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Ray Didinger on “Tommy and Me”

This week in North Philly Notes,  Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and The New Eagles Encyclopedia, recounts bringing his play Tommy and Mebased on his life, to life on stage.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling Sunday night as Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run from August 3 through 14, I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night we would be going in different directions. Joe Canuso, the director, is going back to work on Rizzo, the play he successful staged last year and is reviving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in September. Matt Pfeiffer, the actor who played me as an adult, is headed to Naples, Florida, to direct a play. Ned Pryce, the actor who played the young Tommy McDonald, is already in rehearsal for a role with the Iron Age Theatre. Tom Teti is rejoining the team at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Simon Kiley, who played the 10-year-old me, is getting ready to start sixth grade at Girard Academic Music Program. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why on Sunday night it was hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 

 

 

Public Security: The Most Important Theme in Rio de Janeiro

In his second Olympic-themed blog entry, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, addresses the theme of public security in Rio during the Games.

Two term Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has easily been the most interviewed and quoted public authority for the Rio Olympic games, has said more than once that public security is the most important theme in Rio de Janeiro. For Olympics organizers, a main question always has been will public security forces be able to control Rio de Janeiro’s rising street crime and newly emboldened gangs. A much less publicized question—How can anti-Olympics protesters be repressed without violating their human rights?—has already been answered: It can’t be done. The protesters demonstrate against what they view as public money misused on the Olympics because it is needed much more for health, education and various social programs. There are also protesters—some doubtlessly the same individuals—fighting against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. They see impeachment now entering its final phase as a coup d’etat by her political party opponents against Brazilian social democracy. Not discussed at all in politically charged Brazil is the fear of sabotage by opponents of the Olympics or the government—such as setting fires in Olympic installations. All of the above are the various public security fears that must haunt an authority such as Minister of Justice Alexander de Moraes. Focused on Brazilian behavior which is what he knows best, Moraes has played down the possibility of foreign ISIL inspired terrorist attacks.

In the lead up to the Olympic games, public security preparations were usually discussed as numbers of police and of funding them. Taking the lead in providing security is the state of Rio with more than 30,000 police available for Olympic duties. However, for most of 2016, the state of Rio has been broke. On June 17, 81 year old vice-governor and economist Francisco Dornelles—acting in the place of Governor Luis Fernando Pezão then undergoing treatment for lymphoma—rattled Olympic organizers when he declared that Rio de Janeiro was in a “state of public calamity.” It was the first time in Brazilian history this designation had been used to describe anything other than a natural disaster. An immediate effect was the return of 50,000 Olympic event tickets. Dornelles also took experts in public administration by surprise. They questioned whether a “state of public calamity” could be applied to a fiscal collapse. But the wily acting governor, a veteran of 30 years of political combat in Rio de Janeiro, got what he wanted. He activated an immediate transfer of 2.9 billion reais, about 900 million dollars at the current exchange rate, from the federal government to Rio de Janeiro. The money was to help strengthen public security at a time when state police forces more and more appeared not up to the job protecting the people of Rio, the athletes, and the half million tourists expected for the Olympics. The transfer meant police and other public service professionals including teachers and health workers could expect to receive their salaries. One or more local gangs took notice and responded by hijacking a truck transporting containers just arrived from Europe. The containers carried the equipment of two German TV networks for transmitting the Olympic games. The truck was later abandoned. The containers had not been opened, and the valuable equipment was untouched and safe. But the gangsters served notice that they had interests of their own. Following this show of strength, some arrangement might be expected whereby organized crime groups will play a part in keeping Rio de Janeiro safe during the Olympics. Retail and wholesale drug trafficking no doubt continues with little interference. Brazil ranks second on the list of countries in consumption of cocaine, and Rio de Janeiro is a major port for the export of cocaine to Africa and Europe.

The police began to receive back salaries dating to May. Still, on July 4, the civil police staged an event at Rio’s international airport when they received passengers with  “Welcome to Hell” English language banners, and with stuffed figures of dead, bloodied police spread on a terminal floor. The message: Police would not die for Rio if they were not being paid. An exasperated Eduardo Paes viewed the spectacle as yet one more public relations disaster. He went on CNN and in an English-language interview pronounced Rio’s public security “Horrible.” He blamed the police, and the Rio state government. He insisted the city government of Rio had nothing to do with public security which is a state responsibility. But he also knew help was on the way. The next day Mayor Paes welcomed the arrival of federal armed forces, federal police, and soldiers of the National Security Force. Together with state police, they are now conspicuously present in order to discourage crime, and reassure visitors that Rio de Janeiro is a safe haven. Accordingly, 51,000 members of security forces have been deployed in metropolitan Rio. 22,000 members of the armed forces and federal police are assigned to protect the Olympic installations, the routes and public transportation taking people to and from the games, and the Tom Jobim international airport. With security apparently well in hand, a much subdued Paes declared on July 5th that the Olympics would surely be a tremendous success and leave a positive legacy for the city of Rio.

