How's Obama at hoops? His trash talk is politically correct.

President Obama plays basketball with members of congress and cabinet secretaries Thursday. He likes to push himself so hard that he once destroyed a sneaker in a pickup game.

Charles Dharapak/AP/FILE
President Barack Obama walks with aide Reggie Love as they cross the street from their hotel to play basketball in New York, Sept. 21.

President Obama plays basketball Thursday night with an illustrious group of cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. Thirteen Democrats and two Republicans. All men, but who’s counting?

We’re not sure about the hoop skills of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Interior Secretary Ken Salazar or, for that matter, most of the other guys invited (see list below). But we do know there will be at least two genuine athletes on the floor – Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who played professional basketball in Australia after college, and Rep. Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina, a onetime quarterback in the NFL.

We also know that pickup hoops is part of Mr. Obama’s fitness regimen, and that one of his regular partners on the White House court is Reggie Love, Obama’s personal aide, who played on Duke University’s championship team in 2001 and was later captain.

And who can forget that clutch three-pointer Obama shot during the campaign while visiting US troops in Kuwait? So we know Obama’s got game. But what’s it like to play with him?

Vic Lombardi, a sportscaster at CBS4 TV in Denver, knows. Mr. Lombardi played twice with Obama during the campaign – once before the future POTUS won the nomination, and again on the day Obama delivered his big acceptance speech at Denver’s Invesco Field.

A pick-up game in Denver

The first time, in May 2008, came about by sheer happenstance. Lombardi was at the gym, and there was Obama, so Lombardi introduced himself, he told the Monitor in an interview last spring.

“Hey, listen,” Obama said, “I have members of my staff here, five or six guys, we wanna play full court, you go find a few guys.”

So, Lombardi says, “I went back up to the weight room, told four or five guys, ‘Hey, Barack Obama’s downstairs, you wanna play basketball?’ Most of them looked at me like I was an alien. But I managed to get four to five guys down there, and we proceeded to play ball for a good hour, hour and a half.”

“It was pretty cool,” says Lombardi. “He covered me, I covered him. I was watching him the entire night. He plays really hard, played smart.”

Apparently Obama plays hard enough to destroy a sneaker. Lombardi says in the third game of the night, Obama was running down the court, and it looked as if his shoe was coming apart. “It got a little dangerous out there, so he backed out and said, ‘I’m just watching from here on out.’ ”

Politically correct trash talking

Is it true that Obama likes to talk trash out there on the court?

“Not the kind of trash-talking I’m used to hearing, trust me,” says Lombardi. “This is what you call politically correct trash-talking.”

“Most of the talking he did was to his own teammates. Very rarely in pickup basketball do you see a guy gather up his teammates before or after a game, huddle ‘em up and give instructions. It just doesn’t happen, but he was doing that. He was showing the natural leadership role. After we beat him the first game, he got his guys together, and said, ‘Here’s what we need to do …’"

What is politically correct trash talk?

“Most of the talk was directed towards ... the guys he knows. He would have never talked trash to guys he didn’t know. That’s sort of a no-no in basketball. Like Reggie Love -- he was like, ‘C’mon Reggie, you gonna miss all night? I thought you were better than that Reggie.’ ”

So it’s motivational politically correct trash talk.

“Exactly. I turned in my A-game that day, I couldn’t miss. I almost felt bad. I couldn’t play him too aggressively, I didn’t want to break his nose with an unfortunate foul. He was pretty crafty with his left hand. Every time he got me down low, he found a way to score.”

Is it true that he likes to fake right, then go left?

“He normally likes to, what they call the up-and-under move, where he has the ball, fakes one way, waits for you to jump, then ducks under you. That was the favorite move that I noticed.”

He doesn't like to lose

Just how competitive is Obama?

“He’s pretty competitive. He was upset when they lost…. He knew the score. Every single time down, he said the score out loud. He played defense pretty hard, and he did not want to lose, let’s put it that way. After they lost the first game, they got together, tried to find a way to win. After they lost the second game, he was still pretty desperate to win. He did not wanna lose, he wanted no part of that.”

There was no ref, right?

“It’s the honor system. When you’re playing with the future leader of the free world, it’s the honor system times three. Most of the time, when you’re playing pickup basketball, you’re trying to get away with as much as you possibly can, but when you’re playing with him, you almost call a foul on yourself. ‘Yeah, I traveled, I’m sorry….’ It was really odd, I’m not used to playing that way, where you’re incredibly honest. It’s almost like a bunch of pro golfers playing basketball. The honor system reins supreme.”

When Obama came back to Denver in August 2008 to accept the Democratic nomination, Lombardi got a call. How bout another game with Obama? Uh, yeah!

“He’s got an amazing memory,” says Lombardi. “He had met me once. He came up to me, remembered my name, remembered my game, described my game to his friends…. Considering how many people he has played basketball with, that’s amazing.”

Turns out, that second time – the day of the nomination speech – Obama didn’t really play.

“His aides wouldn’t let him,” Lombardi says. “He sort of shot around, and he gave a little play-by-play of what was going on, because a lot of his friends were there. Most of the guys that played basketball with him in years past, high school buddies, guys from Chicago, they were all there.”

The White House Thursday night pickup list:

Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donovan
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
Rep. Mike Arcuri (D) of New York
Rep. John Boccieri (D) of Ohio
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) of Indiana
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona
Rep. Baron Hill (D) of Indiana
Rep. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington
Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) of Maryland
Rep. Rick Larsen (D) of Washington
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) of Pennsylvania
Rep. John Shimkus (R) of Illinois
Rep. Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina


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