Editor’s note: For the second time in as many presidential elections, ESPN’s Andy Katz was invited to play in the President Barack Obama’s traditional Election Day pick-up basketball game. In 2008, Katz was invited to play in the game by then-Senator Obama, whom he had interviewed for ESPN prior to the election. This year, Katz was asked to participate in the game again. Katz, who is in Germany for Friday’s Sears Armed Forces Classic from Ramstein Air Base, discusses this year’s experience.
I was the first one in the gym to get up some shots, just like in 2008.
It wasn’t that I needed the work (well, it didn’t hurt), but I had no other place to go. And the anticipation of being in one of the most unique pickup games made it hard to stay away any longer.
It was 11:30 a.m. CT, and the president wasn’t due for another 90 minutes at the West Side Chicago gym. Over the course of the next hour, various players started to trickle in led by former Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen and Randy Brown.
President Obama’s close friends from Chicago made their way into the gym. So, too, did former Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (There were 20 players all together.)
Three referees were in attendance, too. Four years ago, there were four teams, no officials and no sense that there was a set order to the games.
This time, there was one game of 48 minutes, with fouls, a clock/stat crew and two benches, draped with towels and stocked with Gatorade.
Oh, and like in 2008, there were reversible jerseys donated by Obama’s good friend Marty Nesbitt, who ultimately would be opposite the president as a player-coach.
Obama arrived at 1 p.m. with his former personal aide Love and Robinson, who didn’t play this year, and a few other close aides.
Obama chose Pippen on this team. I was the last pick by the president.
Our team held a steady lead, with each of us taking turns rotating onto the court. The president wasn’t fooling around. He wanted to win and made sure the substitutions were done with a purpose (at one point I was ready to go in for Pippen, but he quickly said that didn’t make sense because of a need for size).
Obama played mostly at the point, looking to move the offense, rather than hunting for his shot. He was talking and leading on the court.
The key to playing in this game is to play to your strengths. You don’t want to do things that draw too much attention. So, I made a few passes to cutting teammates that led to assists. There was also a force and a turnover.
And finally, in the second half, with Pippen on the court, I drained consecutive buckets — a jumper and a 3-pointer. The president was quick to give me flak for blowing off a wide-open Pippen. But I was feeling the stroke. I then got greedy and took a contested shot and missed.
The president pointed out I had fulfilled my quota.
While I hardly had a hand in us winning (by about 20), my buckets at least extended our lead. Pippen and Giannnoulias were our scoring stars.
Pippen, who was playing on a repaired MCL in his knee, wondered if we would play a fourth quarter. We did. The president wasn’t about to let Nesbitt off the hook without a full game.
Still, with a few minutes left, Obama pulled himself out. He said he hadn’t gotten hurt, the game was a good run, a healthy and tiring workout, and there was no need to risk injury with a big night ahead.
The three former college officials called a good game and after were well received by the president. He took time to hand out autographs for them and others, take photos and chat with everyone before heading home.
Like in 2008, you would never know what was going to happen later in the evening, the pressure he may have been under, the anxiety he might have been feeling. This was a two-hour escape for him on Election Day.
And he compartmentalized the time well.
Oh, and I got to add to a bucket list of scoring with Pippen as my wing mate and a president as my coach for a game.
Not a bad day.