Barack Obama

In Barack Obama's eight years as president, a lot happened. America pulled itself out of a recession, Osama Bin Laden was killed and 20 million people gained access to health insurance, among other things that you may or may not agree with.

But the question still remains: Is Barack Obama good at basketball?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. But after diving into the numerous articles and videos produced the past eight years analyzing Obama's basketball skills, a conclusion can be made. Follow along as we break Obama's basketball career into the following eight sections: The High School Player, The First Term, What's His Game Like, Strengths/Weaknesses, NBA Comparison, Film Study, Second Term and So Is He Good?

The High School Player

The first thing you should know is that although it was evident he loved the game, he was fairly mediocre as a kid. As the story goes, in Barack Obama Sr.'s one visit to Hawaii, he gave his son a basketball for Christmas. "The world it unlocked helped the biracial boy who was largely raised by his white grandparents come to identify himself as a black man," writes Michael A. Fletcher in The Undefeated.

From fifth to 12th grade, Obama attended the Punahou School, a college preparatory school in Honolulu, on a scholarship. Punahou was a Hawaii basketball power, winning Division AA state championships while Obama was in seventh and eighth grade. In David Maraniss's Barack Obama: The Story (via excerpt in The Washington Post), he writes, "The athletic model at the elite Honolulu prep school could be compared to major league baseball and its farm system." Obama spent most of his time in the minors, playing Junior Varsity A, Junior Varsity AA and Varsity A -- as late as his junior year -- before finally getting the call to Varsity AA as a senior."

But he needed to catch a break. A member of the infamous Choom Gang -- a group of his childhood friends who were admittedly more interested in marijuana than basketball -- Joe Hanson, made the Varsity AA team as a junior, but flunked out of Punahou before his senior year. In the 1978-79 season, Obama was one of two seniors and two juniors added to Punahou's roster, taking the place of Hanson, one graduated player and two seniors who had been on the team the previous season.

"It was so hard to make the team in those days. . .and [Coach Chris] McLachlin had to cut some veterans to make room for us," recalls Alan Lum, Obama's teammate who would later become the Punahou basketball coach. "So it was amazing just to be on the team.. . .You look back and say that means Barack must have been special. Why would you go through the process of cutting a senior who had already been on the team to keep another senior?"

Against the odds, Obama made McLachlin's roster, but he didn't become a star. Writes Maraniss:

"The reality was that Barry, as skilled and intelligent a player as he was, could not stand out in this group. He had good court sense and an ability to slash to the basket, but was an unreliable outside shooter and not much of a jumper, contradicting the stereotype of 'black' ball. Decades later, a story emerged that his nickname was Barry O'Bomber, playing off his last name and a propensity to fire away from long range.

"'His style of play was flashy, but it was okay. McLachlin didn't really put a damper on it,' [Lum says.] 'If you did a behind-the-back pass, McLachlin would frown on that, but when it came down to playing time, he [Barry] wasn't one of the five best.' In fact, Lum and other teammates pointed out, Barry was only occasionally considered one of the top eight, the number of players McLachlin usually used in his rotation, following the substitution pattern of John Wooden, the brilliant coach at UCLA."

In the final game of Obama's competitive basketball career, a 60-28 state championship game blowout of Moanalua, Obama "got one bucket."

"'Barry' Obama would've started for most other teams in the state," wrote Dave Reardon of the Honolulu Star Bulletin in 2007. "Obama wasn't happy about it, but he managed to be a leader despite his status as a reserve.

"'He was able to project that, and he wasn't afraid to point things out,' McLachlin says. 'And he did it in a way that people would listen.'"

So, to reiterate, Obama was not that great in high school. But he got better.


The First Term

In January 2008, Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate long-removed from the Choom Gang and Punahou's bench, brought his love of the game to the campaign trail. On the day of the Iowa Caucus, which Obama won, he flew out some friends to play basketball in Des Moines. "No political adviser could have recommended that the man aiming to be the nation’s first black president play what is seen as a black sport as a 95 percent white state decided his political fate," Fletcher writes. But Obama did it anyway.

Obama, then 46, kept playing basketball on primary days. At a stop in Pittsburgh, he invited two reporters to join his pickup game. "I do think you can tell something about people by the way they play basketball," Obama told Bryant Gumbel on HBO that spring (kids, pay attention -- this is good advice).

