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Pots & pans: Obama’s connection to sports will be part of his legacy

Visiting the White House had a special meaning for athletes and the sports-fan-in-chief

So the brother in black offers to these United States the source of courage that endures, and laughter. Zora Neale Hurston

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” — Barack Obama on his election night in 2008

In a few weeks, the nation will vote to choose President Barack Obama’s successor. After the president makes his final farewells at the White House, it’s likely someone will announce a coffee table book that chronicles the nation’s first African-American president’s two terms in office.

Perhaps someone else is at work on a primer for school children that uses events from Obama’s time in office to illustrate and explore our presidents’ roles and responsibilities: as head of the executive branch of the federal government, as commander in chief and as the ceremonial head of state. Maybe someone else is at work on a calendar that uses the Obama presidency to march through the months, from January’s State of The Union address to December’s Christmas tree lighting in Washington, D.C.

I’ve been ruminating over the photo album of the Obama presidency that flips through my mind. To be sure, that album includes many stark images, including those from Chicago’s Grant Park on election night in 2008. Obama stood on the shoulders of the elders, great and small, the first black person elected president of the United States. But the pictures that make me smile most deeply present Obama in the White House; the nation’s first fan, playing host to sports stars; newly crowned college and pro champions to Olympic champions draped in gold and national admiration.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the nation’s abundance better than its cornucopia of big-time sports and their legions of fans. Unlike other nations that might go crazy over one sport – soccer, hockey or baseball – our sports-crazed nation celebrates everyone from small female Olympic gymnasts to giant NBA players. And Obama has played the convivial host to them all.

Why shouldn’t he? The sports stars’ White House visits present a pleasant photo opportunity. Further, on the surface, Obama bears a kinship to today’s superstar athletes. He sometimes walks as if he’s just shouted “money” before hitting the winning jump shot. Like many sports stars, his time in the limelight has been short. And from the moment he took office, people have been falling in and out with him, just as we do with our sports stars. Indeed, Obama has faced a kind of political analytics, where he’s lost points in the fantasy leagues of politics.

Consequently, like many star athletes, Obama has sought to control his own messages via social media and define success on his own terms.

During last week’s town hall conversation sponsored by The Undefeated, Obama said that on his deathbed he’d remember holding hands with his two daughters and taking them down to a park, his speeches and prizes forgotten.

Over time, political pundits will give way to historians in remembering Obama’s presidency and how it should be framed and defined, including his signing the Affordable Care Act, which provided health insurance to millions who had gone without it. I’m sure they will find it was no walk in the park. He came into office with the nation fighting two wars and its economy in a free-fall. Indeed, things seemed so bleak that between his November 2008 election and his January 2009 inauguration, Obama entered a kind of pre-presidency: Americans looked to him to save the day before he was even sworn into office. Throughout his presidency, the Democrat has grappled with a Republican-led Congress that’s given the term “opposition party” a darker and more harrowing meaning.

Now as he looks to his post-presidency, Obama, like the sports stars he’s hailed at the White House, will look for a few more moments in the sun.

When Obama got to the White House, he sometimes made life-and-death decisions. But sometimes, animated by laughter, he’s just hung out with sports stars at his house, which became our house and the people’s house in ways the slaves who helped build it could not have imagined: One small step for a black man. One giant leap for America.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.