Barack Obama suffered a split lip nine or so months ago playing basketball, severe enough to require 12 stitches. Obama likes basketball and has played it competitively since he was a schoolboy in Hawaii. One of his enduring grievances is directed at his high-school basketball coach who didn’t make him a starter on the varsity team, a decision Obama regarded as unfair and, perhaps, related to a certain animus on the part of the coach.
Obama’s wife Michelle was a good basketball player, and her brother, Craig Robinson, now coach of the Oregon State University basketball team, was one of the premiere high school and college players of his generation. Obama would have played pick-up ball on Chicago’s South Side with Craig, among others. It can get nasty in the paint under the basket, on any court, but especially on the largely black, largely poor South Side, where some of the best basketball players in NBA history honed their moves and toughened up as youngsters. Black inner city basketball is one of the most thrilling, and often brutal, spectacles in American sport.
It’s not broadcast on TV. The NBA is on TV, and it’s plenty rough in the professional ranks in the paint, under the boards, but the camera mostly follows the slick moves and dunks of the scorers, players like Kobe, LeBron, Dirk, none of whom spends a great deal of time in the paint, even Nowitzki, who at more than seven feet tall you’d think would be a significant factor as a rebounder. Rebounding and blocking out are what principally goes on the paint; that and driving to the basket through a tangle of bodies, arms and elbows. A lot of punishment is dished out under the boards, or, you might say, that is where punishment happens. It’s where the big boys live, the wide-bodies, the 6’8” and up, 260 pounds and up, who have been dishing it out and taking it since they were big enough to plant themselves under the basket and fight for the ball against the older, bigger, rougher boys who preside over the local courts; and if they’re special, maybe get themselves a scholarship to college down the road.
It can get ugly under there. It is frequently ugly. This is the engine room, where the game is won and lost. These are some of the largest, quickest, most competitive athletes on the planet. The great rebounders, like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley (who was not nearly as tall as most), were savage in the paint, real brutes, very, very liberal with their elbows. You moved – or tried to move – onto their patch, you paid for it. Perhaps the greatest rebounder of all was the irrepressible Dennis Rodman, cross-dresser, bon vivant, provocateur. Rodman was by no means the tallest or widest or most physically imposing of the inside players; but he was surely the smartest, the trickiest, the most ruthless. All the great ones know well the limits of what they can get away with, but it is the cleverest, some might even say the most unscrupulous, who, in the end, prevail. And not only do these big galoots know the boundaries of what’s acceptable, or, rather, how not to get caught, they quickly learn the tendencies and weaknesses of their opponents and, like prize-fighters, set them up for the big, convincing hurt, the spirit-deflating hurt, that will discourage them from wading in and mixing it up in quite the same way ever again.
Obama doesn’t belong in the paint. He hasn’t the body for it. He’s tall, reasonably athletic, but of slight build. Nor does he have the temperament for it. He’s hasn’t a real mean streak; he hasn’t the taste for cruelty or retribution that, say, Malone or Rodman had, or that Lyndon Johnson or Robert Kennedy had. Obama does well making speeches and smiling that big handsome smile, the one that got him here. On the sidelines. Whatever happens under the boards, happens.