Layout 1This optimism lasted a little over two weeks. The evening of July 21 brought news that police were arresting 13 homegrown ISIS inspired would-be terrorists. All were self-indoctrinated converts to Islam. They communicated with each other via social media. Calling themselves “Defenders of Sharia,” they pledged allegiance to ISIS as virtual acts on the internet. One suspect was said to have tried to buy weapons in Paraguay.   Minister of Justice Moraes said the individuals were clearly amateurs, and in the early stage of planning something.

The arrests and revelations clearly added to public uneasiness in Rio de Janeiro, and mobilized authorities. Would Brazilian security forces be up to the job of thwarting one or more terrorist attacks? There was skepticism as can well be imagined. But people soon learned that the project of thwarting had become internationalized. Other countries, including the United States, France, Israel and Russia with their more experienced intelligence services were present for the Olympics and working with Brazilians which brought reassurance. Intelligence and other security agents—no doubt feeling their backs to the wall after all the recent terrorist attacks in different countries—seem absolutely determined to stop terrorists at the Olympics, be they a Brazilian home grown variety, or foreigners infiltrated into Olympic crowds and groups of tourists. It’s them against us. In this spirit of providing safety, wherever crowds of people gather in Rio, there are substantial numbers of well-armed police or other security forces reinforced by plainclothes agents.

Many people in Brazil and elsewhere no doubt believe that terrorist acts cannot be stopped entirely. The Rio Olympics offer a chance to show otherwise at least for a moment when several billion people around the world are watching the games on TV.  Minister of Justice Moraes has lately declared “minimal” and “approaching zero” the probability of a terrorist attack.

Ready or Not: Rio on the Eve of the Olympics

On the ground in Rio, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, reflects on what life is like as the games begin.

For the months leading up to the 2016 summer Olympics games, media reporting has been largely critical of Rio de Janeiro’s, and by extension Brazil’s ability to complete preparations for the mega sports event. This critical viewpoint was shared even by the Brazilian patrician press with perhaps A Folha de São Paulo taking the lead. A stream of reports from inside and outside Brazil focused on delays and mishaps. As late as July 1st,  The New York Times published an article Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara about “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe.” The article took us into a world of chaos and uncertainties that seemed an inherent part of preparations for the Rio Olympics. Thomas Bach, the German president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that Brazil was an example of a country that liked to wait until the final hour to complete a big task such as preparations for the Olympics. However, he remained optimistic and sure that the Brazilian hosts would get the job done in time for the opening ceremony August 5.

This was his view just the day after delegations of athletes from several countries, including Brazil itself, refused to occupy their assigned residences saying they were unfit for habitation. They entered apartments where pipes leaked, toilets might not flush, and electric wires were exposed. In fact, only 15 of 31 new high rise apartment buildings in the Olympic Village were ready to receive delegations as of Sunday, July 24 when they opened for occupancy. 630 workers were quickly hired to work around the clock to complete the work by Thursday. This was one more public relations disaster and not to be overcome so quickly. Ministry of Labor inspectors made an unexpected visit. They found that Brazilian labor law was being flouted. Workers had not been hired according to rules of formal sector employment. They were working longer hours than permitted, in one case 23 hours straight, and not enough time was allowed for meals. The Ministry fined the Rio Olympic committee nearly $100,000. Still the work was completed and delegation complaints then turned to praise.

Now in the early 21st century, the port area in downtown Rio is once again a main target of urban renewal. Demolition of an old, dirty elevated freeway, remodeling older buildings and putting up new ones has dramatically changed the area, making it an inviting zone of high interest. For the residents of Rio and visitors, the important lures will be new museums and cultural centers. The Museum of Tomorrow is architecturally the most striking and important structure. Hailed by The Guardian on its inauguration in 2015 as one of the world’s most extraordinary contemporary buildings, it is dedicated to the idea of human and planetary sustainability.

