As presidential decisions go, this one must have been about as difficult as deciding to get up in the morning. Visit with Ted Koppel? Nah. Bring Sam Donaldson, Mike Wallace or some other electronic pit bull in for a chat? Not on this Saturday. Not when the First Fan could talk college basketball and then get in nine holes of golf before catching the First Team—his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks—on TV as they took on Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. On a brilliant, cloudless Washington morning that could have brightened even Bob Dole's disposition, the worst Bill Clinton figured to get from a couple of sportswriters who wanted to talk some college hoops was a question about...Wisconsin-Whitewater.
It's an old White House recourse: When the going gets tough, the tough talk sports. In 1989, just as a failed attempt to overthrow Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was about to embarrass the U.S., George Bush invited a few baseball writers over to broot the sheeze about the national pastime. At the height of the Vietnam War, seeing a mass of student protesters camped out near the Lincoln Memorial early one morning, Richard Nixon waded into them and tried in vain to talk a little football. Could the Whitewater imbroglio have been why Clinton agreed to share with SI his thoughts about the Arkansas basketball team, over which, presidential dignity be damned, he goes piiiiiiiiiiig sooey?
Probably not. For Clinton, who at age 47 is the youngest occupant of the White House since John Kennedy, sports is no subject of expediency. It's an abiding passion. On the phone with Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones and Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson after the Super Bowl, the President could be heard to bubba with his fellow Arkansans, raving about how Dallas had dominated the Buffalo Bills "from tackle to tackle." Only a week ago Clinton bowled a league-night-creditable 220. As a golfer he is no slouch, either, even if he does freely take the executive mulligan. And despite the slightly porcine figure he cuts in jogging shorts, the President pounds the pavement well enough for aides to warn those joining him for a run that they had best be in at least decent shape. A security van often has to sweep up tuckered-out stragglers.
More than anything, though, the President believes in a place called hoop. "It's a fabulous game, isn't it?" he says. "It makes me wish I were two inches taller and 20 pounds lighter. With a four-foot vertical jump, I could be doing something else."
For the next three weeks the Oval Office will take on a decidedly roundball cast. The 25-3 Razorbacks have been the closest thing to a preeminent team this convulsive season, and followers of Arkansas basketball haven't lived so large since 1978-79. (That was the heyday of a guy who played high school ball in Little Rock for Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's husband, Oliver—a player named Sidney Moncrief.) The First Fan rarely misses the Hogs when they're on TV. Further, when he dropped in on their 129-63 rout of Texas Southern in Fayetteville just after Christmas, Clinton was believed to be the first sitting President to attend a basketball game. Or, more precisely, the first hoops-savvy, Hog-calling, standing sitting President.
"If you want to be calm and quiet, you shouldn't watch a game with me," he says of his behavior, whether watching hoops on TV or in person. "I call the Hog. I change the defenses. I talk to all the players. I do all kinds of stuff. But it's a great tension-reliever."
During Arkansas's 96-78 victory over Memphis State on Dec. 8, a certain clean-headed ESPN commentator wondered on air whether the President was watching. "Yeah, he is!" Clinton called out.
Goodness. A Chief Executive who not only listens to Dick Vitale but also talks back to him'? Quick, someone: Could this be grounds for invoking the 25th Amendment?
"Growing up in Arkansas, we had good basketball teams in high school, but football was always the Southern sport," Clinton says. "Then, in the '70s, [Coach] Eddie Sutton came to Arkansas. I learned a lot from him and from watching his teams. Then when Nolan Richardson came, he brought a whole different dimension of basketball to our state, and he's been terrific."
As a kid Clinton played some church-league ball. He was even a reserve on the Oxford University B team while he was a Rhodes scholar from 1968 to '70. "The game was in its incipiency in England then, and not a lot of people went out for it," he says. Thus Clinton got a fair amount of playing time, even if he was in his words, "a little too chunky and slow to be very commendable on the basketball court."
Since then he has resigned himself to being a student of the game rather than a practitioner of it. He has taken to basketball, like most subjects, with a thoroughness that's dazzling, perhaps even a little eye-glazing. "If you look, you'll see Georgia's turnovers are 22 and Arkansas's points off turnovers are 31," Clinton said on Saturday, breaking down a tape of the Razorbacks' 95-83 SEC quarterfinal defeat of the Bulldogs from the day before, a game he had watched in the privacy of the presidential bedroom.
