketball, the American game. To those who consider the president a mystery, ‘The Audacity of Hoop,’ offers a key to understanding him, through Alex Wolff’s fluid prose and Pete Souza’s evocative photographs.”
In another review, The Addison (Vermont) Independent wrote, “When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer Alex Wolff did a piece for the magazine about Obama and basketball. That began a long journey for Wolff, a Cornwall resident, tracing the president’s heartfelt ties to this most American of games.”
Wolff connects the dots between Obama’s intellect and governing style and how basketball influenced his political life. In one passage from the book, Wolff observed, “With its serial returns to equilibrium—cut backdoor against an overplay; shoot when the defense sags—the game represents Obama’s intellectual nature come alive.”
Wolff, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, has chronicled the sport for decades. He is a former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association. He has been employed by SI since 1980, first as a researcher. He has been one of the magazine’s writers since ’82, currently the longest-tenured writer on SI’s staff. The magazine has sent him to Russia and China, Iran and Cuba, among other locales. He has been sent to the World Series and the World Cup, the Olympics and the NBA Finals, Grand Slam tennis events and Tour de France on assignment. All told, he has reported from six continents for SI.
He collaborated with Armen Keteyian on “Raw Recruits” a 1990 New York Times bestseller about college basketball recruiting that the Village Voice declared was “the most important sports book in years.”
Wolff received the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Print Media Award (for outstanding lifetime coverage of the game) in 2011.
What follows is my interview with Wolff.
To me, the book’s title is a real eye-catching phrase. Was “The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama” really the only choice for the book’s name? Or were you mulling a few other title ideas before settling on this one? It certainly seem like a logical way of coming full circle with the president’s own book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” as his time in the White House winds down. Was that the deciding factor?
As a title, “The Audacity of Hoop” was pretty much a no-brainer. Almost too obvious a pun, I suppose . . . but I remember thinking there really was no other candidate that better split the distance between Obama and basketball. It was a case of the title coming first, and me saying to myself, O.K., better write the book that matches the title.
While promoting this book, what are a few unforgettable questions and comments you’ve heard from other journalists and readers?
A few people have wondered if it was fair game to play off the Obama’s own book, or whether I needed permission to do so. No, and no. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and in any case, this was a take-off—which is broadly protected, as is parody and satire.
A lot of people ask me about the racial implications of a game that’s so associated with African-Americans, and whether there might have been, or might still be, any hesitation on Obama’s part to hold basketball so close and embrace it so publicly. And that’s a fair question. I do think that this is one of those rare instances where a politician is really showing a sincere side of himself; so often candidates get presented in canned fashion, as a result of image consultants and etc. Moreover, by the time he’s elected, that sense of the game being a blacks-only club has been largely wiped out, even at the NBA level: the Obama coalition is almost perfectly reflected in the segments of the U.S. population that love the game: young people, Hispanics, well-educated whites, etc., as well as blacks.
Give us a sense of the promotional schedule you’ve had for the past few months. Has it mostly been with print media and web outlets or a greater mix of radio and TV appearances? What’s your promotional like for the next month?
There hasn’t been a “book tour” per se . . . I’ve mostly jumped on opportunities as they’ve come up, some bookstores, some college campuses, radio/podcasts, like NPR’s Only A Game. Some appearances have had fundraising components or tried to give a nonprofit a higher profile. On Feb. 8 and 9, for instance, I’ll be at UConn and Springfield College (birthplace of basketball), then Toronto over All-Star Weekend for an event at Ben McNally’s, a great indy bookstore downtown; then I’ll hit D.C. on Feb. 23 for a fundraiser for Reading Partners, and give a presentation at Temple in Philly on Feb. 25. My guess is that there’ll be another flurry of interest in mid-March, when Obama fills out the last (NCAA tournament) bracket of his presidency.
Generally I’ll screen a couple dozen images from the book with commentary, then take questions, then sign. But I’ve tried to push some social-media buttons too. This is a book that sits in a nice Venn diagram kind of space—politics, sports—which means there’s a pretty large universe of special-interest sites and platforms to approach.
What is the book’s underlying message?
I’m not sure there’s a message other than what any given reader takes away. I’ve tried to lay out how the game influenced Obama, and catalog his impact on the game during two campaigns and two terms in office. I will say that I was informed throughout by a conviction that sports generally has an impact beyond the arena or stadium. This project was a particularly striking example of that.
What was the hardest section of the book to write and report? What made it most challenging?
Once he leaves high school in Honolulu, and before he surfaces as a ballplayer when he’s running for the presidency, he’s just a guy with unrequited basketball dreams, who plays pickup when he can and watches the game as a fan. Yes, his basketball circle is more rarified than most; his brother-in-law is a college coach and was drafted by the Sixers, and his pick-up buddies in Chicago are serious: Arne Duncan, John Rogers, etc. I had to re-create that stretch of his basketball life, and it required some forensics to do so.
How many times and hours did you spent interviewing President Obama for the book? Can you give a general breakdown of where and when you met with him for this project?
I never did get granted my request for a one-on-one interview with the POTUS. That said, the White House was very cooperative on the photo front, and the images in the book are a huge component–so I always felt that I was getting Obama’s approval even without an interview. But Obama has been very thoughtful about the role of the game in his life, especially in his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” so I never felt that I didn’t have enough of his voice in the text.
