Barack Obama photo

Interview with Bill Simmons of ESPN

March 01, 2012

Simmons. Welcome to the White House. Very proud to have the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, on the B.S. Report. This is your first podcast?

The President. This is — well, I used to have my own podcast.

Simmons. What?

The President. When I was U.S. Senator I was way ahead of the curve on the podcast thing.

Simmons. Really?

The President. So, yes. I mean, I don't think it had as many listeners as you.

Simmons. What was this podcast called?

The President. I really don't remember. [laughter] "A Podcast with Barack Obama." Something like that. It was a catchy name.

Simmons. I want to talk about sports. You have plenty of time to talk about politics with whoever. How do you have time to follow sports when you have the busiest job on the planet?

The President. Well, first of all, I don't watch network news or cable news. So in the morning, when I'm working out with Michelle, it's on SportsCenter. This is the one thing that she allows me —

Simmons. That's nice.

The President. — to control is SportsCenter. So that pretty much keeps up the family on whatever has happened the night before.

And I tend to be a night guy. Michelle and the girls will go to bed around 9:30 p.m. or so. And so I usually have to stay up until midnight or 1 a.m. reading stuff. And every once in a while I'll sneak in a ball game as I'm reading my briefings.

Simmons. It's funny, because I always pictured you in bed pretending you were working but watching League Pass on your iPad — [laughter] — watching some West Coast game — Sacramento Kings or something.

The President. I do have League Pass on my iPad.

Simmons. You do?

The President. Of course.

Simmons. Do you pay for it yourself or do you charge it to the White House?

The President. No, I've got to pay for it myself. [laughter]

Simmons. So you're catching up, obviously, on the fact that you had been surpassed as the most famous person who was a Harvard graduate.

The President. Jeremy is —

Simmons. Jeremy Lin.

The President. — doing good. And I knew about Jeremy before you did, or everybody else did, because Arne Duncan, my Secretary of Education, was captain of the Harvard team. And so way back when, Arne and I were playing and he said, I'm telling you, we've got this terrific guard named Jeremy Lin at Harvard. And then one of my best friends, his son is a freshman at Harvard, and so when he went for a recruiting trip he saw Lin in action. So I've been on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon for a while.

Simmons. Are you taking credit for "Linsanity"? It kind of feels like you are a little bit.

The President. I can't take credit for it, but I'm just saying I was there early.

Simmons. I'm surprised you didn't steer him toward the Bulls. [laughter]

He was floating around and getting waived by teams.

The President. Well, we've got this pretty good point guard on the Bulls as well. So he might not have gotten as much PT as he did.

But look, it's a great story. And what's interesting is the fact that somehow folks were missing it in practice. I mean, that's what's interesting. Because you got to assume that during scrimmages he was running that pick-and-roll pretty well. And it is a terrific story. He seems like a wonderful young man. And, look, it elevates this great sport all around the world. It can't hurt ratings for basketball in China.

Simmons. But at the same time you're a little worried as a Bulls fan, because he's in the Eastern Conference —

The President. I'm not worried.

Simmons. — suddenly there's a potential threat.

The President. No, if you look at what has been happening with the Bulls, even with Rose out, even with Deng out, still got one of the best records in the league.

Simmons. So you like your team.

The President. That is a well-coached team. And I know you're a big Celtics fan.

Simmons. Yes.

The President. Thank you for Thibodeau, who —

Simmons. That hurts.

The President. He's an outstanding coach.

Simmons. He is.

The President. Now, Doc Rivers is a great coach as well, but for us to have been able to get that guy, he has just done a great job with what we've got.

Simmons. Why should you feel different about the Bulls this year than last spring, when it was basically Derrick Rose going one on five in the playoffs? What makes you feel better about this year's team?

The President. Deng seems more confident. Boozer is in better shape. Derrick Rose has matured. I'm a little worried about making sure that they give him enough rest with the back spasms that he had. But the Bulls, I think, are right in there. I think they've got a great chance. The Heat are playing better than anybody right now. And when those folks get going on a fast break, it's over.

