The untold story of the 4 O'Clock Caucus: Bipartisan basketball in a bygone era

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·Political correspondent
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Former NBA player and Democrats center Tom McMillen (54) looks up for a loose ball in a basketball game vs. the Republicans in 1987. (Gallaudet University)

Imagine it’s 1988. You’re a 40-something-year-old Republican member of the U.S. House. And you’re running on a fast break with Earvin “Magic” Johnson — yes, that Magic Johnson — on a basketball court in the subbasement of the Rayburn House Office Building. A court so cartoonishly small relative to a National Basketball Association regulation-size floor that the reigning league champion and already three-time NBA Finals MVP can cover much of the hardwood in just three strides.

Magic is streaking down the middle of the court. You’re on one wing, and a second GOP congressman, this one from Texas, is on the other. You call for the ball. It’s your moment. You haven’t even completed four full terms in the House, yet here you are, and you’re going to score off a dish from that Magic Johnson, who spent the rest of that year passing to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Well, as long as you actually catch the ball.

Former GOP Rep. Mike Oxley of Ohio doesn’t have to imagine this. He lived it. A member of the so-called Four O’Clock Caucus — a motley bipartisan crew of politicians named for the time at which then-Speaker Tip O’Neill refused to call votes so they could play basketball in the House gym — Oxley ran with Magic that day in the late ’80s. And he has regrets.

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1987 Congressional Charity Basketball program and inset images of political players. (Gallaudet University)

“I just remember running the break with Magic. Magic was in the middle, and we had a three-on-two fast break. Jack Fields from Texas was on one wing and I was on the other wing, and I just knew I was going to get the ball,” Oxley said in a recent interview. “Magic was pounding down the floor, and he does a couple head fakes and ball fakes. I kept my hands out, and as they say, he hit me in a bad place — right in the hands — and it went right out of bounds. I was just totally deflated.

“I knew I was going to get the ball, and I still couldn’t. I was so nervous, I let the ball go out of bounds. I blew it,” Oxley said. “That was it. I took my eye off the ball. … That’s sports, I guess.”

But the now-barely used, members-only House basketball court wasn’t just a place where Magic once balled, though he probably was the gym’s most prestigious and talented visitor.

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The 1988 House Democratic basketball team, a framed picture of which was a gift last month to Sen. Chuck Schumer (31) from Sen. Ed Markey (33). Front row: David Bonior, Tom Downey, Jim Bates, Martin Sabo, Al Gore & Markey. Back row: Sandy Levin George Miller, Norm Dicks, Tom McMillen, Bob Mrazek, Schumer, Buckey Staggers. (Courtesy of the office of Ed Markey)

It was also a place where members from opposing parties could set aside their partisanship, relieve the pressures of the job and just have fun; a place where the trash talk was on the hardwood and good-natured rather than on cable TV and poisonous. It was even a place where occasionally the business of the people got done. Senator and NBA All-Star Bill Bradley played — just once, in 1986 — to help get lawmakers onboard for a tax reform bill, the last one to pass Congress. Sometimes it was a place to settle political scores, but in the most benign ways. In 1983, a young Tim Russert, then an aide to newly elected Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, made two Democratic congressmen play a game as retribution for endorsing Ed Koch in the 1982 primary.

It’s where a young freshman congressman named John Boehner, in 1991, would stand on the sidelines smoking cigarettes in between games. And where future vice presidents (Al Gore and Dan Quayle), senators (Chuck Schumer of New York, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Pat Roberts of Kansas), a White House chief of staff turned CIA director turned defense secretary (Leon Panetta) and countless powerful House committee chairmen showed their true colors and made their first friends in Washington.

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1987 Congressional charity basketball game with Rep. Norm “Husky” Dicks (12) launching a shot just from near the 3-point line. (Photo: Roll Call)

Eventually, the Four O’Clock Caucus, also known as the Members Basketball Association (MBA), would disband, with many of its alumni rising up the ranks to run Washington. But in that bygone era of the 1980s, these relative political unknowns who elbowed each other out of the way for rebounds instead of out of the sight of news cameras experienced something special, a fading time of comity and camaraderie that made That Town a better place than This Town.

Inspired by an old picture recently passed between two caucus members, Schumer and Markey, Yahoo News reached out to more than a half dozen former regulars and asked them to share their stories. More than three decades have passed since the daily O’Neill-blessed games first tipped. But the friendly rivalries feel as fresh and as real today as they did back then, when members rushed to throw suits over their sweaty gym clothes whenever “some moron” scheduled an errant vote during basketball hour.