Clinton used we and they interchangeably, but in each case he meant Arkansas. "See," he said, "here we are five minutes from the end of the game, we're up by five now. They are playing this half-court trap defense that worked very well. They got about three charges, which really helped them." Kerrrrrrrr-splat! As if on cue. 260 pounds of pork hit the floor, driven there by a heedless Georgia player barreling to the basket. Dawg had charged Hawg, and the Razorbacks' Dwight Stewart was helped to his feet by a couple of excited teammates.
As the tape continued to roll, the President's Packeresque command of X's and O's astonished several White House aides who had never seen him turn his attention to this particular subject. "Next time we'll get a telestrator hooked up," one of them promised.
Listening to the President talk, you could assemble an entire scouting report on Arkansas. Here are some of the First Fan's comments on:
•Corliss Williamson, the 6'7" sophomore forward who, thanks to the Razor-backs' two 6'11" freshman centers, Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson, has been free to roam outside the lane this season. "He reminds me a lot of Larry Johnson when he was at UNLV," Clinton says. "The same kind of player, same abilities—he's always around the basket, he can always get open. On offense he can move people away who are a lot bigger than he is, or at least taller. He's the SEC Player of the Year, and he only plays about 27 minutes a game, which shows you how deep they are."
•Arkansas's depth. Small wonder Richardson has the courage to change, and change often. "There are 12 people on that team about whom you can say, 'Here's the contribution they make.' When we need something, they can come in and do it,' " says Clinton.
•The Razorbacks' perimeter game. "We've got some terrific three-point shooters," Clinton says. "Five or six of them can make three-point baskets, including two of the big guys. I saw Stewart make four three-point shots in a row in a game once this year."
•Al Dillard, the 25-year-old reserve who earned his general equivalency diploma and then made his way to Arkansas via junior college. "Here's a miracle, a guy who worked for three years out of high school in a grocery store and went out and practiced baskets afterward," says Clinton. "He just had this dream. I've told him that I didn't think he could possibly overestimate the impact of his story on other people. I mean, this 25-year-old guy playing college basketball because he followed his dream. It's like a Rudy story, you know? His life story could be an inspiration to a lot of kids in tough circumstances."
The morning after Dillard made 12 three-pointers against Delaware State on Dec. 11, he was the subject of some West Wing badinage. "Everybody in the White House asked it I'd met him," Clinton said during his Christmas visit to Fayetteville. "I had to say no. Now I can say I've met him." Richardson kidded Dillard that Clinton was more thrilled to meet him than he was to meet the First Fan.
•Scotty Thurman, the 6'6" sophomore forward from Ruston, La. "Last year he scored more than he did this year," says Clinton. "But this year there's so much talent on his team, he'd just as soon pass as score. But when we need him to score, he always comes in and scores."
As student-council president back at Ruston High, Thurman's great achievement was to repeal a school rule banning short pants. We don't yet know what Clinton's legacy will be, but on his visit to Fayetteville the First Fan did receive from the team a pair of Razorback uniform trunks, cut generously in the seat, per the prevailing style. Richardson urged the First Fan to consider them for his morning jogs in place of what Richardson called "those Marilyn Monroe drawers" in which the President is usually espied. Sure enough, there was the Prez, on the beach at Hilton Head, S.C., a few days later, "saggin'," as this particular sartorial style is known, his baggies flapping in the breeze.
But this Razorback team and its biggest booster have a more ambitious goal than raising the nation's culotte consciousness. Arkansas's 90-78 loss to Kentucky last Saturday afternoon left all parties homing in on what's really important: It's the tournament, stupid. Clinton has given some thought to the Hogs' NCAA prospects, although he gets his pronouns jumbled again. "I still think we've probably got a better chance to win the tournament than anybody else," he says, "because of the discipline of their pressure defense and because they have so many different ways to score. The only thing that concerns me, basically, is that they're young."
Sitting unopened in the Arkansas basketball office is a bottle of champagne that then Governor Clinton and his wife, Hillary, sent Richardson in 1985, soon after he took over the team. "I hope he'll open it if he goes all the way," says Clinton.
Might Bill and Nolan be sharing that bottle on April 4? "I hope I'll be down in Charlotte with him," says the President. "If they go, I'm going."
If not, Clinton offers something to measure his fandom by. "I just may go anyway," he says.