But during the playoffs things slow down a little bit, and you got to run a half-court offense, and in that situation, I think the Bulls got a shot.

Simmons. Over the last five years, how many times have you envisioned welcoming the world champion Chicago Bulls to the White House?

The President. Every year. And it hasn't happened yet, but it will happen.

Simmons. It will happen? You're like Joe Namath — you're guaranteeing it.

The President. Well, I've got another five years here and — [laughter] —

Simmons. You're guaranteeing that, too. [laughter]

The President. — somewhere along the line my Bulls are going to come through here. Absolutely.

Simmons. You'll probably cry. You'll well up a little bit.

The President. I probably won't do the whole Jordan-hugging-the-ball thing.

Simmons. Right. Him lying on the ground. [laughter]

The President. That would be a little extreme. I'll be pretty happy, though.

Simmons. Let's see — I think you've set the record already for most championship teams that have been welcomed into the White House — or you're approaching the record. What was your favorite anecdote from when these championship teams come?

The President. I got to say, the best one was actually the '85 Championship Bears.

Simmons. When they came back.

The President. When they came back. Because they had never gotten acknowl-edged because it was on the same day as the — I think it was when the Challenger —

Simmons. When the Challenger — oh.

The President. — when the Challenger happened, and so it was canceled, and it never got rescheduled. And to see these guys — Ditka and all — the whole team come back. Buddy Ryan came back, and he's really ailing. But to see how much they appreciated it, how much they had wanted that acknowledgment — it was a lot of fun. And Ditka couldn't have been more gracious. And everybody just had a great time, and we had a whole bunch of Bears fans here. That was probably as good as it gets.

Simmons. What's the most fun sport for the team that came in? Like, what are the funniest group of athletes?

The President. Well, you know what's fun is when the women basketball players come in, because they're all gorgeous and they're all 6-foot-5 and wearing high heels. And so they're walking around through the West Wing and everybody is wondering what the heck is going on. And when Maya Moore and the Connecticut Huskies came, we actually went down to my little basket down here and we played a game of HORSE.

Simmons. You played with them?

The President. Yes, we played a game of HORSE. Now, Maya is always annoyed that I point out that I beat her. She was wearing high heels and a skirt at the time. [laughter] So I'm not sure if that counts.

Simmons. That's funny. You know the lockout just happened — you're a big NBA fan. I read some quote where you said you couldn't intercede because there are bigger fish to fry.

The President. Right.

Simmons. How close did you actually come to interceding? [laughter] Because we reached this point where it was going to get canceled, basically, and it came down to the 12th hour.

The President. I just had to assume that at some point they'd work it out. My whole theory — it's the same way with the NFL lockout. If you've got billionaires on one side and millionaires on another, you guys can figure out how to divide some money up. And ultimately they did. And it was the right thing to do. And what's been encouraging is to see how fast the sport has bounced back. And with Jeremy Lin and the Heat and all the unbelievable young players that are out here right now, I think this sport is as popular as it's ever been.

But I think it's real important for professional athletes and sports owners to just re-member you got a whole bunch of folks out here, all across the country, who invest so much in their teams, and they don't begrudge these guys making millions of dollars, or the owners making gazillions of dollars — most of them, very rarely can they afford to buy a ticket to go to an actual game. All they ask is don't be so selfish about it that you're not looking out for your fans.

And if folks involved in professional sports remember that, that the reason they're making money is because some hardworking guy out there is rooting for them and paying attention to them, then usually we should be able to sort these things out.

Simmons. Is it true that you blocked the Chris Paul trade because you didn't want him to go to the Lakers? [laughter]

The President. I love Chris Paul. He's a great guy. He's on my Presidential Fitness Council. And I've gotten to know a lot of these guys, because for my 49th birthday I had my own little All-Star Game here.

Simmons. I heard about that. I wasn't invited.

