Alex Wolff, Matt Fenlen to Address Basketball, Obama, Politics at Springfield College

cropped-img_4450.jpgMarshall Hastings
Special Topics Editor
@marshall_hastings

For Alex Wolff, basketball has always been present. From high school in Rochester, N.Y. where Wolff served as a co-captain of the basketball team, to Princeton University where he was the campus correspondent for the New York Times, and even to Switzerland where Wolff played one year of professional basketball for STV Luzern, basketball remained.

In 2005, Wolff announced the formation of the Vermont Frost Heaves, a professional basketball team in the American Basketball Association and later in the Premier Basketball League. With Wolff as the founding owner and head coach Joe Salerno, the Frost Heaves claimed ABA championships following the 2007 and 2008 seasons before moving to the PBL.

And while Wolff has a decorated past in basketball, his past in writing is even more impressive. Wolff is currently the longest tenured writer at Sports Illustrated after beginning with the magazine in 1980 as a researcher following his graduation from Princeton. By 1982, Wolff joined the ranks of SI writers before becoming a senior writer in 1985.

Throughout his time at SI, Wolff has garnered recognition for his coverage of basketball, baseball, tennis, and the Olympics. With his vast knowledge of sports comes a plethora of accolades. Wolff is a former United States Basketball Writers Association president and a current member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association. Wolff has received awards from the USBWA, the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, and even the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, among others.

On Tuesday, February 9 Wolff brings his long list of accomplishments to the campus of Springfield College to discuss his seventh book, The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama.

“I proposed a story in late ’08, shortly after (Barack Obama) was elected to his first term,” Wolff said about the idea for the story. “It became clear during his campaign that the game was close to him, so I proposed to the magazine doing a piece that was kind of a basketball biography of him, how the game figured in his life at that point, personally and politically.”

Through Obama’s first term, Wolff took notes and watched from afar, and although he felt there was a compelling narrative, if Obama was not re-elected to a second term, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But when Obama was in fact re-elected in 2012, Wolff acted on the opportunity.

“I decided, ‘Okay, there’s something here and I need to act.’ I collected some photographs with a proposal based on the material I had already gathered and feverishly started looking for a publisher.”

Even though Wolff would indeed find a publisher, the story was extremely time sensitive, pushing the pace of the book and its release.

“Once we found (a publisher) we had to act to turn it around really quickly because if the book doesn’t come out November 2015 there’s no real window with which it’s relevant.”

The book, which was released on November 13, 2015, “looks at Barack Obama, person and president, by the light of the game most closely associated with him,” according to the book’s website, theaudacityofhoop.com.

The book begins by touching on the unique relationship that Obama and the game of basketball had. When Obama was just 10 years old, his father gave him a basketball as a Christmas gift. As it would turn out, it would be the last time that Obama would see his father.

“Obama only later in his life realized the symbolism of that,” Wolff said. “The game became his constant companion and his dad had given him that ball. It has that symbolism.”

Not only did the game help him as a young man growing up in Hawaii, but it also helped him grow his professional network through pickup games and introducing himself to the voters.

“After he made the rounds (playing basketball) people got pretty comfortable with him, (the campaign) started rolling it out. He would play with firefighters, patrolmen. He would play with these small groups early in the day to break a sweat and break the monotony of just banquet food and long days.”

In states like Indiana and North Carolina, Obama spent time in three-on-three tournaments and playing with the North Carolina Tar Heels as another way to introduce himself to voters.

“I make the case in the book that those are the two reddest states he flipped to blue and barely won both of them, but won them. They are these big basketball states and he had intentionally made the basketball pitch to voters… What more American way to just be a regular guy who plays ball. That to me is the best example of how basketball served him.”

When Obama was pushing for the Affordable Care Act, names like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and even Alonzo Mourning would be there to vouch for the act and stress its importance.

“Obama would do Colin Cowherd (on ESPN Radio) shows and tell stories about his own injuries and how hard it was if he wasn’t covered if he got so much as a bad ankle sprain. It showed how much sense it made to get covered.”

When Wolff returns to the Springfield College campus, where he was the college’s commencement speaker in 2010, it will be on the same date as the first primary election, taking place in New Hampshire. Is there not a more fitting day to speak about our current president than on the day that we begin the process of electing our next?

Matt Fenlon, a 2009 Springfield College graduate from the Communications/ Sports Journalism major, who has worked his way up to the Executive Director position of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, will join Wolff. The conversation will center around the book, giving people a sense of Obama and the game of basketball, as well discussing basketball and politics.

The book is available online on Amazon as well as on the book’s website, theaudacityofhoop.com.

“I’m not a political scientist,” said Wolff. “I’m not a race theorist, not a historian, but I think a lot of what is in the book is a good jumping off point for future scholars of Obama’s presidency.”

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