A tweet turns real: How Obama visited Badgers

MADISON, Wis. — Members of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team were contemplating the possibilities of presidential grandeur in the locker room Thursday morning. More specifically, their discussion hovered around one central question that they couldn’t stop pondering.

Would President Barack Obama actually play a game of pickup hoops with the team?

Two days earlier, Badgers forward Zach Bohannon had launched an aggressive Twitter campaign directed at Obama and his handlers to make such a moment happen. Obama, an avid basketball fan, would be in town Thursday afternoon to give a speech on campus.

Wisconsin guard George Marshall hadn’t paid much attention to Bohannon’s Twitter pleas, which gained national media attention, until talk surfaced in the locker room following Thursday’s early morning weight lifting session. Only then did Marshall realize he might have a substantial connection.

So, Marshall called in the favor of all favors.

Marshall, a Chicago native, sent a text message to his dad for the phone number of Marty Nesbitt — Marshall’s seventh-grade assistant AAU basketball coach — who also happens to be one of Obama’s closest friends from their time together in Chicago, where Obama gained political prominence.

As it turned out, Nesbitt was with Obama in Denver at that very moment. Obama had yet to leave the city where he and Mitt Romney squared off in a presidential debate one night earlier.

Marshall popped the question.

“I thought it was a good chance because he was still with Obama in Denver,” Marshall said by phone Thursday night. “He was right there with him.”

Nesbitt’s response?

No, Obama couldn’t play ball. His plane landed in Madison at roughly 2:30 p.m. CT, and his speech began at about 3:40 p.m. But Obama could make time to meet the team.

“I was just excited,” Marshall said. “It’s an honor to meet the President of the United States. It worked out really well.”

All 16 players on Wisconsin’s team were escorted into a VIP waiting room in the school’s education building on Bascom Hill, where Obama was to give his speech. No photos were allowed, and cell phones had to be shut off. When the President arrived, each player shook his hand. And the five-minute conversation, naturally, centered on basketball.

“When we initially met him, we asked if he could play with us,” Marshall said. “He said he really doesn’t play anymore because he’s getting old. He said if he does play, all he can do is pass. He knows we’ve got a lot of shooters, so it may be a possibility.”

Team members then took a group photo with Obama, snapped by the official White House photographer. They were also invited to attend the speech in the front row, and Obama opened by promising to rain jumpers on the Badgers when he returned for a game of hoops.

“When he went on stage, he said he’ll be back in April to play with us,” Marshall said. “Hopefully he’ll make that happen.”

The catalyst for Thursday’s meeting was Bohannon, an Air Force transfer who has presidential aspirations of his own. He initially tweeted Tuesday: “@BarackObama, Sir, the Wisconsin bball team extends an offer 2 play open gym on Thursday before or after ur talk. Badgers RETWEET 4 support!”

Obama famously played pickup hoops with North Carolina’s team in April 2008 while campaigning before his first term in office, and Bohannon hoped to capture the same type of moment.

Bohannon’s Twitter barrage continued for the next two days, directed at everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to her brother, Oregon State men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson.

Bohannon tweeted to Robinson: “Any way u can get @BarackObama to play pickup w/ @BadgerMBB while in Madison tmw?”

Robinson responded: “U should’ve come to Oregon State!”

After finally meeting the President on Thursday, Bohannon expressed his gratitude on — where else? — Twitter.

“What an honor to talk and get a picture w/ President Obama!” Bohannon tweeted. “He even promised to come play with us once the election is over!

“President Obama also challenged our bball team this year: ‘We all know u guys can win at home, the true test is if you can win on the road!'”

Marshall said he didn’t feel as though his teammates owed him any favors, although it’s safe to say they’ll forever be indebted to him for the experience.

Where does that experience rank in Marshall’s life?

“It’s got to be at the top,” he said. “I’ve had some really good experiences, but I would say this one is one of the best. Definitely the top.”

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.