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15 January 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

A new global game?

Obama and Sport

By Benjamin Markovits

On the eve of the election, Barack Obama and John McCain were both interviewed on the half-time show of Monday Night Football. Asked the same questions, they differed significantly on only one: if you could change one thing about American sports, what would it be? McCain offered something worthy about sorting out the steroids problem – a politician’s answer. But Obama wanted a college football playoff – a fan’s response. If he gets his way, his first term might just coincide with the invention of something equivalent to the FA Cup.

A strange legacy, because Obama is not only the first black president, but the first president to identify himself primarily as a basketball fan. Reagan played football at college; Bushes Sr and Jr are both baseball men. Clinton did play basketball at Oxford – but only for the B team, where he was distinguished primarily by his ability to show up.

Obama’s basketball credentials are good: his high school team in Hawaii won the state championship. YouTube clips show a player with a decent, if slightly predictable, shake-and-bake move – he tends to go left. He has a nice, easy shooting stroke. The best omens for his presidency? He shows good court vision and runs hard even off the ball.

It’s been widely reported that Obama shook off election-day nerves playing basketball. And various associates, from his personal assistant, Reggie Love, to his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have notable basketball pasts. “Could concerns over his economic recovery plan,” the New York Times asks, “be settled on the free-throw line?”

In Dreams from My Father, Obama writes that “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America and, beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant”. One thing it means is basketball: the dominance of African Americans on the basketball court is so well established that it is hardly remarked on any more. The Washington Wizards, Obama’s new local team, have 15 players on the roster: 13 of them are African American. The other two are white: from the Ukraine and Lithuania.

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Basketball is the only native sport America has managed to sell to the world. Baseball and football have some international following, but only basketball could rival soccer as the global game: it’s cheap, simple and beautiful. Obama’s presidency will coincide with aggressive expansion by the National Basketball Association, which hopes to establish a club in Europe inside the next decade. One of the difficulties it faces is the NBA Draft. The American method of divvying up young talent may be too socialist for European employment laws. May we have more such problems.

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