My wife Regina and I decided to see changes in the port area and downtown Rio. We took a ride on the new light rail tramline that circulates between the bus station and the domestic Santos Dumont airport. We could see how in much of the area traversed, the planned renewal has largely been completed and ready to receive tens of thousands tourists who will come to the Olympics. There are Olympics connected projects in the area that are not strictly about sporting events. We got off at the stop on the newly christened Olympic Boulevard where Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra is finishing an enormous multicolored mural “We are all one.” The mural celebrates the unity of the human race in five continents, and the search for peace. We wanted to see it, and to see him at work partly because we live in Philadelphia which is a leader in the outdoor mural movement and have become interested in this form of public art. Kobra’s mural is spread over a block long cinderblock wall and occupies about twice as many square feet as the world’s next largest mural. We watched him spray paint areas while standing on a hydraulic lift platform, but there were strong gusts of wind that must have made the work more difficult than usual. He was working from what seemed a color chart. We plan to return to watch again this remarkable work in progress. Kobra is hurrying to complete it by the official opening day of August 5.

We are now in the countdown phase to the opening ceremony—counted in days (now only 3 as this is being written), hours, minutes and seconds. An Olympic media slogan aims for social inclusion “Somos Todos Olímpicos,” or “We are all Olympians,” but a poll published on July 19 showed that 50% of the population was against the 2016 Rio Olympics, 40% in favor, and 10% did not know where they stood. 63% think Brazil will be worse for the Olympics. A certain lack of enthusiasm, even opposition to the games was obviously taken to heart by Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes whose emotional fever chart is always on display. In an interview on August 1st with A Folha de São Paulo. the mayor lamented the fact that Brazilians were in a bad mood due to the hard times (three years of recession),  also the political crisis of impeaching a president, and the endless Operation Carwash investigations of corrupt practices in the highest places of politics and corporate business. He said to the contrary that Brazilians should feel good about the Olympics. Largely by themselves, Brazilians had been able to overcome all the problems and emergencies associated with the games and that similar problems occurred in other summer Olympic games. The IOC was grateful for the way we responded to contingencies, and surprised that Brazilians had such a low opinion of themselves. Paes called it “our complex of being a mongrel people.”As for critical local press reporting, including in A Folha de São Paulo, it had contaminated public opinion when times were so difficult, in effect, turned people against the Olympics. However, looking at Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing urban transformation as spurred by the Olympics, the mayor brightened. He was sure it would be “more profound” than what even had occurred in the famous Barcelona Olympics of 1992 when Barcelona consolidated its reputation as a great cosmopolitan city.

 

Why Another Book about Muhammad Ali?

This week, in North Philly Notes,  Michael Ezra, author of  Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Iconwrites:

Many people sent me their condolences about the passing of Muhammad Ali, but I told them all that they should be happy for him. For the past thirty years, almost every act Ali has done has been with getting into heaven in mind. Nobody I’ve ever known was more prepared for death than he was; I honestly believe he was looking forward to it. He suffers no longer, and his legacy will live on for many years. The introduction to my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon explains what the book is about and why I wrote it.

For almost thirty years, Muhammad Ali has held the Guinness World Record as the most written-about person in history. Although John Lennon once claimed that the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus, Ali is the one who really deserves such distinction, at least in a literary sense. Why, then, would anybody have the temerity to think that he could add something to this already overflowing mix? What makes this book worth reading? Though library shelves may buckle under the weight of the Muhammad Ali literature, there is surprisingly little written about key aspects of his life, such as his pre-championship boxing matches, the management of his career, and his current legacy. I concentrate on these three important themes.

Understanding Ali’s transformation from a controversial to a revered figure takes knowledge of his entire life in the public spotlight. To comprehend this phenomenon, one must look at Ali’s career holistically, from his appearance as an Olympic champion in 1960 to his present incarnation as an iconic international hero. The problem for readers is that so much is already written about Ali, and so much information is at hand, that one must wade through everything to find events and trends that have enough representative clout to get at key meanings without drowning in detail. Although this book spans nearly fifty years, from 1960 to the present, it is hardly a comprehensive account of Ali’s life. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a distillation of crucial paradigm shifts in how Ali has been perceived by various segments of the public.

