Private School Drama Ended Barack Obama’s Basketball Coaching Career

In Wednesday’s Hot Clicks: Barack Obama learns how tough sports parents can be, a MAC player runs wild and more.
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Fourth grade basketball is intense when you’re the president

Former President Barack Obama’s love of basketball is well known. During his time in office, he surrounded himself with former high-level hoopers, like secretary of education Arne Duncan (who played at Harvard and professionally in Australia) and personal aide Reggie Love (a two-sport star at Duke who won the 2001 NCAA tournament with the Blue Devils). Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, mentions how Love would organize pickup games for Obama to let loose on the weekends. 

“But the enjoyment I got from playing basketball was nothing compared to the thrill—and stress—of rooting for [younger daughter] Sasha’s fourth grade rec league team,” Obama writes. (Entertainment Weekly published an except from the audio version of the book.)

Obama says he and his wife, Michelle, enjoyed sitting in the stands and rooting for Sasha’s team (the Vipers) at Sidwell Friends School, the elite D.C. private school attended by several presidential children. The president, though, thought he could do more. 

Obama describes the team’s coaches as well-meaning but not exactly John Wooden—“a friendly young couple who taught at Sidwell and, by their own admission, didn’t consider basketball their primary sport.” So the president decided he could probably help out a little bit and enlisted Love to give the Vipers extra attention. 

After observing an adorable, but chaotic, first couple of games, Reggie and I took it upon ourselves to draw up some plays and volunteered to conduct a few informal Sunday afternoon practice sessions with the team. We worked on the basics: dribbling, passing, making sure your shoelaces were tied before you ran onto the court.

And although Reggie could get a little too intense when we ran drills—"Paige, don’t let Isabel punk you like that"—the girls seemed to have as much fun as we did.

The Vipers ended up winning their league championship—“an 18–16 nail-biter”—and Obama says he and Love “celebrated like it was the NCAA finals.”

But Obama was denied the chance to lead the Vipers to a second title. The extra attention from the former Punahou School student had started to make other parents jealous. 

Given all the time I’d missed with the girls over the years campaigning and legislative sessions, I cherished the normal dad stuff that much more. But of course, nothing about our lives was completely normal anymore, as I was reminded the following year when, in true Washington fashion, a few of the parents from a rival Sidwell team started complaining to the Vipers’ coaches, and presumably the school, that Reggie and I weren’t offering training sessions to their kids, too. We explained that there was nothing special about our practices, that it was just an excuse for me to spend extra time with Sasha, and offered to help other parents organize extra practices of their own. But when it became clear that the complaints had nothing to do with basketball—“They must think being coached by you is something they can put on a Harvard application,” Reggie scoffed—and that the Vipers’ coaches were feeling squeezed, I decided that it would be simpler for all concerned if I went back to just being a fan.

Love is absolutely right. If you’re living in D.C. and you have a chance to gain direct access to the president, you’re going to do anything to make it happen. Using your kids’ elementary school basketball team to do it is just a little slimy, though.

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