My father Fraser Robinson and my basketball coach at Princeton, Hall of Famer Pete Carril, used to say the same thing: "On the court, you can tell who's a selfish jerk." And let's just say they used a less printable word than jerk.
When Michelle started dating Barack Obama, she finally had someone serious enough to bring home to meet the family. As it turned out, he had played basketball in high school and kind of thought he was pretty good. My sister said, "I want you to take him to play, to see what type of guy he is when he's not around me." So I invited Barack to play pickup hoops with a few friends of mine in Chicago. Some of these guys played in college, some didn't, but they were all pretty good players. I like to think I was the first guy to vet him. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
I was very nervous because I had already met Barack a few times and liked him a lot. My sister didn't have many long-term boyfriends. So I was thinking, This guy seems like a pretty good guy; I hope he makes it. I was rooting for him. But here I am with this responsibility: if he turns out to be a, er, jerk, I've got to be the one to tell her.
He handled everything perfectly. We played a hard five-on-five, so there were definitely potholes for him to fall into. He wasn't the best guy out there, but he wasn't the worst guy. I liked the fact that he was confident but wasn't cocky or talking trash. Barack was very team-oriented, very unselfish. He fit in like he was one of us — he wasn't trying to be president of the Harvard Law Review. But the best part about it was that when we were on the same team, he did not pass me the ball every single time. He wasn't trying to suck up to my sister through me. I thought, You know, I like that. I was relieved to give my sister the good news: "Your boy is straight, and he can ball." (See pictures of Obama's college years.)
People always ask me to describe my brother-in-law's game. Well, he has a very nice outside shot that has gotten better over the years, because as we get older, we can't go to the basket as easily. He's very thin, but he's not weak. You can tell the guy has played. He is extremely left-handed. Most left-handed guys are quicker going to their right. Well, he's better going to his left. I'll have to work on that with him.
Basketball is very therapeutic for Barack. He's always in a great mood before and after he's played. He looks forward to it. About 40 of us played on Election Day in Chicago, and there was an unspoken nonaggression pact. Not only was everyone afraid of giving Barack a fat lip before a possible victory speech to the entire world, but also, no one there wanted to sprain an ankle or something. We all wanted to participate, pain-free, in whatever might take place later that night. We set up four teams and played a round-robin tournament. Let's just say Barack fared better on election night than he did in hoops earlier that day.
What does Barack's game say about the man, about the way he's going to lead this country through these very trying times? Well, he's competitive yet inclusive. He's unselfish, which, where I come from, is the greatest compliment you can give both a player and a leader. And he's consistent. You've got a guy at the top who ran a campaign — and who is going to run a government — in a classy, efficient and considerate manner. That's the same guy I got to know playing hoops when he was dating my sister.
There's been a lot of talk about Barack's building a basketball court somewhere in his new home. I sure hope he does. I'd love to tell people I played hoops in the White House. Plus it would be great, from a national health-care perspective, to see the President working out on a regular basis. People may say, Look, if the President is playing ball three times a week — or however much he ends up playing; I know he'll be pretty busy — maybe I can go out there and do something for my health too. And how cool would it be to hear about some piece of legislation that was sealed after a pickup game between Democrats and Republicans? That would really make me proud as a ballplayer, a coach and a U.S. citizen. You can tell I'm lobbying for it.
Your ball, Mr. President. I know you're going to drain the big shots.
Robinson, Obama's brother-in-law, was a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton in the early 1980s. He is now the head men's basketball coach at Oregon State University