Here are those stories, in the members’ own words, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee spins the basketball prior to a three-on-three scrimmage at UCLA in Los Angeles, Friday, Feb. 19, 1988. Gore, who played guard while attending Harvard, is in California to raise funds for his campaign. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

On former Vice President Al Gore

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., 1983-present: Gore was a very talented basketball player. He was very confident; I would say it that way. He was a cocky bastard on the court. I was there when we were playing basketball and he injured himself. He pulled his Achilles tendon. He wasn’t so confident then.

Rep. Mike “the Ox” Oxley, R-Ohio, 1981-2007: Yeah, he was [a cocky bastard], and he didn’t have anything to be cocky about. He couldn’t guard a table. He could shoot pretty well, and that was about it. He came down one Saturday when we were in session and blew out his Achilles just standing there.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House member from 1981 to 1999: Al Gore had a great 3-point shot from the corner. … I thought he was a very nice, down-to-earth guy on the court.

Rep. Thomas Downey, D-N.Y., 1975-1993, former MBA “commissioner,” interviewed by Schumer on speakerphone from the senator’s office, mid-Yahoo News’ interview of Schumer: Do you remember Quayle? Quayle was very quick to the basket but not much of a shooter. And you know, of course, Gore, used to try these trick shots in HORSE;, he would lie down on the ground, dribble off the wall…

Schumer: All right! We’ve got plenty out of you. Goodbye!

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Congressional basketball game (undated) Back row L-R: Bill Cohen (D-Maine), John Burton (D-Calif), Tom Railsback (D-Ill), coach Silvio Conte (R-Mass), Jim Lloyd (D-Calif.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss), George Miller (D-Calif.); Front row L-R: Bill Burlison (D-Mo.) Don Bonker (D-Wash) Marty Russo (D-Ill) Ron Mottl (D-Ohio) (Photo: Roll Call)

Rep. Tom McMillen, D-Md., 1987-1993; No. 9 pick in the 1974 NBA draft, 6-foot-11 Olympic medalist in basketball: I had a funny story with Gore because we played a bit. He was a pretty good basketball player, but he wouldn’t play very often. When he was running for president, his chief of staff called me up and asked if I would fly out to Los Angeles to play three-on-three against the UCLA Bruins: [current Lakers general manager and retired player] Mitch Kupchak, me and Al Gore against some of the best college kids. We did, in front of all these cameras and newspaper reporters, and Gore hit the winning shot. It was front page of the Los Angeles Times the next day.

On the only time Bill Bradley ever played

Levin: I never saw Bill Bradley touch a basketball. To my knowledge, he never did it.

Oxley: It was in 1986 when they were doing tax reform, and so Bradley, of course, went right to the Senate and never served in the House, so he didn’t know anybody in the House. He called Downey and said, “I need to get together with some of the members of the House and get to know them better, because I’ve got this major bill — tax reform bill.” Downey said, “Everybody would get a big kick out of it if you play some hoops.” And so Bradley did. I know he came at least once, because he was on my team. The first series we had, he was at the top of the key and I was at the corner, and I had the ball and I passed out to Bradley at the point. It was like a no-touch pass, and Bradley, he just snapped this pass to where I should have been. Of course, I passed the ball and was standing there and the ball flies out of bounds. I’ll never forget the look he gave me, like, “God, do I have to do this just to get a bill passed?” But it was fun for at least that one time.

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(Photo: AP Photo)

Downey: And [Bradley] hit Oxley in the face with that pass!

Schumer: Bill Bradley came once — this is another great story. (Because he needed help on tax reform?) You got it! We always asked him, “Come on and play, Bill!” He was so famous. “Please play with us!” Once [he played].

Oxley, on Bradley playing on the same court as Schumer: Yeah, it was quite a comedown for Bill, I’m sure. But all’s well that ends well. And he got his bill passed, so I’m sure that was important to him at the time.

McMillen: Having come from the NBA, you get used to the mix of personalities. The only difference is that the NBA at the time was more racially diverse than Congress. … Bradley would only play when he needed something — like tax reform. A little bit before I was in the House, he would come down to play with House members.