The President. You weren't? Maybe next time. So Chris was one of the guys who played. And I did a little crossover on him. He claims that he could have stolen the ball. Everybody who was there knows that that's not true. The second time, he might have stolen the ball. The first time he didn't know I had that move on me.

Simmons. So you surprised him with it?

The President. I did, yes. Yes. My crossover is solid.

Simmons. Have you noticed that there is a notable difference in the way people de-fend you, since you became the president, when you're playing?

The President. No, because I'm always getting knocked around. I don't know what people are talking about. Reggie Love, my former aide who played at Duke and he's now getting his MBA, he answered anybody who said that people took it easy on me when they played with me. He said, nobody takes it easy on Obama because if he beats them, they won't hear the end of it. [laughter] And it's true. I will talk about folks just to make sure that they don't take it easy on me.

Simmons. What about when you're playing golf? Do you get more four-foot putts given to you than maybe you did before?

The President. I don't take them.

Simmons. You don't take them?

The President. I am very proud of the fact I do not cheat when I'm playing golf. Anybody who plays with me, they'll say I count my strokes. I count my strokes. I don't — I'm not getting five-foot gimme putts.

Simmons. I guess you have to play it that way because then people could be, "I played with Obama" —

The President. And he cheated.

Simmons. Yes, I saw him kick the ball out of the rough or something. [laughter]

The President. Yes, yes.

Simmons. Tell me about the college football playoff system that you once upon a time pushed for.

The President. Looks like — I hear there's talk that they're going to at least start maybe with a four-team playoff, which —

Simmons. So you're happy about this?

The President. Well, I'd rather see it eight teams, but four is a good place to start. I think that gets us on the right trend. Nothing is more frustrating than at the end of the season, nobody knows who won. And what, there is some poll? Coaches make a decision? Nobody knows what that means. Because part of what makes sports great, part of what makes March Madness great, the NFL playoffs great, is every once in a while something happens during the playoffs that shows the character of a team.

Look at the Giants this year. Nobody would have picked them. They wouldn't have been crowned as champions if you had a coaches' poll at the end of the year. But they made the plays when it counted.

Simmons. So if this happens, the Bulls are good again, you have a college football playoff system — so what's next? Maybe PEDs in baseball?

The President. I think baseball is in pretty good shape.

Simmons. Concussions? It seems like we can't figure out this concussion thing.

The President. Concussions is a tough one. When you see what's happened — I actually knew Dave Duerson, and used to see him at the gym sometimes, and couldn't have been a nicer guy. And when you think about the toll that NFL players are taking, it's tough.

Now, the problem is, if you talk to NFL players, they're going to tell you that that's the risk I take; this is the game I play. And I don't know whether you can make football, football if there's not some pretty significant risk factors. Part of the problem is just the speed and the size of these guys now is — you watch the old tapes from the '50s and the '60s —

Simmons. They're like our size.

The President. Yes. I mean, they look like they're going in slow motion. And now, what, they just had the Combine and they're talking about some guy who is like 340, who runs a 4.8 —

Simmons. A quarterback —

The President. — a three-foot vertical. And I don't know what you do if a guy like that hits you.

Simmons. I always wanted to — I have never heard you answer this question. You probably have, but I've never heard the answer. You've thrown the first pitch in front of like 60,000 people. You're obviously wearing a big bulletproof vest under your suit. You've got all these people staring at you.

The President. Completely stressful.

Simmons. Is that the most stressful thing you have to go through?

The President. It is about the most stressful thing.

Simmons. Because if you ground it, it's on YouTube for the next 10 years.

The President. Absolutely. And, like you said, you've got to wear this bulky vest, and what happens is, they just hand you the ball. [laughter] They say, "Here," and you walk up. If you had three tries, you'd be fine. You'd throw a fast strike somewhere in there. But if it's that first ball, each time I go up there my thinking is, All right, I'm just going to blaze this thing in. And then I'm thinking, Man, if I throw a grounder that's going to be a problem. So then I end up kind of lofting it up a little bit and —

Simmons. So you throw a changeup.