EzraAt the heart of this book is a study of the relationships between Muhammad Ali’s cultural image and its commercial manifestations. The central concept that I use to get at these meanings is what I call moral authority, a term I use throughout this book. My thesis has two parts. First, the most significant way people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali over the years has been through their understanding of him as a moral force, both positive and negative. Second, the crucial way many Americans have arrived at their moral understanding of Ali—his cultural image—has come from their perception of who is making money by associating with him—the commercial manifestations. This book traces the relationships between public perceptions of Ali, the economic entanglements  surrounding his career, and the cultural meanings that have emerged from such connections.

The idea that Ali’s moral authority is intimately bound to the economic consequences of his public life and career is a new one. The dominant interpretations of Ali usually tie his moral authority to his political or racial symbolism. The generic Ali Story explains his transformation from an oppositional to a mainstream figure as a product, among other things, of his stand against the Vietnam War or his being a member of the Nation of Islam. As these versions go, Ali’s moral authority and cultural image crumbled as he took an unpopular political stand in challenging the Vietnam War and turned toward black nationalism by joining the racially separatist Nation of Islam. But over time, the public began to reject the war, Ali renounced the Nation’s core tenets, and he became a morally authoritative cultural hero. There is much more to the process, however; namely, the economic aspects of these seemingly racial, political, and moral changes. My argument is that Ali’s relationships to the Vietnam War and the Nation of Islam, as barometers of his public moral authority, were important not primarily because of their political and racial content, but because they represented who had economic ownership of him. What brought Ali infamy during the 1960s was not necessarily that he was a politically oppositional force, but that he threatened to generate wealth for the wrong people. The public’s sense of Ali’s moral authority has always been a function of its perception of who has economic ownership of him.

I have divided this book into three parts, each of them a response to the ever-evolving question “Who owns Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali?” Part I, “Louisville Sponsoring Group,” details Clay’s rise as pugilism’s biggest box-office draw under the management of the millionaire boys’ club known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group. Part II, “Nation of Islam,” explores the difficulties he encountered as his cultural image and commercial viability plummeted when the black nationalist religious sect took control of his career. Part III, “Good People,” is a study of the fighter’s rebirth as an admired cultural icon representing corporate interests.

Before I begin the narrative, I want to make four points that will help readers understand my perspective and goals. First, you may have noticed that I treat the words Ali Story as a proper noun. The reason for the capitalization is that I consider history to be primarily art rather than science. The Ali Story, although certainly based upon fact, is a construct: part fact, part myth, part interpretation. Like all history, my version of the Ali Story leaves out far more than it includes. This book is neither definitive nor comprehensive. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a plausible interpretation of how people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali’s life and times. The book is truthful but is not the truth. Second, this study bucks the trend of most Ali literature that insists upon making moral judgments about him. I view Ali as neither great nor wicked, but rather a person with both strengths and weaknesses. This book is neither a sentimental celebration of Ali nor an iconoclastic attempt to knock him off his pedestal. What I have tried to do instead is explain how people have come to invest or divest moral authority in the rich and multifaceted cultural symbol known as Muhammad Ali. I will leave the fool’s errand of identifying his true and essential nature to others. Third, my protagonist changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964. When I discuss the pre-championship man I refer to him as Cassius Clay. When I discuss the post-championship man I call him Muhammad Ali. Fourth, this book explores the economics behind the boxing matches of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. It is often difficult to figure out exactly how much money had been made and by whom. I relied on newspaper reports for the most part to do this work, but such reports are often conflicting and inconsistent. Whenever faced with contradictory information, I have done my best to honestly and accurately follow the money.

Reflections on the AFL and its merger with the NFL

This week in North Philly Notes, Charles Ross, author of Mavericks, Money, and Men, blogs about the AFL and the growth of the NFL.

As I sat watching the NFL draft I couldn’t help but think about the AFL and its merger with the NFL in 1970.  Pro football is clearly the most popular sport in America and that popularity is largely due to the rival leagues calling a truce and becoming one.  The last two teams to win the Super Bowl were original AFL teams–New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and interestingly they struggled to achieve success as members of the AFL.  They never won an AFL Championship but the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and the Broncos three.  Maybe more importantly Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams probably didn’t anticipate the teams that made up the so called “foolish club,” being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, when the original franchise fee was $25,000.

