The next generation of NBA stars delighted in a surprise visit from a former president to All-Star Weekend that was filled with motivational words.
Barack Obama, who arrived on the national stage as a senator from Illinois, met Friday with Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and other members of the Rising Stars game at an NBA Cares community service event.
While Obama’s official duties were to help stuff backpacks along with students from area schools, he took time to greet the first- and second-year players as well as the coaching staffs. Obama made a point to show off his love of basketball as he worked his way through the room at Wintrust Arena, home to DePaul University’s basketball team.
“He basically knew everything about my season, my game,” said Young, a 21-year-old guard for the Atlanta Hawks who will start in Sunday’s All-Star Game. “For him to know all that, it was pretty cool. [He said] he just loved watching me and he’s watching me all the time. He’s telling me how it’s going to turn [around] for the Hawks in the future. It’s crazy he knew all those different things about me.”
Obama and Williamson, the top pick in the 2019 draft, spent an extended period chatting as they stuffed bags together and cameras flashed nearby. Last February, Obama sat courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Williamson’s Duke Blue Devils hosted the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Early in that game, Williamson suffered a knee sprain after blowing out his sneaker. Obama hadn’t forgotten the high-profile episode.
“I was shocked,” Williamson said of the visit, calling Obama a “cool dude” and saying their chat was a “top two” highlight of his young career along with being drafted. “I have the most respect for him. To be able to be at the same table as him was an honor. It felt great. It was even crazier when he started talking about my Duke games.”
When Obama approached Doncic for a handshake, he praised the 20-year-old all-star starter for his second season with the Dallas Mavericks. Obama then used Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd, who was standing nearby, as a punchline.
“He said I did a fantastic job, which inspired me,” Doncic recalled. “And [then Obama] said, ‘Don’t shoot like J. Kidd.’ ”
Later, Obama joked with Lionel Hollins, the 66-year-old Lakers assistant coach and former NBA player, that he was “so old I remember watching this guy play.”
Obama long has openly shown his affinity for basketball, participating in pickup games and attending NBA matchups while he served as president and golfing with NBA stars such as Stephen Curry during his post-presidential tenure. That lifetime of hoops knowledge, plus his congenial personality, left an impression on a group of players who were too young to vote for him in 2008 and 2012.
“Whenever he was talking to me, he was just a regular person,” Young said. “That’s what makes him special. It’s special when you meet an icon like that, someone you really look up to. I’m big on how I perform on the court, but off the court you look at guys like that and what he does in the community. It’s motivation to give back.”