News & Politics

Talking B-Ball on Hill

By Joanne Kenen

During March Madness, congressional cloakrooms often resemble sports bars. But the best place for members of Congress to watch the tournament on TV is from a treadmill in the House gym. That’s where Illinois Republican Tim Johnson, perhaps the most knowledgeable basketball fan on the Hill, often holds court.

A former high-school player who has coached kids and plays recreationally, Johnson is so astute about the game that Illinois newspapers are as likely to quote him on basketball as on farm bills. He and some buddies back home, calling themselves the Consortium of Five, put out a report on the NBA draft each year. He tracks promising young players so diligently that Johnson says some of his “friends in the front offices” of NBA teams consult him before making their draft picks. “Whether they act on anything I say,” Johnson adds, “I doubt it.”

Though loyal to Illinois college teams, he’ll root for anyone in the Big Ten if his state teams are out of the running. Johnson has a soft spot for Ohio State; the Buckeyes’ coach hails from his district. His constituents indulge his devotion to the Boston Celtics; his car has a Celtics license-plate frame.

His skill at spotting basketball stars does not cross over into politics. “Oh, no,” he says, when asked if he could predict the next president.

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