President-elect Barack Obama had just one disclaimer when he announced former pro-basketball player Arne Duncan as his education secretary: “I did not select Arne because he’s one of the best basketball players I know.”
Still, he conceded, “I will say that I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history.”
Not that they’d have much competition from the likes of John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger or Janet Reno.
“Over the presidencies of the 20th century there were Golf Cabinets, there were Poker Cabinets, and even I suppose Tennis Cabinets,” said John Sayle Watterson, author of “The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.”
But basketball, he said, is a first. “I think this is sort of an updating of that.”
Obama is an enthusiastic player who picked up the game in junior high and became known as “Barry O’Bomber” in high school. You might even call the presidency his backup choice. He told Barbara Walters he dreamed of going pro until he realized he wasn’t good enough.
Duncan, a regular at Obama’s pickup games, can do him one-better. He co-captained the Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia before becoming the head of the Chicago school system.
Obama’s choice for national security adviser, James L. Jones, was a forward at Georgetown. Incoming Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner hates to miss a pickup game. Eric Holder and Susan Rice, incoming attorney general and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, both played ball in high school. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s choice for homeland security secretary, has regularly guest-coached women’s basketball for Arizona’s three state universities.
Obama also plays with top adviser Robert Gibbs, Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias – who played professionally in Greece – and personal aide Reggie Love, who played on a Duke team that won an NCAA title.
Legend has it that Obama even played with former Princeton star and now Oregon State coach Craig Robinson to win his approval while Obama was courting his wife, Michelle, who is Robinson’s sister.
The basketball court is clearly a place where Obama develops rapport. But it’s also a proving ground for the kinds of skills a leader needs, said Dave Czesniuk of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for folks who managed participating in sports with academics, with part-time jobs, with family commitments,” he said. “There are time-management skills involved and certainly social development skills and confidence, self-esteem building as well as the ability to deal with difficult situations.”
And all the presidents’ sports aren’t mere diversions.
One of Theodore Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies – national parks – stemmed from his love of hiking and hunting. Roosevelt often invited his Tennis Cabinet to join him in daily exercise.
William Howard Taft had his Golf Cabinet, and Warren Harding spent plenty of time on the green when he wasn’t meeting with his Poker Cabinet. His weekly poker games at the White House were a place for dealmaking and forging relationships. (Future president Herbert Hoover, however, refused to play.)
Others have been less overt. Gerald Ford downplayed his all-star football past to avoid being seen as a dumb jock, Watterson said. The elder George Bush played baseball and soccer at Yale and was “maybe the best athlete of the 20th century presidents,” Watterson added, but still had a reputation as a ……… buttoned-down Ivy Leaguer.
Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both played basketball, but not into adulthood. And certainly neither assembled a sports dream team for his Cabinet.
President George W. Bush did ask at least one potential Supreme Court nominee about his exercise routine. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said the president recommended more cross-training.
But even the Old Boys couldn’t keep up with Obama’s club. What does that mean for Hillary Clinton?
“Probably Hillary’s not going to be on the basketball court, nor are other women who are either in the Cabinet or sub-cabinet posts, but I don’t think it will affect his relationship with them,” Watterson said. “I can’t imagine that basketball is going to be in any sense the way golf was to a previous generation, say with Dwight Eisenhower.”
Hillary Clinton did play half-court basketball growing up, when only the boys played full-court. But who says she doesn’t have game?
Clinton enlisted Earvin “Magic” Johnson to sink a metaphoric hook shot against Obama in the primaries. In a radio spot, Johnson recalled his first year as a professional basketball player, when his team captain advised him: “Take it easy rookie, it’s a long season” – a jab at Obama’s relative lack of experience.
As long as Obama gets a good mix of backgrounds, political views and, yes, athletic abilities in his Cabinet, basketball should remain an “active, dynamic, positive force” in his administration, Czesniuk said.
It may even have a side benefit with the press.
“It’ll be something that will give them something to write about or distract them from the other problems that Obama is facing. It’s a little like the Obamas choosing the school for their daughter, a dog,” Watterson said. “It’ll all be very interesting because it will all be very new.”
And if he needs to round out the team? He might consider former presidential hopeful and fellow Democrat Bill Bradley, a 6’5″ Hall of Famer.
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