In April, as Obama's prospects toward the White House heightened, he went to Chapel Hill and laced 'em up with the North Carolina Tar Heels, fresh off a Final Four run. Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington would all win a national championship 11 months later.

"These guys are a lot better than me," Obama said that day. Obama could replace Jerry West as the NBA logo with this move around Hansbrough, who would go on to win the 2008-09 Naismith Award.

The UNC game foreshadowed the next four years of Obama's basketball activity: Wanting to play with the best. After the election, Obama made minor renovations to the White House tennis court to make it feasible for basketball. He started organizing pickup games with both friends and colleagues. Obama never wanted to use basketball for political gains or social reasons. He was all about competition.

In 2012, before Obama's re-election, Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar's Poker, The Blind Side) was invited to a pickup game while writing a Vanity Fair profile on the president. Excerpts show just have seriously Obama takes his pickup games:

"The president's game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the FBI's because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth.

"'How many of you played in college?' I asked the only player even close to my height. 'All of us,' he replied cheerfully and said he'd played point guard at Florida State. 'Most everyone played pro too -- except for the president.' Not in the NBA, he added, but in Europe and Asia.

"Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, 'That's my dad on your shirt. He's the head coach at Miami.'

(Author's note: Some research shows this is probably Jim Larranaga's son, Jon, a partner at The Meltzer Group in Washington D.C.)

"Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn't played in college, and even in high school he hadn't started. Plus, he hadn't played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?

"'We'll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead,' [Obama said]. I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn't; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.

"Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It's revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

"'No one seems to be taking it easy on him,' I said.

"'If you take it easy on him, you're not invited back,' he explained.

"Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It's ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to maneuver, but he appears happy."

(Quick aside: You know Donald Trump is choosing the game he can shoot and score and star in rather than being a role player among more talented players).

Lewis' day on the court with Obama taught us a lot about how the president got from Point A to Point B. Remember how Obama could barely get on the court as a senior on his high school team? As American citizens, we are used to seeing Obama as the leader of the free world. Obama's basketball history gives us a rough template for his political career. He does not shy away from a challenge. In politics, he went being a Hawaiian kid raised by his grandparents to president of the United States. In basketball, he went from high school reserve to peer of some of the best amateur players in the Washington D.C. area.

Most Americans decline in athletic ability after high school. The president is a rare baller who actually got better as the years progressed.

Ask Darryl Gabriel, star of Punahou's 1978-79 championship team, who played in a pickup game with Obama in 2012:

"Man, Barack is a lot better than Barry ever was!"

Obama threw himself into the trenches of games he had no right playing in, and he improved. Three decades after their state title, if that 1978-79 Punahou team got competitive again, Obama would have a much greater role (assuming he cut down on the pot).

Barack Obama

What's His Game Like?

Now that we have Obama's early experiences with basketball and his adult competitiveness down, we are ready for the x's and o's.

The most important game of Obama's high school career was a Friday night home game against 'Iolani, with Punahou missing two top players due to injury and illness. Obama pushed the game into overtime, but Punahou lost 44-42.

From Maraniss:

"In the 'Iolani game and a few others where he saw more playing time, Obama showed a keen court sense. 'He could see the pattern and zero in on the opening,' said Barbara Czuries Nelson, who came to all the games and often sat near Barry's grandparents."

Both the high school and adult Obama had and have a knack for morphing into the necessary role based on the setting.

Ian Crouch of The New Yorker, citing quotes from Alexander Wolff's book, The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama, delivers a clean scouting report:

"Based on video evidence and firsthand accounts from his fellow players, we know that Obama is a good shooter, and has a few nifty pickup moves. 'Those of us around him all the time came to see that he very seldom sweats,' [White House photographer Pete] Souza said. 'It annoyed the hell out of us.' The former NBA player Shane Battier called Obama's game 'janky,' an older man's game, halting and crafty rather than smooth. Obama's brother-in-law, the college coach Craig Robinson, identified the President as being 'extremely left-handed,' meaning that he can't go right. (This fact has perhaps been underutilized by the president's Republican opponents.) Obama almost always would be seen playing in warmup pants -- a Chicago columnist figured he was keen to hide his 'bird legs.' Maybe gym shorts just aren't quite Presidential.