From start to finish, how much time did you spend writing this book? And did you have a lot of time off from Sports Illustrated duties to work on the project?
I did take a brief, three-month book leave to finish up the manuscript. For the most part, though, I collected material steadily. I’d done a piece for SI shortly after he was elected in 2008, looking at the role of the game in his life and career to that point. I asked myself, Will basketball continue to figure in his time in office? And it did, again and again . . . and then these great pictures came through the White House Flickr feed. So I told myself, there’s a book here—but only if he’s re-elected. When he was, in 2012, I pretty confidently put together a proposal and shopped it around to publishers.
Once you finished the book, was there a real sense of exhilaration or relief for you? For you, was there greater pressure to make this book a quality read than with past books simply because it was about the POTUS?
I did feel as I worked on the book that, yes, I’ve got something here: the framing of the idea was sound, and the material in the text was persuasive. In that sense, you could say I was excited about the end product. But if the book has quality, it’s as much the result of the first-rate photos as anything. For that I tip my hat to my photo editor, Kate Patterson, and especially to Pete Souza, the official White House photographer. His images make up almost half of the pictures in the book, and certainly the most memorable ones are his. I’ve heard from two sources close to the president that POTUS really enjoyed seeing the book, for the way all those basketball-themed photos find their way into one place.
Because of President Obama’s love for basketball, do you feel he is one of the best ambassadors the NBA can have? And has the league done enough, in your view, to have him generate publicity?
It’s obviously not POTUS’s formal role to be a spokesman or icon for the NBA or the game at large. But the NBA was openly in support of his election and re-election, and I do think the reason has a lot to do with the way Obama projects internationally, as the NBA strives to do; and I think it has to do with his generational appeal.
Do you think he’s help make basketball “cooler” to a wider range of Americans and people around the world?
The NBA has done quite nicely, I think, “hitching its wagon” to a young, hip, African-American leader who’s hugely popular in the very countries the league is seeking to make inroads.
The State Dept. in his administration has also been particularly attentive to “soft power” and public diplomacy, and basketball, especially the NBA, is an enormously powerful example of it.
Is there a current or former college or pro basketball player who reminds you of President Obama’s style of play and his cerebral skills on the court?
Of all the examples I came across of “who does he play like,” the most persuasive to me is Lenny Wilkens. A player-coach; a lefty; not flashy; mixed-race. Although the old footage of him as a high school senior, which you can find on YouTube in the Barack Obama Mixtape, suggests a little Tiny Archibald or Allen Iverson . . .
Seeing the complete picture of what takes place on the court and having a innate sense of what’s going to happen before it happens were among Magic Johnson’s special skills, not unlike Wayne Gretzky’s on-ice presence and play-making skills. Though he’s not in the same class as an athlete, do you feel President Obama’s intellect and understanding of the game raise him to that level in his own unique way?
The dirty little secret is that Obama really isn’t that good a player, especially as he makes his way through his 50s. He can’t go to his right. He’s a very streaky shooter. He’s very good, however, at figuring out how to fit in—at playing with guys who are better than he is.
Who are a few of the insiders who offered priceless perspective and insights about President Obama on and off the court to help you shape the central narrative of this book? Can you provide a few examples?
Among the people who helped me draw a picture of the president’s basketball life were his high school coach, Chris McLachlin; his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson; his political advisor, David Axelrod; former personal aide and Duke star Reggie Love; former secretary of education Arne Duncan; and a number of others who have played with him.
Have you started penning a new book? If so, what’s it about? Or do you have an upcoming tome in mind that you are willing to reveal?
I don’t have a specific next project in mind. The magazine is keeping me busy. But what I write, in whatever form and at whatever length, tends to tie sports to the world around it. Like this book.
Switching gears for a moment…
What is the best basketball book you’ve ever read? Why?
I was highly influenced by John McPhee’s great Bill Bradley profile, “A Sense of Where You Are.” And I loved reading Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is a Playground” and Pete Axthelm’s “The City Game.” I read all of these books as an adolescent, long before I became a writer, which may be why they have stuck with me.
What is the best basketball movie you’ve ever watched? Why?
I did adore “Hoop Dreams,” the great documentary by Steve James, Fred Marx and Peter Gilbert. The filmmakers’ patience was rewarded. The Gates and Agee families’ lives were compassionately captured. It was brutally true.
What do you believe is the best article you’ve ever written?
It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite story, but two that had a powerful affect on me personally were a 1996 story about the 1987 world junior champion Yugoslav basketball team, and how the war in the Balkans fractured the players’ friendships; and a 2002 piece, which SI ran on the 30th anniversary of the Munich Olympics, that re-created the Black September attacks in the light of 9/11 and security concerns about the forthcoming Athens Games. My father was a German immigrant, grew up in Munich, so both stories, with their echoes of European traumas, tapped into a vein that other stories might not.
What published work, online or in printed form, is the most important thing you’ve written? Why?
It’s even harder to pick out a “most important” piece of writing. That’s really for others to judge. For a while, it looked like a book I wrote with Armen Keteyian, “Raw Recruits,” might really have an impact on college sports and how they operated. But . . . no. Things are essentially the same, except that the sums involved are larger, and the abuses tolerated are wider. Alas.
Follow Alexander Wolff on Twitter: @alexander_wolff
The book’s website: http://www.TheAudacityOfHoop.com