Alexander Wolff, Princeton ’79, has a new book out that studies Barack Obama through his love of basketball, and that’s good news for anyone who likes sharp biographical and political writing. Wolff, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who has been on the publication’s staff longer than anyone else (since 1980), was kind enough to answer a few questions from IHO about that book, The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama.
Ivy Hoops Online: What was your first exposure to Ivy basketball?
Alexander Wolff: I grew up in Princeton until age 12. I remember as a six-year-old being sent to bed by my parents on a December night in 1964 and understanding that they, and not I, would be watching Princeton and Bill Bradley play Michigan and Cazzie Russell in the Holiday Festival later that night. It made a huge impression on me because, even then, I knew my parents didn’t care at all about sports, yet Bradley and the Tigers had so captured the community that even they had gotten hooked. A few years later I sat right behind the bench at a Princeton freshman game in Dillon Gym and watched Geoff Petrie and John Hummer play. I also caught the occasional Les Keiter telecast on Channel 17 from the Palestra . . .
IHO: Did hoops play a role in your taking off a year during college?
AW: I left Princeton after my sophomore year and spent a season playing for a third-division team in Lucerne, Switzerland. The club had never had any sort of American before, and they didn’t understand that they could do better than some guy who hadn’t been more than a decent high school player. The following year I was able to help arrange for a reserve guard on the Princeton team, Rich Rizzuto, to go over and play for my old club for a season . . . and they very quickly realized how much better a player they could get.
IHO: What is your favorite Princeton team and why?
AW: It’s impossible not to nominate the 1998 team that wound up No. 8 in the polls. By February they were doing stuff in the halfcourt offense that was just breathtaking. And in each of their two losses that season – at Carolina, and to Michigan State in the tournament – they were in a position to win in the final minutes. Not much depth on that team, but the five starters ran the system with a precision that may never be equaled.
IHO: Tell us about the genesis of your most recent book, The Audacity of Hoop.
AW: Shortly after Obama was elected, editors at SI told me to do a story about the role basketball had played in his life. I hit the standard notes – how he worked out his racial identity through the game while growing up in Hawaii, with its small population of African-Americans; how he got certified as a worthy suitor of his wife-to-be in a pickup game with Michelle Robinson’s brother, Craig; how he used hoop to introduce himself to voters on the campaign trail. As he took the oath of office, I asked myself, okay, now that he’s president, will basketball continue to figure in his story? And when it did, and a stream of intimate images of POTUS around the game came out of the White House photo office, I realized that the material existed for a book. As soon as he got re-elected, I set about to sell and then write it.
IHO: Did you have a chance to speak directly with President Obama?
AW: I didn’t land a one-on-one interview with the president. But I spoke with many people in his basketball circle, from Reggie Love to Arne Duncan, from David Axelrod to John Rogers. Because Obama has left such an extensive trail of commentary on the game, there was plenty of stuff to work with.
IHO: What is your most memorable anecdote from the book?
AW: One of the things that surprised me was to learn of Obama’s trash-talking. Not THAT he talks trash when he plays – I’d known that he did, gentle stuff for the most part – but where it comes from: Michelle Obama says that Obama’s mother Ann Dunham was an inveterate trash talker during family games of Scrabble.
IHO: Did you learn a lot about former Harvard star Arne Duncan?
AW: And I will admit that I had no idea how consequential Arne Duncan has been, from a basketball standpoint, while serving in the Obama cabinet. He maintained an amazing 3-on-3 career, over a span of 11 years being involved in nine national Hoop-It-Up titles, and being named MVP of the Celebrity Game at NBA All-Star Weekend a few years ago. At the same time his efforts led the NCAA to tighten its APR (academic progress rate) requirements, such that the UConn men weren’t able to defend their title a few years ago.
Backstories like that helped justify the length and scope of the book. And the Ivy League dances in and out of the book again and again, whether it’s former Yale guard John Rice (brother of Susan) and Brown guard Arthur Jackson taking part in regular presidential pickup games, or former Princeton captain John Rogers chairing his two inauguration committees, or Paul Volcker – a Princeton player during the Cappy Cappon days – serving as an advisor during the financial crisis.