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The 1995 Congressional Classic team with NBA Commissioner David Stern, second from left, former Washington Bullets center Wes Unseld, center back row and former women’s professional basketball player Nancy Lieberman, center front row. (Gallaudet University)

On now-Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Bill Laimbeer of the MBA

Schumer: Pat Roberts set the best picks. I don’t think anyone else who is in the Senate now was on the teams then. [Louisiana Democrat] Bill Gray’s two teeth were knocked out by Pat Roberts.

Oxley: Oh, Senator Roberts, he was almost criminal in nature. It was just — he hit me right in the face with a no-look pass. He was about three feet from me, and he hit me right in the schnoz. He knocked out a tooth of Bill Gray from Philadelphia, knocked out his tooth! Roberts was dangerous to himself and others. He should have played another sport.

The classic, though, with Roberts, was we had the annual congressional charity game at the Gallaudet School for the Deaf — Republicans vs. Democrats for the legal defense of the homeless. So one year, McMillen was being guarded by Roberts, and I think the photo was in Roll Call. McMillen is in the low post, and he’s got his hand up, yelling for the ball, and Roberts is behind him, and Roberts has both arms wrapped around his waist. And his bald head only comes up to, like, McMillen’s armpit. It was just a hilarious picture and kind of symbolized the entire pathetic effort of Roberts trying to guard McMillen.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., House member from 1981 to 1997, unprompted: Yes. I got banned from the court. I set blindside picks on Democrats. That’s what I did. You gotta do what you gotta do. I was too old to shoot and too old to do stuff, but I could set a blindside pick.

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(AP Photo)

On Magic Johnson

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., House member from 1981 to 1992: Well, you know, everybody was pretty excited about it. Magic Johnson was an extremely good player. When the photograph was taken of us that day, somehow Magic was way in the back and the members were all in the front, typical of politicians.

Oxley: We had the House photographer come down and take the picture. And it was one of the better attended games because everybody knew Magic was coming.

At that time, Tom (Downey) was the commissioner of the MBA — the Members Basketball Association. When he left, I took over. That was my real power base. But when Tom was commissioner of the MBA, he found out that Magic was going to be in town. He had bought a Pepsi franchise in the District, and somehow Tom found out about it, contacted his agent and said, ‘If he has some extra time, could he come down to the House gym and play some hoops?’ And sure enough, he did.

And at that time, Tom McMillen was in Congress. And Tom was a former pro basketball player. And luckily Tom came down, so we had somebody to line up with Magic. Normally it was just a pickup game and you didn’t have to reveal your side, but in this case McMillen was with the Democrats, so we had him be the Democrat star and Magic would be the Republican star. And so I asked Magic if he was a Republican or Democrat. He said, ‘I’m a Democrat.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re a Republican today.’ So he played with the Republicans. And it was great fun.

You know the court we played on, the floor was mercifully short and narrow, so it had to seem really small to him. He’d take about three strides and he’d be down to the other end of the basket, the other end of the floor. But we had a spirited game; it was a lot of fun.

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Political players fight for a rebound during the 1993 Congressional charity basketball game. (Gallaudet University)

On the contraband game with the late Gov. Mario Cuomo

Schumer: I’ll tell you another great story about the gym. Downey and I, we endorsed Koch in the 1982 Democratic primary, and we were scared. Mario Cuomo wins and he’s mad, particularly at Downey because Downey’s half Italian. Me, Koch? He figured, OK. So he comes down for his first trip to Washington to meet the delegation, and Tim Russert is his chief aide. And Tim says to us, “Look, you want to make up with Mario, challenge us to a two-on-two basketball game in the House gym.” We nearly got booted from the gym for six months for bringing in Gov. Cuomo and Tim Russert.

But we played two-on-two. Just like this [points to his dress clothes]. We didn’t change. We played in socks. Take off your suit jacket. Cuomo, by the way, he was the toughest player. He wouldn’t just elbow you aside when the ball came under — VOOM [shoving gesture] — OK? But I was hitting. And we won. And all the press is assembled outside, a huge gaggle of press. And Tim says, “When they ask you about who won, you better not say anything, if you know what’s good for you.” We go outside, and [the reporters ask] who won, and Tim says, ‘We won.’ And Cuomo forgave us, and we were friends ever since then.

Schumer, upon further prodding from Downey: You’d go under the boards and [Cuomo] wouldn’t just elbow you — he’d put both hands on your hips. He had big hands! He was a beefy man — and when the ball would hit the rim, he’d just push you aside!

