At just past 11 a.m. Thursday, more than 15 minutes before he would climb a stage and deliver another speech on another college campus, President Barack Obama wanted to talk about his jump shot.
He stood inside KU’s Hadl Auditorium, a small, theater-styled room, seeking a quiet moment away from the large crowd that had gathered inside the Anschutz Sports Pavilion, just a short walk away through a maze of offices and locker rooms.
Obama was here to meet the Kansas basketball team — to pose for photos, shake some hands, to ask specific players about their hometowns and high schools. The mood was comfortable and cordial, the leader of the free world taking a moment to relax and make a connection with a room of young basketball players during a morning visit to the University of Kansas.
But then KU assistant coach Jerrance Howard spoke up with a specific request — Mr. President, tell us about your game — and that’s when the president slipped into a short soliloquy about his current, complicated relationship with basketball.
“He basically said he gave the game up,” Kansas coach Bill Self would say later on Thursday. “He said he’s still a very, very good shooter, and could beat anybody in Horse. But if you have to move, he wasn’t very effective anymore.”
In other words: Age catches up to us all, even the president of the United States.
‘I’m not fast for anything,” Self recalled Obama telling his team. “But I’m faster than most 53–year-olds.’”
For most of his presidency, Obama has acted as something like America’s Baller-in-Chief, playing pickup games to relieve stress, keeping tabs on the NBA and the college game, maintaining a lifelong dedication to his favorite sport.
As Obama as aged, the pickup games with his inner circle have apparently waned, but his love of hoops has not. Which is part of the reason he agreed to meet with Self and the Kansas team on Thursday morning, in the minutes before his scheduled speech at the Anschutz Sports Pavilion.
“I’ve got to admit, I took a moment to meet with coach Self and the KU basketball team,” Obama would say, as he opened his prepared remarks. “I mean, we’re here for other business, but while I was here I thought I should talk to some basketball players. And it is January, so that means the Jayhawks are at the top of the Big 12, hunting for 11 straight conference titles.”
To meet some basketball players, Obama had carved out an extra 15 minutes on the front end of his trip to campus. The Kansas team had carved out even more, meeting as a group in Self’s office around 9:50 a.m., then waiting for the president as security cleared the area around Allen Fieldhouse and the adjacent Anschutz.
“He was really humble,” Kansas sophomore guard Wayne Selden said. “He was really welcoming. That was the big thing. He made it seem like he was meeting us, but we felt like we were meeting him.”
Selden gave Obama a basketball signed by the entire Kansas team, while walk-on Tyler Self gave the president a No. 1 Kansas jersey with the name “Obama” stitched across the back.
Bill Self had first met Obama during his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., in December 2011. But his meeting, Self said, was something more special.
As Obama introduced himself to the group, freshman Svi Mykhailiuk, a native of Ukraine, filmed the event on his cell phone. Later, Obama conversed with forwards Jamari Traylor and Cliff Alexander, both natives of Chicago, the president’s adopted hometown.
“You think of kids,” Self said, “especially African-American kids, who maybe come from a tough environments like Cliff and Jamari being from Chicago. He wanted to know right away what high schools they went to. He made our kids feel special.”
Staying for close to 15 minutes, Obama asked the Jayhawks about their season, mentioning their recent victory over Oklahoma. He then joked about twice picking Kansas to win the NCAA title in his annual public bracket.
“He said he didn’t think he’d go that direction this year,” Self said, “but he thought we’d be a pretty high seed.”
Later, during his prepared remarks, Obama would poke fun at his performance in Kansas during two presidential elections by mentioning the Jayhawks’ historic streak of 10 straight Big 12 championships.
“Coach Self won 10 straight,” Obama said. “I lost two straight here.”
While moving through the KU athletic offices, Obama also stopped in the KU women’s soccer locker room, leaving a message on a white board — It read, in part, “Go Jayhawks!” — and signing notes left by KU softball players in another locker room.
“He was real cool, real humble,” Kansas freshman guard Devonte’ Graham would add. “He came in, introduced himself, talked about basketball. It was a great experience.”
By the end, Obama had reminded the players to stay focused on academics. When Self piped up that the team GPA was a 2.93, Obama quickly countered.
“Got to get that up to a 3.0.” Self recalled Obama saying. “Which basically tells you, don’t ever be totally satisfied, which I thought was pretty cool for our guys to hear.”
Obama then left the players with one other thought. He had mentioned his declining game, the cruelty of aging, his steadfast love of college hoops, and he had introduced himself to each player. Next came another piece of wisdom.
“He said: ‘If we want any tips, just ask him,’ ” Selden said.
“But nobody asked him.”
On that front, the Jayhawks were good. Sorry, Mr. President.