The President. Yes, it clears the plate but it's not what you'd like. During practice, you're throwing heat.

Simmons. Do you remember the first one you had to do?

The President. First one I had to do in the majors was actually when the White Sox were in the American League Championship, and I had just been elected U.S. Senator. And I just want to point out that after I — not only did they win that game, but they then won the next —

Simmons. You're taking credit for that, too? I like it.

The President. Yes, they pretty much swept. So I told them, if you need a lefty. [laughter] But I think the very first one was a minor league team out in the Western suburbs that I threw out a first pitch, and I think I did ground it, but, fortunately, no-body knew who I was so it didn't get on YouTube.

Simmons. Well, how much flexibility do you have with the vest? Like, do you have full, or do you have to go like sidearm?

The President. It's a little bulky. You kind of — I give credit — when I think about George Bush and the pitch he threw —

Simmons. At 9/11. Post-9/11.

The President. — at 9/11. Unbelievable pitch.

Simmons. Right down the middle.

The President. Right down the middle. And huge credit for that. I give that guy a lot of props for that one.

Simmons. And I think Jeter said to him before the game, "Don't screw this up," or something like that.

The President. That's exactly what he said. He saw him behind the bullpen and said, "Don't screw it up." And he didn't.

Simmons. I do feel like it's, like, a weirdly important thing to have your president be able to come out and throw, like, a half-decent first pitch.

The President. Well, it's funny, the mythology of sports is just — it's deeply em-bedded in us. I remember I visited Iraq as a senator, and I think at that point I had already started running for president, but I can't remember. Anyway, they invited me to go into this gym, and there were like 3,000 of our troops there. And somebody just handed me a ball and said, "Come on, Mr. President, take a shot." And I said, OK, and I shot it and swished it from the 3-point line. And the amount of excitement that those folks had was surprising to me.

But I think it just sort of reminded me of the kind of bond that sports creates in people. People — for all our differences politically, regionally, economically — most folks understand sports. Probably because it's one of the few places where it's a true meritocracy. There's not a lot of BS. Ultimately, who's winning, who's losing, who's performing, who's not — it's all laid out there.

Simmons. I pride myself as being a very supportive parent. I go to my daughter's soccer games. I hit most of them. I try to go to all of them. I can't go to — I read that you go to every one of your daughter's basketball games. This can't be true. How do you go to every basketball game? I feel bad about my own parenting.

The President. First of all, they only play on Saturday morning. And usually I have to work on Saturday, but I can push my schedule back, so unless I'm traveling, I can go. And, man, I have fun at those games. Watching 9, 10-year-old girls playing basketball and just fierce, just intense about it, is terrific. And last year I actually did some coaching.

Simmons. Really?

The President. Yes, well, what happened was the coach for our team was this wonderful woman and she works at the National Institutes of Health — has never played basketball, but had volunteered, and was doing a great job. But Reggie and I would be sitting in the stands and we'd be passing her notes and whispering. And finally she said, all right, why don't you guys — so we took them to a local gym on Sundays and started running some practices. And so when she was gone, I'd actually sit in as the coach. And you know what's amazing is how much more stressful coaching and watching these girls was than when I was playing.

Simmons. Really?

The President. You just want them to win so bad. And when they actually run a play and it works — [laughter] — you're just ecstatic. And a couple of heartbreaking losses and you're just feeling terrible. But they're wonderful. And what's great is that women's athletics, girls' athletics, I think makes all the difference in the world. I'm 50 now, so I went to high school in the '70s. We actually went to — I went to a school that had a strong women's sports team. But it was still not the norm for a lot of girls to participate in a lot of sports teams, and now it's just second nature. And they're healthier for it. They learn competition. They learn how to bounce back from adversity. It's just — it's a terrific thing to see.

