By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; 11:41 AM
Before heading to Texas on Monday to tout his administration's record on higher education, President Obama treated himself to an unusual 49th birthday present: a pickup basketball game with a dazzling roster of pro and college stars.
Every hoops fan dreams of that one special birthday when his pro-ball heroes join him on the court to see whether he's got game. But when you are the leader of the free world, you can make that fantasy come true.
Obama, who turned 49 on Wednesday, played Sunday with a stunning list of all-stars, including Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Derek Fisher, LeBron James, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Bill Russell, Etan Thomas, Dwyane Wade and David West.
And lest anyone try to revive criticism of Obama's tendency to keep his pickup games all-male, the president also included Maya Moore, a star on the national championship UConn women's team.
The White House provided no actual details about the game, which took place at Fort McNair in the District, where Obama often plays basketball with friends. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was in attendance, but didn't play, the White House said.
Obama is known for throwing a few elbows on the court and for having a fierce determination to win. But the 6-foot-2 commander in chief had his work cut out for him. A number of the stars who played with him on Sunday were 6-8 or taller.
The presidential pickup game, which was in front of an audience of wounded veterans and participants in a White House mentoring program, was closed to the media.
Basketball is undergoing a renaissance at the White House under Obama, who had a court built on what had been the presidential tennis courts. He plays with staff members and friends, including aide Reggie Love, who was on the NCAA-champion Duke team in 2001.
In June 2009, when the basketball court was being built, the president told Bloomberg News that he was itching for some professional competition. "As soon as we get the basketball nets up, we're going to have some of these guys over for a game," he said of pros such as James.
Asked by Bloomberg whether he would play in such a high-level game, Obama said: "Of course. It's my court."
The Fort McNair court, which is indoors and has room for onlookers, turned out to be a better choice for the birthday game.Talking education achievements
As his Democratic allies in Congress face the voters this fall, one of Obama's chief tasks is to remind voters why they chose him for the White House back in 2008. And that involves reminding them what he's accomplished, particularly when those accomplishments have gone largely unheralded.
Obama will travel to Austin on Monday for one of those reminders. He will return to the University of Texas, where he rallied with more than 20,000 supporters during the campaign, to tout his administration's higher education record.
The government in the past 20 months has revamped the student loan system, doing away with the banks that used to serve as middlemen and redirecting about $60 billion to increased Pell Grants for college students.
Officials have also added money to the community college system, created a new tax credit for college tuition and simplified student aid forms.
Senior aides to the president acknowledged that Obama would not be unveiling anything new in his afternoon speech.
"Primarily a recap of what we've done," said communications director Dan Pfeiffer, though he added that the president will attempt to place those accomplishments within the "context of dealing with the economy."
That's important as the Democrats seek a reaffirmation of their policies at a time when many people are struggling with unemployment in a sluggish recovery.
White House officials who outlined the president's speech said he will highlight the administration's overriding goal when it comes to higher education: making the U.S. number one in the proportion of students who graduate from college.
"Today we have flatlined, while other countries have passed us by," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. He called the president's goal of leading the world by 2020 "the North Star for all of our educational initiatives."
Duncan and other officials said the U.S. has a long way to go, with only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 having earned college degrees. To lead the world, Obama wants that proportion to be 60 percent.
That would mean adding 11 million more college graduates to the ranks of that age cohort. Even assuming some additional graduates just from population growth, officials predicted the country will have to find a way to add more than 8 million new college graduates.
"This isn't just a target for target's sake," said Cecilia Rouse, a member of the president's council of economic advisers. "It's really important that we have the workers that will compete in the 21st century."Fundraisers and such
In addition to the education speech, Obama will be mining for dollars in Texas, attending fundraisers in Austin and Dallas before returning home late Monday night.
The rest of the week, Obama will remain in town. He is scheduled to meet with his national security team about Iraq on Wednesday. The administration has been making a big push to remind people that he is keeping his promise (and that of his predecessor) to end combat operations in Iraq this month.
Friday will be the president's last full day in Washington for a while. On Saturday, he and his family leave for Panama City, Fla., for a weekend vacation on the gulf. The following Monday, he leaves for a three-day, five-state trip that primarily will involve fundraising, before starting a 10-day Martha's Vineyard getaway.
Staff writer Josh Barr contributed to this report.