Mavericks_smEvery original AFL team including the two expansion teams have played in the Super Bowl, however, there are two NFL teams that have never had that experience, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Again the Browns and Lions picked early on Thursday night, both teams since the merger have arguably struggled to field strong teams led by great quarterbacks and solid defenses, the usual ingredients necessary to reach the pinnacle of a successful pro football season.  The draft was virtually parallel to the percentage of African American players in the NFL, in essence the overwhelming majority of players selected were black.

The two universities that I owe much of my professional success had a historic night.  The Ohio State University where I received my Ph.D. had five players selected in the first round and the University of Mississippi where I have spent the last twenty years since leaving OSU, had three players selected in round one for the first time in school history.  Three of the five players from Ohio State were African American and all three from the University of Mississippi, of course having five players selected in round one for perennial power OSU was not necessarily a surprise.  But for the University of Mississippi to have three players chosen was, unfortunately the controversy that surrounded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s fall to the Miami Dolphins because of posts on his social media page dominated the media’s focus and took the spotlight off what both programs had achieved.

Arguably the growth of the NFL since the merger is a real testament to pro football’s marriage to television.  The medium of television helped to increase the value of franchise’s, players contracts, coaches contracts, and profits from owners.  Large amounts of money fuel these relationships and ultimately the same relationships at the collegiate level.  Billy Cannon signed his contract to play for the Houston Oilers instead of the Los Angeles Rams after the Sugar Bowl in 1960, on New Year’s Day.  Cannon had agreed to contracts with both the Rams and the Oilers which was a NCAA violation, and he signed his contract on television under the goalposts when the game ended.  This was great publicity for the AFL and set the tone for the next six year war between the AFL and NFL.  The saga of Tunsil also played out on national television but like Cannon many fans will want to know more about this young man and his ability to be successful on the football field during this upcoming season.  The Miami Dolphins think he will be successful and so do I.

A lot has changed since the merger but one thing has not, the success of teams will be established on the field.  Publicity both positive and negative will continue to characterize aspects of what is now America’s favorite sport, in many ways the NFL has reached a zenith where the only competition is itself.  Pro football is not competing against the NBA or even major league baseball, its chief competition now is its own public perception.

 

Students’ views on Obama, Basketball, and Alexander Wolff’s book

This week in North Philly Notes,  six students from  Rebecca Alpert’s Honors Sports and Leisure in American Society class at Temple University write about meeting with The Audacity of Hoop author Alexander Wolff. 

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Marcus Forst, Physics major

President Obama has been in office for nearly half my life. Although I only see Obama as he is presented by the media, I feel that I know a little bit about the person that is Barack Obama. Basketball connects me with Barack Obama; I see him as a person instead of a figure because I identify with his interests.

The Audacity of Hoop, written by Alexander Wolff, is a window into Obama’s relationship with basketball—a close up look at the person that I had previously imagined. I had the opportunity to speak with Wolff about his experience writing the book as well as about the content itself. I asked if basketball would still have been an effective means for Obama to connect with common people—and distance himself from a purely intellectual image—had he been extremely good at basketball. My thinking was that Obama’s normalcy in basketball contributes to making him seem human and relatable. Mr. Wolff responded by saying that if Obama had been an incredible basketball player, he likely would not have been a politician. He stressed the crossroad in Obama’s life in which he decided to move away from dreams of basketball stardom and turned towards college and a future in politics, albeit while carrying with him “the love of the game.” Wolff added that Obama has used this story of a crossroads throughout his presidency in order to encourage young black males to strive for success in more traditional careers, while still bringing a love of basketball with them.

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Catherine Devlin, Biology major

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, before his promotional presentation about the book. He talked, of course, about the important role that basketball played throughout Obama’s campaign and presidency (the basis of his book). One of the most fascinating discussion points, for me, was his description of the campaign and the racial divide Americans experienced. The historic 2008 election of the first African American president will forever be remembered as a turning point in our history. The road to Obama’s election, though, was anything but easy.  According to Wolff, basketball was a deliberate and imperative part of the campaign that cannot be ignored. In 2008, Americans were looking for reassurances. The early questions into Obama’s citizenship, however, were not the main concern for the campaign. Surprisingly, the population of Americans who needed the most reassuring consisted largely of African Americans.