"Obama's playing style might be described, like his foreign policy, as 'leading from behind.'"

That'll make Vladimir Putin's head spin.

Fletcher gathered information that Obama is quick, but not fast:

"People who played with Obama said he had a quick first step and a reliable midrange jumper. They also said the left-handed Obama relied on his left hand too much, and was not really a threat to break you down off the dribble. 'He’s not going to give you too much razzle-dazzle,' [former deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement William] Jawando said. 'Maybe an in-and-out or a simple cross over.'"

This is from Lewis:

"He's actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn't much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.) 'Spacing is big. He knows where to go,' said one of the other players as we watched. 'And unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.'"

Finally, Reggie Love, former Duke national champion and personal aide to the president told the Chicago Tribune:

"He'll knock down open shots, he's got a good midrange ," Love said. "He's a strong right driver, but likes to come back to his right shoulder to finish because he's a lefty. He's very smart. The guy knows the game very well and typically makes the right passes and makes the right rotation on defense. He's not the most explosive guy, not the fastest guy, but very crafty. I think what he lacks in physical capabilities, he makes up with his intellect."

That's a lot to digest. There are some differing opinions in the bunch.

Barack Obama Jump Shot


--Left-handedness: This is the first thing that jumps out to everyone. Obama is a lefty, and on a basketball court, this gives him a skill the majority of players do not have. The photo of Obama going up against Hansbrough features the then-candidate going up with the left hand.

--Midrange game: Obama does his scoring damage inside the three-point arc but outside the paint. He does not beat opponents off the dribble, so we can assume his midrange game relies on a catch-and-shoot strategy or a jab step (think poor man's James Harden).

--Spacing: Multiple sources claim Obama is a good passer and "knows where to go." This can easily make up for a lack of talent. Obama seems like an outstanding teammate. He is smart and fills the lane correctly, avoiding any crowding or overloading of one area of the court. His instinct is to look for the open man, not his own shot.


--Right hand: There is an interesting divide here. Robinson and Fletcher claim Obama relies heavily on his left hand, but Lewis and Love say Obama can drive right. However, no one talks about Obama finishing with his right hand. Love even notes that when Obama goes right, he prefers to finish with his left. This over-reliance on his dominant hand is a problem.

--Speed: Obama may be the coolest president this country has ever had, and part of that has to do with his slow, confident strut and patience at the podium. But on a basketball court, nobody waits. Obama struggles to get around defenders on his own and there is no record of Obama running a fast break to perfection. Even Obama noted that he prefers playing on the FBI's court because it is smaller. The president is a better half-court player than a full-court player.

--Size: We haven't addressed Obama's position yet and that is because he's a tweener. Obama has been said to handle point guard duties at times -- which makes sense for a 6-1 and 180-pound man -- but his lack of speed limits his ability to dribble and drive. Considering his mid-range game and ability to space, Obama appears more suited to be a shooting guard or small forward, but in the high-level games he plays in, he is undersized to handle these roles. This leaves Obama scrambling somewhere between a one- and a two-guard.

NBA comparison: Manu Ginobili

This decision was not made lightly. The NBA has had thousands of players. What gives a balding 39-year-old the right to be compared to the president of the United States?

First of all, this NBA counterpart had to be a lefty, so that cleared out most players in league history. Ginobili works for many reasons. He isn't very fast, he isn't an elite three-point shooter and he relies heavily on his left hand. But Ginobili is an artist on the court. He is unselfish and makes teammates better around him. His vision makes up for a lack of speed. Oh, and his midrange jumper is deadly. He's crafty.

On top of all that, Ginobili is a winner with a team-first attitude. Ginobili's 13.8 points and 3.9 assists per game are solid. His two NBA All-Star Game selections, two-time All-NBA Third-Team nods and one NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award are pretty darn good. There is so much more to Ginobili's game not seen in the record books, but on his fingers with four world championship rings. Like Obama, Ginobili has spent most of his career coming off the bench and spreading the court. Spending time with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, Ginobili learned to stay in his lane, opening up space for his fellow stars while following through on his own opportunities when available. This is the kind of attitude that wins. He may not own the highlight reel, but everyone wants to play with Manu Ginobili.

And Barack Obama.

