The NBA season starts this month, but at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, basketball season starts whenever the Big O says it does, which means it starts tomorrow. That's when a handpicked group of Cabinet members and congressman will play at the White House, courtesy of their host, President Obama.
The original "Big O" was Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson, but today's version is a slashing left-hander who was known as Barry Obama back when he was leading Punahou Academy to the state championship in Hawaii. "Barry O'bomber" he was called then, and basketball was one way that Obama forged friendships with fellow students back in the day.
He needs friends in Washington, too, and his aides suggested that Obama is hoping that Thursday's session on the White House basketball court – tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. -- would make for some constructive male bonding at a time when he needs all the support he can get as tough congressional votes loom on issues ranging from health care to U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
The roster of players consists of cabinet secretaries Arne Duncan (Education), Ken Salazar (Interior) Shaun Donovan (HUD), and Tim Geithner (Treasury). The congressmen who are scheduled to play are John Shimkus of Illinois; Mike Arcuri of New York; John Boccieri of Ohio; Jay Inslee of Washington state; Jeff Flake of Arizona; Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania; Health Shuler of North Carolina; and Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill of Indiana.
There are some athletes in the crowd – Shuler was a star college quarterback who played for the Redskins – and some stellar basketball players as well: Arne Duncan played professionally in Australia; Baron Hill is an Indiana high school legend inducted into the state's basketball Hall of Fame.
It's a mostly Democratic game, with Reps. Shimkus and Flake being the token Republicans. No senators made the cut, which might not be a coincidence. In his autobiography, Oscar Robertson described tough Boston Celtics' guard K.C. Jones as his "nemesis." When it comes to Obama's basketball experience in the nation's capital that description fits Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.
Thune, who played college hoops at a small school in California, was perhaps the only senator who was Obama's match when both played in pickup games on Capitol Hill after Obama arrived in Washington in 2005.
The Obama-Thune rivalry was friendly enough in the Senate gym, although some Washington observers wonder if it won't heat up in the next couple of years as Thune, considered by some to likely GOP candidate for national office, wrestles with the notion of trying to make the White House basketball court his own.