Bob Wheeler made sure he and his 8- year-old son, Andrew, got to the University of Dayton Arena early for last night’s “First Four” game to beat President Barack Obama’s motorcade and get Andrew a hot dog.
“I wanted to at least see tip-off,” Wheeler said in an interview.
Wheeler was among the fans who joined Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the first-round game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament in Ohio, a key swing state in this fall’s presidential election.
While Wheeler, 45, an accountant from Miamisburg, Ohio, said he came to see basketball and not two world leaders, he and other fans in the 12,800-seat arena said it added to the “March Madness” excitement to have Obama and Cameron sitting courtside, even if it meant extra traffic and going through metal detectors.
“It reminds me of a big game,” said George Crickmore, 41, a third-grade teacher from Fairborn and a season-ticket holder for university basketball games. “There’s a lot of energy.”
Obama and Cameron arrived in the arena to a loud cheer about 6:30 p.m. New York time yesterday, shortly before tip-off between Mississippi Valley State University and Western Kentucky University. Dressed casually, they shook a few hands and took their seats in the front row at one end of the court.
Before the game, the president and Cameron could be seen talking and laughing, and the two leaders continued to chat as the action began. Obama sometimes pointed toward the court as he talked with Cameron. The British leader told reporters traveling with him that he was brushing up on the rules of the game before he arrived in Washington.
Two women brought hot dogs for the two leaders after the first time-out, with a water for Obama and a Coke for Cameron.
During an interview with CBS Sports’ analyst Clark Kellogg at halftime, Cameron said it was his first time at a basketball game. While he got a briefing on the rules before arriving, he said the game was “hard at times to follow.”
“It’s pretty fast and furious,” he said.
Western Kentucky won yesterday’s contest, 59 to 58, advancing to face the top-seeded University of Kentucky tomorrow. The University of Kentucky is favored by Las Vegas odds makers to win the NCAA Division I championship.
Obama said he wanted to bring Cameron to Ohio so he could get a better sense of the nation’s “heartland.”
“Sometimes when we have foreign visitors they only see the coasts,” he said.
It’s not a coincidence that Obama came to Ohio, a battleground state that Obama carried with 51.5 percent of the vote in 2008, said Nan Whaley, a Dayton city commissioner and Democrat.
“Ohio being a center of 2012 is, I’m sure, some point of it,” Whaley, who also is part of the event’s organizing committee, said in a telephone interview. “But it’s more about showing something he loves, which is basketball, and average America, real America.”
Chris Maloney, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, pointed to the health-care law Obama championed, rising gas prices and debt increases, saying in an e-mail that Ohioans “have had a courtside seat for President Obama’s air balls on the economy for three years.”
Still, Ohio’s top Republican elected official, Governor John Kasich, attended the game and sat in the same section as the president and prime minister. Kasich, who was elected in 2010, said he spoke to the president and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew about Ohio’s efforts to develop natural gas from its shale formations. He downplayed talk about politics.
“A lot of times people want to make more of this than it is,” Kasich told reporters at halftime. “It’s a time to have some comfortable time together.”
Other than the high-profile guests and tighter security including metal detectors, it was a normal NCAA tournament game, said Tim O’Connell, senior associate director of athletics. There was not a spike in ticket sales after the president’s visit was announced, he said. There were empty seats at the top of the upper section on one side of the arena.
“This is a group that wants to see good basketball games, which they’ll see tonight, and then the topper is they’re going to see the commander-in-chief,” O’Connell said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Wheeler, a Republican who said he voted for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in Ohio’s March 6 presidential primary, said he doubted the visit would give Obama much of a political boost unless he “fills his own gas tank.”
Diane Amos, 57, a social worker from Bowling Green, Kentucky, who traveled to see Western Kentucky play, disagreed. She said it was on her “bucket list” to attend an NCAA tournament game, and that it was a bonus to have the president, whom she supports, there.
“It makes him more human, and of course, he loves basketball,” she said.