There are a number of players who deserve honorable mention here. One of Obama's childhood idols was Tiny Archibald, but he is too fast for Obama. Wolff has compared Obama to Lenny Wilkens, but Wilkens is perhaps too much of a classic point guard and too outdated. Maybe Obama's current game would have made him a star in the 60s, but our focus is on the modern NBA. Cuttino Mobley, Morris Peterson, Jalen Rose, Tayshaun Prince and Greg Anthony were also considered.

For the record, Obama, speaking in Buenos Aires last March, had this to say about Ginobili: "I can confirm that he is not only a nice guy but also one of the best players in the world -- and a proud Argentinian. So he is a great champion."

They can bond over their janky game.

Film Study:

Let's start with this 2010 clip of Obama playing P-O-T-U-S with former NBA forward and current CBS personality Clark Kellogg:

Obama's jump shot is quick. Too quick. He plays a little hot potato with the basketball. Obama brings the ball up and releases it around his head-level. This is too low and too close to his body. Watch Kellogg follow his arms through and release above his head. Obama loses backspin and has more difficulty shooting above a defender. But as long as Obama makes his shots, he doesn't care. And Obama does beat Kellogg in this game.

This campaign video (circa 2008) gives us a good taste of Obama's passing ability:

As mentioned, Obama is a pass-first player. His dishes are quick. He relies on a left-hand dribble to left-hand chest pass mentality. Obama also shows off a strong spin right in this clip (which uses a left-hand dribble).

On a 2008 campaign stop in Kuwait to hang with soldiers, Obama put his midrange game on display by making his only shot, a jumper from just inside the three-point line:

That's Manu Ginobili veteran confidence right there.

Second-Term Obama

This is where our story gets a bit sad. As the story goes, Obama's basketball career took a turn in 2010 one day after Thanksgiving. While playing at Fort McNair, Obama took an elbow to the mouth and needed four stitches.

"Some of Obama's friends say the event that may have nudged him toward golf and away from basketball" was this elbow, according to Fletcher.

Although he continues to pick up a basketball and other sporting goods when placed in front of him, Obama, now 55, has limited his on-court play. White House records show Obama to have played basketball outside of the White House or Camp David 49 times in his first five years in office. But he has not officially put basketball on his schedule since Nov. 30, 2013.

Writes Crouch:

"There is a temptation to identify some loss-of-innocence political metaphor in the move from basketball to golf, a transition from the youthful outsider to the middle-aged establishment figure, and all that that might entail. Basketball was hope; golf is reality. Maybe.

This is probably more than an objective decision. Obama's health has changed during his tenure in office and not just with his hair.

"The president's medical reports also show that he has a history of plantar fasciitis. Given all of that, perhaps his move to golf was as inevitable as time itself," Fletcher says.

Obama is facing the reality no athlete wants to see. His prime is over and it's not coming back. That suave midrange jumper, the quick left hand, the court-vision. They are not what they once were. No, he can't keep up with former college and pro players. That's just empty hope.

Barack Obama, LeBron James

OK, I've read this far. Is he good?

Yes. The objective answer is yes. Barack Obama is a good basketball player. Obviously "good" is a relative term. An unskilled player like Joe Biden may look at Obama and think he is a great player while a college player like Arne Duncan may think Obama is a scrub. We are taking this from an outsider's view.

Among the millions of people in the world who play basketball, Obama had an amateur career is probably in the top quarter. Imagine you met a guy with these credentials:

-- Bench player for Hawaii high school state championship team.
-- Regular pickup game player with former college and pro players in their late 20s (while in his late 40s).
-- Beat Clark Kellogg in H-O-R-S-E

That's a good player. No, Obama is not a superstar. He was never a college recruit. He's not about to show up in Rucker Park and be the first pick. He doesn't have written accolades to show off.

But get it right. When we ask, "Is Obama good at basketball?" we are speaking from a career-standpoint. Sure, you could say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not a good basketball player now. But he was pretty damn great once upon a time.

The Baller-in-Chief was a good basketball player. His prime is done. But in the first half of his presidency, we saw a glimpse. And he could probably still hang in short bursts in 2017.

As he did as a senior at Punahou, Obama got his chance and made the most of it -- as president and as the White House's left-handed midrange specialist.

-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.