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Obama gets a sharp elbow on hoops court - and 12 stitches

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; A04

In the basketball presidency, it was bound to happen.

In a Friday morning pickup game, President Obama was accidentally elbowed by one of his fellow players, forcing him to get 12 stitches in his lip, the White House said. Obama received the stitches under local anesthesia in the doctor's office on the ground floor of the White House after he returned home from the game at Fort McNair, a military base where he often plays.

The White House at first did not identify the person who went up for a shot and elbowed Obama, who was playing defense. But later Friday, administration officials released a statement from Rey Decerega, the director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, who injured Obama in the last of five five-on-five games.

"I learned today the president is both a tough competitor and a good sport. I enjoyed playing basketball with him this morning," Decerega said. "I'm sure he'll be back out on the court again soon."

Administration aides did not provide a full list of the president's fellow players, but they said they included Decerega; Reggie Love, Obama's personal assistant and a former forward at Duke University; Education Secretary and former Harvard University player Arne Duncan; and Avery Robinson, Obama's nephew.

It was the first time that it is publicly known that Obama has injured himself in his almost two years in the White House, on or off the court. But the injury was the latest sign of how Obama has brought round ball into the center of presidential recreation, in a break from his two most recent predecessors.

He has attended Georgetown University, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics basketball games.

In an interview on ABC News that aired Friday, Obama said, "I don't think about Sarah Palin," but when responding to another question, he gave a detailed description of the recent struggles of the Miami Heat, which signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh over the summer to join Dwayne Wade to create what was expected to be a dominant team. The team is currently 8-7.

"No matter how good a player is, no matter how good a group of players are, if they haven't played together before, they are not going to be as good as a team that has played together a long time," he said.

Bill Clinton, while a well-known fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks college basketball team, was a jogger, while George W. Bush could outrun his much younger aides before his knees forced him to start mountain biking in the middle of his presidency.

All three men played golf, and Obama has hit the links regularly, even as Republicans regularly criticize him for it. But he has turned his hoops sessions into a highly coveted Washington invite. Duncan and Love are among those who have played with Obama, as well as Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to Vice President Biden.

But Obama has not just limited himself to his staff. In August, a few days after his 49th birthday, he played at Fort McNair with a group of basketball greats that included James, Grant Hill and Magic Johnson.

He played the next month with Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, a graduate of Montrose Christian School in Rockville.

The injury is unlikely to keep Obama from playing more hoops, even though a dozen stitches on the lip are not ideal for a man whose rise to the White House was aided by impressive speaking skills.

On the other hand, it could have been worse. In 1991, George H.W. Bush was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat after jogging. In 1994, then-Vice President Al Gore ruptured his Achilles tendon playing basketball.

Three years later, Clinton fell down the stairs at the Florida home of golfer Greg Norman, forcing him to have right knee surgery and use crutches for months.

In injuring Obama, Decerega at least suggested that the presidential basketball games are not rigged, as comedian Wanda Sykes had suggested at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2009.

"I mean, come on, nobody's gonna give the president a hard foul with the Secret Service standing there. He's probably bragging and [saying] 'You should've seen me today, baby! I was balling,' " she joked.

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