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A Place Called Hoop President Clinton's lively interest in the Hogs became a national sensation

April 20, 1994
April 20, 1994

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April 20, 1994

A Place Called Hoop President Clinton's lively interest in the Hogs became a national sensation

EVEN if Bill Clinton hadn't been born in Hope, even if he hadn't
grown up in Hot Springs, even if he hadn't gotten hooked on Arkansas
basketball as a young law professor in Fayetteville during the 1970s,
the First Fan and the First Team probably would have found each other
this season.
Why wouldn't the President love a team that was so deep that no
coach would have any trouble heeding Clinton's campaign refrain to
have ''the courage to change''? Why wouldn't he love Alex Dillard,
the 25-year-old Razorback guard, who, having dropped out of high
school but nonetheless picked up his G.E.D., is a walking
advertisement for the Administration's emphasis on continuing
education? (''It's like a Rudy story, you know?'' Clinton says of
Dillard. ''His life story could be an inspiration to a lot of kids in
tough circumstances.'') Why wouldn't the President love a team that
suffered a double-digit loss to Kentucky, only to come back three
weeks later to win the national championship? It's the tournament,
stupid.
Clinton almost never missed the Hogs, either live or on tape, when
they were on television during this championship season. Furthermore,
when he dropped in on their 129-63 rout of Texas Southern at Bud
Walton Arena just after Christmas, he 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 basketball on television 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 the air whether the
President was watching. ''Yeah, he is!'' Clinton called out.
Goodness. A Chief Executive who not only listens to Dick Vitale
but talks back to him as well? 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,'' says Clinton.
''Then in the '70s, Eddie Sutton came to Arkansas. I learned a lot
from him and from watching his teams. When Nolan Richardson came, he
brought a whole different dimension of basketball to our state, and
he has been terrific. He's a good man.''
Clinton's connections to the program are longstanding and
numerous. Fayetteville's Rudy Moore, a former Arkansas gubernatorial
aide to Clinton, is a good friend of guard Davor Rimac. The brother
of Hog walk-on John Engskov works in the White House travel office.
Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's husband, Oliver, coached a pretty
fair former Razorback at Hall High in Little Rock, a player named
Sidney Moncrief. Sutton told Clinton during the late stages of the
1992 campaign that he shouldn't ''go into the delay game'' too soon.
And the last thing Virginia Kelley, the President's mother, did
before she died in January was watch the first half of the
Razorbacks' game with Ole Miss on television. The players wore a
patch in her memory for the rest of the regular season.
On his visit to Bud Walton Arena back in December, the First Fan
received a pair of Razorback uniform trunks from the team. They were
cut generously in the seat, per the prevailing style. Richardson
urged Clinton 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 in Hilton Head, S.C., a few days later, ''saggin','' as this
particular sartorial habit is known, his baggies flapping in the
breeze.
To see him now in any style of shorts, it's hard to imagine
Clinton as a hoops player. Growing up, however, he participated in
church leagues, and he was even a reserve on the Oxford University B
team while on a Rhodes scholarship 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 follower of
basketball rather than a practitioner of it. ''It's a fabulous game,
isn't it?'' says the $ President. ''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.'' And he has taken to hoops, like
most subjects, with a thoroughness that's dazzling, perhaps even a
little eye-glazing.
On March 12, as questions about Whitewater swirled about him,
Clinton agreed to meet with SI at the White House to talk about
college basketball and his favorite team. During the session he
reviewed a tape of the Razorbacks' 95-83 defeat of Georgia in the
quarterfinals of the SEC tournament the previous day, a game he had
watched from the privacy of the Presidential bedroom. As he broke
down the action, the President 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.''
Kerrrrrr-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 Razorback forward Dwight Stewart was
helped up to his feet by a couple of excited teammates.
As the videotape continued to roll, the President's Billy
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.
The President even seemed to anticipate the NCAA title to come.
''We've probably got a better chance to win the tournament than
anybody else,'' he said, ''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.''
And, he added, ''If they go ((to the Final Four)), I'm going.''
It was one of those rare politician's promises that got kept.
Indeed, because he was in Dallas for his half brother Roger's March
26 wedding to Molly Martin, Clinton even caught the Razorbacks in
their Midwest Regional final victory over Michigan at Reunion Arena.
Afterward he congratulated both the Hogs and losing coach Steve
Fisher. (A year earlier Clinton had sent a compassionate note to
Michigan's Chris Webber after Webber had asked for a late-game
timeout the Wolverines didn't have, thereby costing Michigan a last
shot at beating North Carolina in the championship game.)
A week later, after the title-game victory over Duke in Charlotte,
the Hogs' Corliss Williamson noticed the President's eyes were dewy.
''It seemed as if he had been out there playing with us -- that's how
happy he seemed,'' said Williamson, who was also the proud recipient
of a presidential high five after the game.
For Clinton, the NCAA final was only a few seconds short of 40
Minutes of Hell. When the son of one of Hillary's Wellesley College
suitemates, a Dookie named Grant Hill, sank a three-pointer to tie
the score at 70, he pounded his fist in frustration. Moments later,
after Scotty Thurman had thrown in a three of his own and the
Razorbacks had won 76-72, the President's pregame prediction -- ''We
were talking today,'' he said, ''and I thought if we scored 75
points, we might be able to win'' -- had come true.
Believe it or not, there's a half-court at 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue, at the western edge of the South Lawn. It was dedicated with
a plaque to Duke after the second of the Blue Devils' two national
championships, in 1992, when George Bush occupied the White House.
Perhaps the court will be rededicated when the Razorbacks come by for
their planned Rose Garden visit.
There were some dour types who doubted the political wisdom of the
President's pulling so passionately for his team against Michigan in
the Midwest Regional and against Arizona and Duke at the Final Four.
They said Clinton was jeopardizing all those electoral votes in those
precincts. However, even if he squandered the 1996 election because
of his partisanship, Clinton told CBS's Pat O'Brien, ''It was worth
it.''
Others thought a President should have better things to do than
fix Coach Richardson with postgame hugs and deal digits with Big
Nasty. But Richardson understood. ''Once you become a Hog,'' he said,
''when they cut you open, you're gonna bleed little pigs.''
In 1985, when Clinton was governor of the state, he and Hillary
welcomed Richardson to Arkansas with a bottle of champagne.
Richardson didn't open it, and the bottle made the move with the rest
of Richardson's effects when the Razorback basketball offices moved
from Barnhill Arena to Bud Walton. It may be time to pour from that
bottle now that Fayetteville is no longer a place called hope, or
even expectation, but one of fulfilled promise.

This is an article from the April 20, 1994 issue