Audio of Schumer calling Downey to regale Yahoo News with more stories of their House basketball heyday:



 

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The 1995 Congressional Classic team with former Washington Bullets center Wes Unseld, center back row. (Gallaudet University)

On John Boehner’s in-gym smoking habits

Oxley: The now Speaker of the House, one of the games we played at Gallaudet, it was McMillen’s first year, and I think Boehner’s first year, and of course, I had known Boehner from Ohio. He was a football player in high school on a national championship team, but I don’t think he ever played basketball. But he came to play basketball that night.

He was [a chain smoker] by the time he got to Congress. The NBA sponsored the game, and so Bob Lanier, the all-pro and Hall of Famer from the Detroit Pistons, he was the coach, and I was a captain. And so it’s halftime and McMillen had played most of the first half and we were only down four or five points — I feel pretty good about that — and I go rushing down to the locker room and I open the door, and there’s Boehner smoking a cigarette in the locker room. And I just lost it. I went berserk. And that was Boehner’s last game, mercifully.

Downey: Do you remember the first time in ’90 when John Boehner came to play basketball?

Schumer: Yes! YES!

Downey: He was playing with us, and then he gets tired and he sits down and he starts smoking.

Schumer: Yes! Right in the gym. He played every so often, and he would smoke. He had a low dribble.

On defending NFL Pro Bowler Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb in the 1949 Detroit Public League semifinals

Levin: It was the semis, and I was put in to play center when our center fouled out.

I never tried [my hook shot] because the center for the other team was Big Daddy — you’re too young. Big Daddy was 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. His name was Gene Lipscomb, and he played football for the Baltimore Colts. They threw it to me and Big Daddy was standing behind me and I never got a shot off and we lost. It ended my basketball career.

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The Dunkin’ Donkeys on offense against the Fighting Elephants during the 1995 Congressional Classic basketball game, Oxley (4) positions himself in the paint while Markey (33) waits on the perimeter. (Photo: Roll Call)

On assessing their colleagues’ games, with decades-old trash talk

Levin, on the rumor he was “all elbows”: That’s true. My strengths were that I guarded — I often had to guard the tough one — and also taking balls off the backboard. I defended Mike Oxley, by the way, and Mike was tough. So I was assigned to defend him. We joked about it always.

Oxley: My philosophy was I would always try to pick the slowest, shortest, oldest guy to guard, and lot of times that was Sandy Levin. So that was helpful.

Levin, on the players he considered “deadeyes,” an older term for sharpshooters: Downey, Markey, Fields.

Oxley, on Schumer’s shot, which apparently resembles how Manute Bol took 3-pointers : Schumer had this weird — you’d call it a jump shot, I guess?—where he put the ball behind his head and fell backwards, and it was hard to block the shot until you figured out that all you had to do was get to the side of him and you could block it every time. Schumer had this … I guess you would call it a fall-away jump shot, but he would put the ball behind his head and was reasonably accurate with it, but he had some problems on the defensive end as well.

Dorgan: Generally speaking, senators are older, a little slower, but when I say slower, I should add that Chuck Schumer was no speed demon even in the House. Leon Panetta used to play with us. (Was Panetta any good?) He used to play with us [laughs].

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(Photo: Roll Call)

McMillen: When I was a freshman and went to block a shot, I had to figure out who was on the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, because that would determine whether I would block their shots. If a member was taking a shot and had a real big committee assignment, I would let him take the shot.

On Tip O’Neill letting them play and the camaraderie of the game

Schumer: Tip O’Neill wouldn’t call votes. He loved it.

Oxley: Rarely was it violated (the 4 p.m. rule). Occasionally some moron would call a vote, and we would rush and throw our suits on over our basketball stuff and not even bother to change shoes, just have sneakers and then sneak in the back door and put our card in and then run back to the gym.

They don’t play anymore. It’s sad. It’s really sad. There’s a lot of camaraderie we had then that doesn’t exist anymore.

Markey: I would say it was an oasis. Tip O’Neill allowed it to be created in the House gym, for allowing time that we could have that game, and it continued on for years after that. It was a relief from the stress and partisanship. It was something that people looked forward to. And I think it actually helped make congress a better place to work.

McMillen: I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. The problem in Congress today is members come in on Tuesday, leave Thursday, and their nights are filled with fundraisers. It was good for your health, and it was good for the institution. Oftentimes when I needed to work on a bill, I would call a Republican I balled with. Sports is a great adhesive — a great glue — and I wish they had more of this today.

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1991 Congressional Charity Basketball program, left and the 2004 Congressional Basketball Classic program covers. (Gallaudet University)

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