Reynaldo Decerega's elbow enters history

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 6:00 AM

In high school Reynaldo Decerega was voted "most mature" and "most popular." In college they called him "Nice Guy Rey." In his professional life, his efforts to help advance Latino communities across the country made him a finalist for MillerCoors leader of the year.

But on Friday, Decerega forever became known as "The Elbow."

Decerega, the director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, inadvertently busted President Obama's lip during a pickup game at Fort McNair. The incident, and the resulting 12 stitches, became front page fodder ("Fat Lip," read the New York Post, alongside a picture of Obama pressing an ice pack to his mouth.) Decerega became a Google search term and issued a painful statement.

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

Whether Decerega will is another matter.

A White House official with knowledge of the incident, and eager to make the president look as tough as possible, said that Decerega required a hospital visit after the collision and received some stitches himself. A spokesman for the ongressional Hispanic Caucus Insitute, Scott Gunderson Rosa, specified that Decerega received four stitches to the offending elbow. In an e-mail, Decerega said he planned to comment further on the matter on Monday, adding, "I appreciate your ability to honor my privacy."

In other words, playing with the president can be personally dangerous.

At first blush, Decerega appeared to have won the draft for the most coveted game in town. Organized by Obama's towering personal assistant, former Duke basketball player and presidential pickup regular Reggie Love, the games almost always include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, various members of what Obama once called "the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history" as well as friends or family of top officials passing through town.

Neither the White House nor Decerega would say how the former varsity "Saint" at St. Stephen's in Alexandria got the call. But it is not at all surprising that he accepted the invitation.

The upsides of playing with the president are obvious. For starters, you get to tell people you played with the president. You ooze "access." You can hold forth about how basketball offers a window into the president's real character, as the first lady's brother, Craig Robinson - once a collegiate player and now Oregon State's coach - has done in interviews and a recent book.

White House sources said they had never heard of anyone declining an invitation to play with the president for anything other than scheduling reasons.

After the Decerega debacle, riding the bench might be a more attractive option.

According to one witness to a presidential basketball game at Camp David, who requested anonymity so as not to anger the White House, the president talks plenty of trash during the four-hour, best-of-five marathons. After scoring at Camp David, the president has expressed satisfaction with his own game by teasingly pointing at the presidential seal at half court and exclaiming, "Whose court is this?"

Generally, the only player comfortable enough to reciprocate in giving the president any lip is Love.

The Obama cut is clearly easier to handle for the White House than the spill George W. Bush took off his Segway while tooling around his family's Kennebunkport, Maine, compound in 2003 or Bill Clinton's tumble down a flight of stairs at golfer Greg Norman's house in Florida in 1997. The prevailing White House spin is that the injury demonstrates the rough-and-tumble cred of a president who has frequently declared some iteration of "just because I'm skinny doesn't mean I'm not tough."

Using basketball to make a political point is not a new tactic for this White House.

Since at least June of 2007, when the New York Times' Jodi Kantor reported in a much-discussed front-page story that "Barack Obama is a wily player of pickup basketball, the version of the game with unspoken rules, no referee and lots of elbows," Obama's obsession with basketball has been obsessively deconstructed.

As a candidate and president, Obama has used the baller image to his advantage. In May 2008, he arrived at a farm in Union Mills, Ind., and told voters he had just received the support of coaching great John Wooden. His campaign then instructed a 14-year-old to ask the president to shoot around, the contest got competitive and Obama, who prevailed, said, "You know, he's tough. He keeps on coming back. He's like Hillary," which was widely reported at the time.

As president, the White House photo stream has shown him shooting solitary southpaw buckets, in mid-air defense under the basket, feeding the ball to children, even presenting a signed ball to Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan on July 28, 2009. On Columbus Day of this year, Obama spoke at a midterm fundraiser at the waterfront mansion of Alonzo Mourning in Coral Gables, Fla., and acknowledged the many basketball greats in attendance, including Magic Johnson. "As great as Magic was, he couldn't do it without Worthy and Jabbar and all those tremendous stars from Showtime. Well, the same is true in politics," Obama said, adding with some swagger, "I'm pretty good. I'm a pretty good point guard, but I can't do it on my own."

(Democratic congressman Ron Klein was the beneficiary of the fundraiser, but lost his seat a month later.)

Basketball is clearly a passion of the president, and a physical outlet for arguably the most stressed man in the universe. He plays on holidays and to blow off steam. It only seems excessive, and the basketball metaphors and coverage induce eye-rolling in Washington because of the ESPN-level scrutiny.

It was a journalist filing a pool report to fellow White House correspondents who informed the world that "Obama will spend this drizzly, post-Thanksgiving morning playing basketball," and later sent dispatches about the injury, stitches and how the "medical unit that treated Obama used a smaller filament than typically used, which increases the number of stitches but makes a tighter stitch and results in a smaller scar." The pool reporter later communicated details from the White House that "The offending player, who remains nameless, 'turned into POTUS, who was playing defense, to take a shot when the elbow hit the President in the mouth.'"

At 5:05 p.m., hours after the incident, "Pool report #5 - the elbow offender reveals himself!" dropped in reporters' e-mail baskets. The report noted that Decerega, while calling the president a "tough competitor and good sport," didn't apologize.

(Rosa said Decerega apologized to Obama at the time of the incident and afterward and didn't feel the need to include it in the statement.)

On Saturday, a pool reporter watched Obama view Craig Robinson's team take on Howard University and described the commander in chief as "intensely engaged in the game." On Sunday, however, the president got back in the game; "Potus is playing basketball," read the day's pool dispatch, "with daughters."

Post staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this story.

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