Inside the Iconic Obama Basketball Games at the White House

Magic Johnson once came out of retirement to play with other NBA legends for President Obama's 50th birthday at the White House, where basketball was taken very seriously.
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Former President Barack Obama spent some time during the duration of his presidency playing hoops at the White Hoops. But how does one get invited to play? Which famous NBA players stopped by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to hoop with 44? Dan Pfeiffer, former White House communications director during the Barack Obama administration and author and co-host of Pod Save America, joined SI's Chris Mannix this week on The Crossover podcast to talk about basketball in the Obama White House. Pfeiffer spilled on the famed Obama basketball games, the former president's relationship with NBA players and coaches and more.

(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Bill Frakes

Bill Frakes

Mannix: Did you get hit up a lot from people asking to get into that game?

Pfeiffer: Always. People always wanted to play in any sort of Obama basketball game.

You never want to be responsible for putting someone in that game, because I was tangentially responsible for one of the great tragedies of the Obama basketball games.  A guy that I kind of knew ended up in a game and he's the one who busted Obama's nose over Thanksgiving in 2010, which no one was pleased with and caused a minor media firestorm.

Mannix: How much grief did you get for putting that guy in the game?

Pfeiffer: Well, I was only like a third order responsible. So I think Reggie [Love] took most of the blame. But I walked around quietly, hoping no one remembered that I also knew that guy. Whenever I went to the Oval Office in the weeks afterwards, because I did, I didn't want to take my share of blame for it.

Mannix: So as you said, a lot of people wanted to get into that game. Who is like the highest-profile person that was rejected from that game? Any names jumped to mind?

Pfeiffer: I don't know who the highest-profile person who was rejected would be. Many, many members of Congress wanted to play and play with President Obama. And I don't think anyone ever did. And there was a period of time where he kind of mostly retired from pick-up ball in the latter half of his presidency, just as he felt he was getting older and more afraid of injury. He described it to me once that as you get older and you get slower, the risk of injury exceeds the benefits of playing. 

But in the early days, in particular the off-season, they would invite some NBA players to play in them. Kevin Durant famously played, I think before either his rookie year or before his rookie year he came and played in a game. There's an infamous story that I don't know, I can't swear is true, but that John Wall slept through his presidential basketball game. That story has been going around the White House in D.C. for years.

He had lots of players. The most famous player ever to play in an Election Day game, which were always a little bit more of a ceremonial affair than a regular Saturday run was Scottie Pippen. He played in the game on Election Day in 2012 with his son.

Mannix: I’m gonna have to ask John Wall about that story to see if he'll confirm that one for me. So when did NBA players start to get involved? Did you guys recruit these NBA guys to play? Did Obama ask these NBA guys to play or was it something different?

Pfeiffer: Obama obviously knew some of these guys, especially the Chicago guys from when he was a senator. When NBA teams would come to town, a lot of them would come to the White House and if Obama was around, he'd come say hi to them. Some of them would get involved through their foundations or their charitable work with stuff Obama would do, like mentoring programs and getting people to sign up for health care and that sort of stuff. And Obama would get to know them and a lot of them would get in contact with Obama through Reggie Love. 

The most famous example of people playing with Obama was on his 50th birthday. Reggie and Obama's friends put together a game with just every NBA player you could imagine to come play. In that game was LeBron James, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Shane Battier, Alonzo Mourning and Magic Johnson came out of retirement for it. Maya Moore played in the game. Kobe Bryant came but he was injured at the time. He and Bill Russell watched the game and it was like a mix of NBA players and Obama and his regular sort of his friends from high school. He plays with his high school team mostly and they went back and forth for a couple hours on Obama's birthday. Then there was a big birthday barbecue afterwards and all the players came to that.

Mannix: Alonzo Mourning came out of retirement for the Obama game. Magic Johnson came out of retirement [laughs]. Did you just marvel at that? That’s a legit collection of talent just to play pick-up basketball.

Pfeiffer: They invited a bunch of staff and Obama's friends and a bunch of these D.C. kids who were part of the White House mentorship program to come watch the game. A lot of the White House staffers brought their kids and I remember no one told the kids what was going to happen. 

I remember the son, probably seven or eight years old of one of my colleagues in the White House shooting. He was on the court before everyone came out shooting baskets and he's wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey and he misses the shot and it sort of rolls and the door opens which was essentially was the locker room and Kobe walks out and picks up the ball and throws it back to him and the look on the kid's face—he could not believe it. 

That was the only game I ever saw where NBA players played with Obama and that was amazing. The only people who played super competitively other than Obama was Chris Paul, obviously.