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Obama Brother-In-Law Balances Coaching, Politics

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Obama Brother-In-Law Balances Coaching, Politics

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Obama Brother-In-Law Balances Coaching, Politics

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Tomorrow night, here in Washington, D.C., a normally forgettable men's college basketball game could actually generate some buzz. The game between Howard University and Oregon State University marks the regular season debut for OSU's new head coach, Craig Robinson. Last week, Robinson was in Chicago celebrating the historic election of his brother-in-law, Barack Obama. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Craig Robinson's first year at Oregon State will be a balancing act between his status as a member of the extended first family and his job trying to turn around a losing team.

TOM GOLDMAN: Over the past 20 months, Craig Robinson hasn't been just a witness to history, he's been inside it, campaigning for his brother-in-law, introducing his sister Michelle at the Democratic convention, appearing on stage at Chicago's Grant Park during the victory celebration.

(Soundbite of music)

GOLDMAN: That was last Tuesday. Last Wednesday, it was back to Corvallis, Oregon, for Robinson. I asked Seth Tarver, a junior guard for the Oregon State Beavers, about his coach's homecoming.

What was it like when he first came back from there and you guys saw him for the first time? Did you ask him about it? Did you talk about it?

Mr. SETH TARVER (Junior Guard, Oregon State Beavers): We didn't even have the chance to. We went right to the field, and he went right back to coaching. That was it, and it was like it never happened.

Mr. CRAIG ROBINSON (Coach, Oregon State Beavers): I want these guys to know that they are my number one focus.

GOLDMAN: Craig Robinson.

Mr. ROBINSON: Now when we're sitting down having a meal together, and we're shooting the breeze about a whole bunch of different things, they can ask me any question about it, you know. But I want them to be the ones to generate the conversation about that.

GOLDMAN: Several have. Robinson says while he was in Chicago, a couple of players sent text messages about what they were seeing on TV. But Robinson works hard to maintain, as he calls it, a separation of church and state. There can't be any distractions, after all, when you're trying to lead a team that lost every conference game it played last year, 0 and 18 in the difficult Pac-10. Try as he might, though, to not be Craig Robinson, ardent supporter and in-law of Barack Obama, you can hear some familiar themes in his pitch to players. The promise of change, changing a losing culture on the team, and a "Yes, we can" optimism he wants to instill.

Mr. ROBINSON: What I want them to do, though, is be extremely positive about the direction we're going and then go at it hard.

(Soundbite of basketball practice session)

GOLDMAN: This week, at a practice session in Oregon State's Gill Coliseum, the Beavers went hard and early. Part of the new Robinson rules, 5:30 a.m. practices, not the kind of thing that would entice a hot prospect. But when it comes to recruiting new players, Robinson is willing to relax his rule of no mixing politics and basketball, especially if a recruit perks up at the idea of a visit from the president's brother-in-law.

Mr. ROBINSON: And if that happens, and we get into the living room of kids we wouldn't normally get into, that helps us. Because if you're at the table, you've got a shot.

GOLDMAN: Craig Robinson and Barack Obama not only have a family tie, they've got a basketball connection. Robinson was a star at Princeton. The president-elect's love of pickup hoops is well-known. The two men played together on Election Day, a tradition for Obama, but the game was a bit more laidback than normal, just in case.

It wouldn't look good up at Grant Park on crutches or something like...

Mr. ROBINSON: Or a black eye or a busted lip or something like that. So we were all very careful.

GOLDMAN: John Kennedy had his touch football. Richard Nixon was an avid bowler. So, is Craig Robinson excited that basketball is about to become the presidential sport of choice? This time the answer is all family.

Mr. ROBINSON: What's really cool is that my brother-in-law and sister are going to be living in the White House. I mean, that's - you know, if he was into cricket, it wouldn't matter to me.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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