As Wolff put it, “How do you win African Americans just because you’re an African American?” We often have this intrinsic distrust of politicians that can end up either making or breaking a campaign. Images of Obama playing games of pickup basketball eventually gave the African American community the confidence to believe that Barack Obama was just a regular guy looking to make a difference. Wolff also discussed the intricate balance between portraying Obama as an “Average Joe” and avoiding playing into the stereotypes associated with being an African American male who plays basketball. The ingenious strategy was to introduce the candidate as a politician first and then slowly introduce his love of basketball in small groups of voters who had come to know him quite well. Obviously, the Obama campaign was able to find just the right middle ground.  Winning over enough Americans to be elected the leader of the nation is certainly not an easy feat. Being an African American candidate presented extra challenges for his campaign, but Barack Obama managed to make history.  The groundbreaking strategies on the road to the White House were, according to Wolff, only aided by Obama’s genuine love of America’s favorite game. It seems only fitting, then, to document as Alexander Wolff has done so beautifully, the unique and successful relationship between basketball and America’s first African American president.

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Bridgette Devlin, Biology major

Recently, I interviewed Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated writer and author of The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. In the book, Wolff tracks basketball’s involvement throughout Barack Obama’s campaign and Presidency so far. One section, specifically, focuses on “Baracketology” – Obama’s annual NCAA March Madness bracket. So, what makes these brackets so important? Alexander Wolff thinks it’s all about Obama’s political strategy, relatability, and legacy.

The author easily listed examples of how the President’s March Madness picks can seem politically charged. Obama received criticism over his brackets’ large proportion of swing states and frivolity. Despite pushback from across many spectrums, Wolff says the yearly bracket simply conveys Obama’ sincere love of the game. Wolff described the tradition of inviting the champions to the White House to meet with the Obamas. He easily bantered with the teams. He jokes with the players and the coaches, proving that he keeps up-to-date with both the game and the latest league news. Regardless of his motivations, Obama’s NCAA bracket has provided him an opportunity to connect with the American people, showing them he is an average, relatable, and trustworthy person. Wolff notes that Obama’s connection to basketball and the tournament comes across as incredibly genuine, not as though we are being “spun” by an expert politician/manipulator. Wolff even goes so far as to speculate basketball’s influence on Obama’s Presidential legacy: “Will Obama be remembered as the President who shared his brackets with us?” Perhaps “Baracketology” will become a tradition, carried on by the next Commander-in-Chief as a way to reach the American people. The once-criticized practice has now become commonplace political strategy.

The author conveys in his book as well as in his interviews that Obama is very much an agent of change. During his Presidency, he has created a coalition to bring a much-divided nation together, often using basketball as his starting point and common thread. The sport has even given the public a glimpse into Barack Obama’s personal life, providing the entry point into his youth, career, and marriage. Obama’s connection to basketball has become intertwined with his legacy in many senses. I would venture to say that the same is true for Alexander Wolff, whose own legacy will surely include not only basketball, but also the Age of Obama.

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Austin Zwolenik, Biology major

Wolff’s writing, filled with comparisons and analysis is somewhat atypical in informative books, as they usually only lay out facts with no real opinion written by the author. The Audacity of Hoop caters to the people that subscribe to the acronym “tl:dr,” meaning: too long; didn’t read. Wolff even addressed this type of thinking in his talk as he referenced the style in which The Audacity of Hoop was written. It is a coffee table book filled with many pictures to tag along with the writing. This writing medium is excellent for the purpose of creating a dynamic where the pictures explain what words sometimes cannot.

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Long Duc Nguyen, Management Information Systems major

I had a great chance to meet the author of The Audacity of Hoop, Alexander Wolff. The author gave us some insights on President Obama, his campaign, and how the President’s use of sports affects American society. When President Obama fills out the March Madness bracket, it shows that he is just another person with the love for sports and creates a sense of trust among the African-American community. The most interesting story that the author told us is how Barack Obama, through his qualities on the basketball court, won the heart of the demanding Michelle Robinson.

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Isabella Menzies, Early Childhood Education major

While interviewing Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, I asked what brought his attention to the fact that Barack Obama had used basketball as a campaign strategy. Wolff stated that the influence of basketball on Obama’s campaign first grabbed his attention in 2008. He noted that he had always been interested in politics and basketball, so the potential intersection of those two entities allowed him to investigate a story that brought together both of his interests. Wolff acknowledged that he initially questioned if he had just strained to make connections between basketball and Obama’s campaign. Nonetheless, evidence of the influence that the former had on the latter (and vice versa) grew, and Wolff ultimately concluded that Obama had used basketball to connect with voters. Such a conclusion enabled me to realize the intentional (rather than coincidental) nature of the relationship between politics and sports.

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