Alexi Giannoulias and Barack Obama on Election Day 2008
Giannoulias and Obama on Election Day 2008
Many stories about Alexi Giannoulias, the candidate for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Barack Obama, mention that the two are basketball-playing buddies. Not recently: They haven’t played since Obama won the White House.

In a phone interview, Alexi attributed this to the President’s busy schedule, but reports suggest that Obama’s advisers want their man to keep his distance. They fear Giannoulias can’t win against Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. Politico’s Ben Smith and Manu Raju reported Friday that the White House “has been forced to proceed with extreme caution toward the damaged Democratic Senate nominee, … waiting to see if he drops out.”

Nobody would mistake Obama for an idealist when it comes to winning races, but on the subject of Giannoulias, it seems the President shares a genuine friendship with the man 15 years his junior. The two played their first pickup basketball game in 1994, when Obama was a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s law school and Giannoulias was a freshman in its college.

Alexi brought to the court a record as MVP of Latin’s varsity team his sophomore, junior and senior years. After transferring from the U. of C. to Boston University to play Division I basketball, Giannoulias—who played professionally in Greece before pivoting to law school at Tulane—stayed in touch with Obama.  

By 2003, Giannoulias, then at his family’s Broadway Bank, began to raise big money for Obama’s Senate run. In a 2005 Crain’s story, Obama said, “Alexi was a strong and early supporter. If someone has stepped out on my behalf, I think it’s important to reciprocate.”  (The story is available online to subscribers.) And did he ever. In 2006, Giannoulias was elected state treasurer with help from a TV ad appearance by Obama. The mutual admiration society kept meeting. In 2007, Giannoulias helped Obama raise money among Chicago’s Greek community, and in 2008, the two traveled the primary/caucus circuit together in the presidential race. From the day of the first Iowa caucus in January through the general election in November, Alexi repeatedly joined Barack to play basketball. “We found a gym in Iowa during the caucuses to kind of relax him and get his mind off all the craziness,” Alexi recalled. In one game, Giannoulias drove his shoulder into Obama, knocking the future president down and bruising his ribs. “[Obama] is an incredibly competitive guy—as am I—and the game got kind of heated,” he said.

Obama won Iowa. They didn’t play ball during the next contest in New Hampshire, and Obama lost. A remarkably superstitious man, Obama never missed another game in a primary state. Neither did Giannoulias.

The makeup of the teams changed often, but Alexi remained a constant. (Other regular players were Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson; Ariel Investments’ John Rogers; and Arne Duncan, now Secretary of Education.) I asked Giannoulias if basketball fan David Axelrod ever played. “David played a handful of times, but he was always busy on his Blackberries,” he said. 

The last game for Giannoulias came on Election Day in Chicago—at Attack Athletics on the West Side. Alexi described the day as extraordinary: “Here we are, just playing basketball like nothing’s changed, and then you realize that the guy whose shot you just blocked—in a few hours, he’s going to be the most powerful man in the world.”  Giannoulias said that he and the others were “a little more delicate” with Obama on the court that day. “You don’t want to be the guy to give the president of the United States a shiner.”

The day after the election, the Sun-Times’ Carol Marin declared Giannoulias, along with Obama, a big winner: “Guaranteed, you’ll see him playing basketball at the White House in future political ads,” she wrote. (The story is no longer online.) While the two have seen each other—Alexi visited the White House for Greek Independence Day, and Obama appeared with him at a campaign stop in Quincy, Illinois, last month—Giannoulias told me they’ve only exchanged informal jibes about basketball.

The Election Day photo above was provided by Giannoulias’s campaign. He grabbed a place in history and he’s proud. But additional photo-ops will depend Alexi’s ascent in the polls. (For now, he seems to be narrowing his deficit against Kirk.)

Obama had advised Giannoulias to get a little more experience before jumping into the Senate race. Alexi ignored that advice—just as his mentor and basketball buddy Obama didn’t take the advice of his older heads, who counseled him to wait before making his unlikely play for the presidency.

Coming soon: another interview with Giannoulias—but this time the subject will be politics.


Photograph: Courtesy of the Giannoulias campaign