Wolff, Alexander. The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015. Pp. 181. Notes, timeline, selected bibliography, and index. $40 clothback.
Reviewed by Alexander Hyres
On Christmas Day, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul spoke out against gun violence in the United States. In a series of three-minute spots aired amidst the day’s five games, each player discussed personal experiences with gun violence. The spots never actually mention “gun control” explicitly; however, the implications were clear. The NBA and its top players were taking a position—one that may not have jived with all fans. Although some viewers may have been surprised to see NBA stars become entangled with such a hot-button political issue, Alexander Wolff would not be amongst them. Wolff’s Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama illuminates how President Barack Obama has helped cultivate an era in American life where politics and basketball collide in unprecedented ways.
Of course, the intersection between the American Presidency and sport has precedence. Wolff notes Teddy Roosevelt’s proclivity for boxing and riding horses; Gerald Ford’s experience as an offensive lineman and two-time national champion on the football team at the University of Michigan; and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s obsession with playing golf during his time in the White House. Yet, despite these previous links, Wolff claims, “No game has been as tightly lashed to a president as basketball to Obama. Nor has any president been so enduringly engaged as both player and follower of so strenuous a sport—certainly no team sport” (pg. 2). Indeed, seldom has a team sport so influenced a President both as a participant and observer, while also fostering significant and meaningful interaction between one sport and the White House.
To elucidate the connections between Obama and basketball, Wolff draws upon predictable sources—memoirs written by and interviews conducted with the President and others close to him. Although the source material may be familiar, Wolff’s lens on basketball, and its relation to race and racial identity in America, yields a slightly different account on the meaning of Obama’s presidency. From Obama’s early experiences with basketball in Hawaii to the end of his playing days in the White House, Wolff examines how the game helped cultivate Obama’s personal and political character, but also how he has changed the game. Overall, Wolff is more successful in establishing the former aim in the book.
The book is divided into five chronologically arranged chapters interspersed and adorned with beautiful, and sometimes previously unseen, pictures from White House photographer Peter Souza. The most enlightening sections deal with how basketball influenced Obama’s personal and professional development. According to former Oregon State basketball coach and Obama’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson, basketball, more than anything else in Obama’s life, helps explain Obama’s expeditious rise from Illinois state senator to the American presidency. Basketball enabled young Barack Obama to explore and cement his racial identity and connection with the African American community. During pickup games as an adolescent in Hawaii, playing with predominantly African American adults, Obama learned “an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who you’re daddy was” (pg. 19). Basketball also enabled community organizer and presidential candidate President Barack Obama to connect with a range of people throughout Illinois and other states on the campaign trail. In addition, basketball provided a safe haven for various constituencies to understand Obama on a personal level and created trust between people who look like him and, more importantly, those who do not. In contrast to Bill Bradley, who shunned his basketball identity on the campaign trail, “Obama was as enthusiastic a participant as anyone, which paid dividends. ‘The senator came across as authentic,’ Rodriguez (Obama’s Campaign Manager in New Hampshire) said. ‘Like a lot of us, he really liked to play ball” (pg. 38). This authenticity enabled Obama to transcend differences in background and generate quick bonds between him and voters on the campaign trail.
Although Wolff describes Obama’s disappointing high school basketball career, he spends more time discussing Obama’s experiences playing “pick-up” first as a teenager in Hawaii and subsequently as a presidential candidate. Unlike organized basketball—with established teams, coaches, and referees—pick-up basketball places the onus on players to manage and regulate the game. Not only does pick-up basketball require shared governance and constant conflict mitigation amongst participants, but also it is “rife with moments that call for the skill set of the politician” (pg. 9). Thus, according to Wolff, Obama developed and honed his abilities as a politician less in formal, organized basketball settings than in informal, chaotic settings on the neighborhood courts.
Despite the book’s overall strength, certain sections in the book seem to force the intersection amongst Obama, basketball, and politics. The discussion of Dennis Rodman and his interactions with North Korea is the most egregious example. In a section called “Ding-Dong Diplomacy,” Wolff describes Rodman’s February 2013 visit to Pyongyang. According to the author, Kim Jong-un’s interest in basketball was cultivated during his time at a Swiss boarding school in the 1990s. Though Rodman and Kim Jong-un enjoyed the visit, not everyone was so enthused. Human rights groups and the White House condemned it. After noting human rights groups’ and the White House’s negative responses to Rodman’s visit, Wolff concludes the section by quoting state department official Robert Carlin. Carlin asserts, “Apart from the leader liking basketball, North Koreans themselves like it. At one point during Rodman’s visit, Americans and North Koreans played on the same team. That and the Leader sitting next to an American are pretty powerful symbols” (pg. 94). Obviously Rodman played basketball and engaged in a political act by visiting North Korea and pleading for the release of missionary Kenneth Bae. However, this event could have occurred in any era. Furthermore, the event’s link to President Obama is tenuous at best.
Overall the book’s strength depends on the audience. On the one hand, readers hoping for an overview of interplay between the Obama presidency and the game of basketball will not be disappointed. Wolff’s prose is lively yet accessible to readers with all levels of prior knowledge on the subject. The book is meant for a wide audience and Wolff reaches many with this book. On the other hand, readers hoping for an extensive academic interrogation of basketball’s influence on the Obama presidency will be left grasping for deeper and more critical analysis. For example, Wolff does deal with race and racial identity; however, given his desire to reach a wider audience, his discussion of race scarcely leaves the surface level. Indeed, Wolff’s book starts the conversation but ultimately leaves the topic wide-open for future academic investigation.
No matter how one feels about the Obama presidency, the link between basketball and his time on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office are undeniable. The Christmas ads represents yet another example of Wolff’s overall claim in the book. And if President Obama moves forward with executive orders to curb gun violence, as he has contemplated within the past few days, it will not come as a surprise to Wolff or anyone who reads this book to see the NBA offer support.
Alexander Hyres is a graduate student in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Virginia. His research interests include the history of education, African American experience, leadership, and urban education policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @hyres376.