Hoops Rule: The President and the Hard Court

The White House needs a new basketball court and it's not in the stimulus package.

I was in New York City recently and bumped into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I congratulated her on the stimulus package, but refrained from lobbying her about a glaring omission in the $800 billion legislation -- the absence of a public works project to build a new indoor basketball court on the White House grounds.

Regular basketball games for President Obama and his team are essential to the nation's recovery. Daily workouts on the court are important for the president's physical and mental health. The nation knows that Obama is a serious player. He was a varsity player at Punahou in Hawaii, and played in a the rough-and-tumble noon game at Occidental ("good herky, jerky motion, goes left to the basket," says Oxy coach Brian Newhall who played with Obama in college). Barack played in Chicago and frequently on the campaign trail. According to his brother-in-law Craig Robinson, it was on the court that Obama passed muster as a mate for sister Michelle. Now the coach at Oregon State, Robinson took the aspiring suitor out for a rigorous game of hoops, and reported that Obama was a stand-up guy who could play the game and maintained his cool on the court. No cheap fouls, no temper. A scholar-athlete who could be a decent member of the family, and perhaps more.

The White House needs a new basketball court and it's not in the stimulus package.

I have been playing basketball since I was very young, first in pick-up games at my local park, then in high school as co-captain of the Culver City Centaurs. It has always helped me keep my balance in life. I also learned the diplomatic uses of sports. In the 1980s my wife was elected Mayor of Santa Monica. I began playing ball with a group of city police at a local church, and encouraged our liberal city attorney and city manager to come along. It was a serious game, famous in local lore for the time that I brought a young politician from Arkansas to play (lousy shooter, but aggressive under the boards). I became good friends with detectives and patrolmen, and when issues arose at city hall, we knew each other and could talk easily and frankly.

When the lanky guy from Little Rock became president and asked me to serve as a US ambassador, I took my passion for basketball abroad. I organized an embassy team. We played every Saturday in a high school gym in Helsinki, entered a city tournament, defeated the Russian embassy for the title, and took home a trophy which I placed in the waiting room of my office. My son Anthony, a top player at UC Santa Cruz, came to Finland to play professionally. At one of his games, I joined in a free throw shooting contest at half time with the local mayor. Press coverage was not unfavorable -- similar to Obama sinking a three pointer when he visited US troops during the campaign, except that his shot was shown around the world on CNN (and I missed my last shot from the charity stripe).

The White House needs a new basketball court and it's not in the stimulus package.

Presidents have often played sports. Teddy Roosevelt liked to ride in Rock Creek Park and exercise vigorously. Eisenhower played golf. Richard Nixon bowled (and had an alley installed at Camp David). Jimmy Carter famously jogged. Clinton jogged and played golf but never tried basketball again as president. George W. Bush rode his mountain bike and had a daily workout. But these were all relatively solitary (or perhaps elitist) sports. Basketball is more social -- an urban game -- and it has become a truly global sport. For years, Michael Jordan, not the U.S. president, was the best known American in China. World class players from all over the globe try to make the NBA. Having a U.S. president who is a serious hoopster is great public diplomacy -- but the man needs a decent place to play. The current outdoor court on the White House grounds doesn't cut it.

When FDR was elected president, there was no pool at the White House. He had gotten in the habit of swimming regularly to strengthen his leg muscles, but he knew that it would be bad politics to spend public money for a new indoor pool, however important to his health, while millions were out of work. Instead, a subscription was taken up by the New York Daily News from its readers, and the pool built in 1933, funded by small private donations. Having the people build it for the president was an ideal solution.

I was discussing this with Jonathan Alter, author of the book The Defining Moment -- FDR's First 100 Days (which Obama and his staff have reportedly read). I said to Alter that we should ask the NBA to pay for a new indoor court at the White House. Alter said, not the NBA owners -- instead, ask the NBA Players Association. The workers, albeit highly paid, can afford it, and when it's built they can visit the White House and shoot hoops with President Obama. Retired players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan could be asked to contribute as well.

The White House needs a new basketball court and it's not in the stimulus package.

It doesn't need to be. The greatest players in the land can be asked to step up and make sure that President Obama, who has so much of import on his plate, has a good place to play hoops - -a place for sweating, herky jerky moves left to the hoop -- and perhaps basketball diplomacy too.

In return, the president and his economic team might be persuaded to add funds to the stimulus package for more inner city sports facilities -- basketball courts, soccer and baseball fields, swimming gyms,etc -- and to make amateur and youth sports an integral part of his urban revitalization and health strategies. The president should appoint a top athlete to head the President's Council on Physical Fitness (I nominate former soccer star Mia Hamm and her baseball player husband Nomar Garciaparra to share the post). Participating in sports, not simply watching, should be a message that the Obama administration trumpets at home and abroad. Of course, President Obama will lead by example.

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