And they've got so many role models now because there are so many unbelievable fe-male athletes out there, and they can see that there's no contradiction between them being strong and tough and beautiful and confident. Yes, it's a wonderful thing to see.

Simmons. Well, you married into good genes, right?

The President. Absolutely.

Simmons. Your wife has some height. She's six feet, 6-foot-1?

The President. She's 5-foot-11.

Simmons. Five-foot-11.

The President. But my brother-in-law, who's the coach at Oregon State —

Simmons. He played.

The President. He played at Princeton, and then played overseas for a while. He's 6-foot-6. So they're potentially great athletes.

The best athlete in our family is actually my niece, my brother-in-law's daughter, who lives out in Oregon, out in Corvallis, and she'll be D-1. This is one of these things where she has to decide, does she want to play softball, volleyball, or basketball. But she's just — she's good at everything. Unbelievable.

Simmons. So who — because we're running out of time — quickly, who do you think is the best basketball player ever?

The President. You got to go with Jordan. That's —

Simmons. Is that a Chicago pick? Or an NBA —

The President. No, no, no, that's an NBA pick. You've never had a combination of talent and fierce will to win and longevity and rising to the occasion. I haven't seen it. You've got guys who are comparable in terms of talent. I mean, I think LeBron is as talented as Michael is. I think you've got guys like Bird who had that — Bird or Magic who had that same will to win. But combining that package, and then just always being there at the moment, very rarely not — hitting that shot like Utah right at the end, right?

Simmons. It makes me mad when people compare whoever to Jordan. It's like, let's see somebody win the six titles and own the league like Jordan did.

The President. And the grace with which he played. I mean, there was a charisma to him on the court that you could not not watch him when he was on the court. Unbelievable.

Simmons. Right. At what point did your paths finally cross?

The President. Michael ended up — obviously, I was just a fan. But when I ran for the United States Senate, we had some mutual friends, and Michael ended up supporting me, and I think I may have been like his first political check ever.

Simmons. Really?

The President. Yes. And so we've been friends since then.

Simmons. I'm sure you notice that — it seemed like many of the famous basketball players took particular interest in your campaign in 2008.

The President. Yes. Well, you know what, I think they know that I take a great interest in them. And I think they understand what it is to compete. And I think they took some pride in the first African American President, and so — and I can talk basketball with them.

We were down at an event in Vince Carter's house down in Florida, and Magic was there, and Chris Paul came — it was right before the All-Star Game, so they were all — a lot of them were in town. And Chris had to leave early because he had some sort of Nike event that he had to go to. So I just rang him up to say thank you for coming. And we started talking a little about basketball and how great the Clippers were doing.

And I said, man, Blake Griffin is unbelievable, and you guys seem to be really clicking. I said, the only thing is you got to tell Blake to just take that 12-, 15-footer when he gets it because he's got a good stroke, but he always looks like he's hesitating a little bit because he wants to go inside. And if he starts getting that shot like Karl Malone, he'll be unstoppable.

And Chris says, "Man, I just told him that." He said, "He's going to be here in two minutes. Can you hold on?" I said, no, you can just go ahead —

Simmons. He passed that along?

The President. Just passed it along. I will point out that I think he's been taking more outside jumpers. That's good. He's got to work on that shot, and he's going to be — he could be the best power forward ever if he develops it.

Simmons. Last question, quick, five seconds.

The President. Yes.

Simmons. Settle an office debate. Best Wire character of all time?

The President. It's got to be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right?

Simmons. We might break this down as like a March Madness bracket, and I think he's going to be the no. 1 seed. [laughter] Everyone is in on Omar, it seems like.

The President. He's got to be the no. 1 seed. I mean, what a combination. And that was one of the best shows of all time.

Simmons. Yes, I agree with you.

The President. Yes, it was a great show.

Simmons. Mr. President, thank you for being on the B.S. Report.

The President. Appreciate you. Thank you.

Barack Obama, Interview with Bill Simmons of ESPN Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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