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Published: Thursday, 12/11/2008

Presidents, sports go hand in hand

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Barack Obama throws out the first pitch before the second game of the American League championship series. Barack Obama throws out the first pitch before the second game of the American League championship series.
ANN HEISENFELT / AP Enlarge

CHICAGO The Rangers are out, the White Sox are in, and the mountain bikes are headed for the basement. As for that White House bowling alley well, that hardwood might be in for a complete makeover.

As promised, change is coming to Washington, and we re not just talking policy and politics. President-elect Barack Obama may be as big a sports junkie as his predecessor, but he s got a totally different game.

He s a hoops aficionado, said Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois treasurer and a regular in Obama s pick-up games.

Not to mention a hard-core Chicago White Sox fan.

South Siders can no longer gripe about the crosstown rival Cubs getting all the love, not when the future leader of the free world sports his well-worn White Sox cap wherever he goes these days.

Remember the day after the election, when he dropped his daughters off at school wearing his beloved hat? Or when he headed off to the gym, wearing that same hat? TV newscasts around the country mentioned Obama and that hat 60 times in the three days after the election alone, the White Sox found, a number that equates to millions of viewers.

To have the first fan be a White Sox fan is a pretty cool thing, White Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said.

No matter their party, American presidents have tended to have one thing in common: They love their sports.

Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly found time to play 800 rounds of golf during his eight years in office, Bill Clinton was spotted running the streets of Washington with an occasional stop at McDonald s mixed in, of course and the first George Bush liked horseshoes so much he built a pit near the White House swimming pool.

The current president, George W. Bush, is, of course, a baseball fan. The former Texas Rangers owner even hosted T-ball games on the White House s South Lawn no outs, no strikes and nobody loses. Though he hung up his running shoes a few years back after it got to be too much for his knees, he s also an avid mountain biker.

There s a certain power and appeal to sport, said Dave Czesniuk, the director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

Not just basketball, but all sports provide an opportunity to come together on a common ground, Czesniuk said. It s really an opportunity to examine all sorts of behaviors and approach life through one lens, and that lens is sport.

Don t let those spindly legs fool you: Obama works out on a regular basis, walking on the treadmill and lifting weights. He bikes, though his speed is more leisurely rides with his daughters. He plays the occasional round of golf, and Golf Digest thought enough of his game to rank him eighth among the 15 presidents who have played. The list appears in the January issue.

But you don t need to be spotted the H, O, R and S to know what his sport of choice is.

For a while, I thought that I might be a basketball player, Obama said when Barbara Walters asked what he dreamed of being when he was younger. Until I realized that I wasn t good enough to be a professional basketball player.

Pick-up games were a regular part of his schedule on primary days during the campaign, and if you re thinking middle-age guys down at the rec center, think again. Depending upon who was around, there was some serious hooping going on.

He scrimmaged with the North Carolina Tar Heels a few weeks after they d made the Final Four. Reggie Love, his personal aide, won an NCAA title at Duke and was the Blue Devils captain in 2004-05. Craig Robinson, Obama s brother-in-law, played at Princeton and now coaches Oregon State.

Arne Duncan, the CEO of Chicago s public schools and a frequent pick-up team member, was co-captain of Harvard s basketball team and played professionally in Australia. Giannoulias not only played professionally in Greece, he has the distinction of being the guy who bruised Obama s ribs on the day of the Indiana primary.

People get competitive and he s no different, Giannoulias said. He plays tough but not dirty, but he s a lot stronger than he looks.

So, of course, when Obama won the election the big sporting question was: Would Obama put a basketball court in the White House?

The White House already has a court, but it s half-size and outside. The gym at Camp David has a court, but that s an hour away.

There is, however, a bowling alley at the White House. Considering Obama isn t a threat to crash the PBA Tour any time soon he bowled an embarrassingly bad 37 during a lavishly-photographed campaign stop the alley would seem to be a prime spot for a basketball court.

I hear there s a bowling alley [in the White House] and obviously that hasn t gone too well, he said during the campaign. So we re getting rid of the bowling alley and replacing it with a basketball court.

But he tempered that during his interview with Walters, saying he might leave the alley alone.

As much as Obama loves playing basketball, he ll watch just about anything.

He loves sports, all sports, Giannoulias said. Lately he s focused all his time on dealing with the economy and putting together his administration. But he used to be a huge fan of SportsCenter. He loves watching sports and talking sports.

Obama s feelings on the BCS are clear. He has no love for college football s current method of crowning a national champion, favoring an eight-team playoff system instead.

I don t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this, he said during an interview with 60 Minutes last month. So I m going to throw my weight around a little bit.

Obama smiled after he said that. But for those who think his opinion won t have an impact, they might want to remember where the forward pass came from.

The flying wedge was all the rage in college football in the 1890s and early 1900s, a mass formation that was simple, successful and shockingly violent. After 18 players died and 149 were seriously injured during the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt demanded something be done. His meetings with officials from Harvard, Princeton and Yale led to the formation of the NCAA.



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