Ted Cruz drains three 15-foot jumpers in a row. Swishes them all from the top of the key—and with a hand in his face, no less. He’s feelin’ it, and looks over at me. I’m sort of stunned. We’re playing two-on-two on a secret, members-only court deep inside the Dirksen Senate Office Building. It’s all part of an improbable, choreographed charm offensive to humanize the much-maligned junior senator from Texas. Through basketball. I know, it sounds ridiculous. The guy’s got none of Barack’s moves, or cool, and if he ever gets to be president, the NBA champs probably aren’t coming for the White House visit. Still, here we are, me and Ted playing two of his staffers to 11, and the senator wants the ball. Again.
There is an urgency to all this.
Cruz is running this year to hold onto his Senate seat against the three-term congressman from El Paso, Beto O’Rourke. A flurry of flattering profiles has labeled O’Rourke as charismatic, full of youthful energy—handsome, too. He holds running town halls where he jogs three miles and chats with voters. Politico called the buzz around his campaign “Beto-mania.”
It’s also personal.
Cruz is still pissed at Jimmy Kimmel for ragging on him so mercilessly after one of the great gaffes of the 2016 election season. It was April, and Cruz had punted on a slew of primaries in the Northeast, betting his flagging presidential hopes on Indiana and its heartland sensibilities. He was visiting the famous gym from Hoosiers in Knightstown for a campaign event. In the movie, Gene Hackman plays the coach of the tiny Hickory High’s basketball team that makes the state finals. They travel to Indianapolis and its massive arena, and he pulls out a tape measure to check the height of the basket. Ten feet, he says to his team, just like in their home gym.