On Colleges, On Golf
4:54 PM EDT, May 18, 2013
A golf day with Alexi Giannoulias does not begin at the driving range or Sportmart.
If you're going to make him suffer on the links, he will burn you on the hardwood. His preferred round ball has no dimples. Bill Murray's Caddyshack character yelled, "It's in the hole!" Giannoulias takes it to the hole.
"Basketball," he said, "is my love."
You know someone is a novice golfer when he emails to say he has played "a COMBINED 25 holes my WHOLE life." Twenty-five?
"That's like saying, 'Let's meet at 5:13,'" Terry Diamond remarked.
Diamond is the man who has helped smooth Giannoulias' transition from public to private sector. In 2006, the 30-year-old Giannoulias became the nation's youngest state treasurer — and the first Democrat to hold the office in Illinois in 12 years.
He ran for President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat in 2010 but lost to Mark Kirk by less than 2 percentage points. It was a tough blow, and part of Giannoulias' recovery includes MMA training (minus the fights) and pickup basketball at the East Bank Club.
That's where we met for a 3-point shooting contest. My highest level of hoops was college intramurals, while Giannoulias starred at the Latin School and the University of Chicago before transferring to Boston University, where he got dunked on in an NCAA tournament loss to Tulsa.
I hit 10 of 25 from the college 3-point line and strutted a bit. Giannoulias responded by making 13. In a row. He finished a sizzling 22-for-25. (Here's video of him making it rain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noA9mtCrnew.)
Then we played one-on-one, to seven. He spotted me five and won 7-5. I got off a single shot. He dribbled between my legs on his final bucket. Jerk!
"He's deadly from outside and a fierce competitor," said hoops buddy Chris O'Leary.
Asked if he ever passes the rock in pickup games, O'Leary replied: "If I'm on the record, I'll say yes."
Giannoulias dropped 32 points in a 2012 Election Day pickup game. Obama and Scottie Pippen served as teammates. Or, perhaps more accurately, witnesses.
"At one point," Giannoulias recalled, "POTUS said, 'Does Alexi know he has a Hall of Famer on his team?'"
After hoops we refueled at Kanela, a high-end breakfast and lunch spot in Old Town that Giannoulias co-owns. Kanela means cinnamon in Greek, and it's an ode to his parents' native land.
As I savored my duck confit hash, Giannoulias recalled that after he lost the election, he traveled to South America for three months to explore, hang out, read and eat: "Other cultures appreciate a big, long breakfast, and I eat like a monster. So why not start my own breakfast place here?"
His main gig, though, is at Bank of New York Mellon Corp., where he works under Diamond as a senior adviser. Meanwhile Diamond, a member at Bryn Mawr County Club in Lincolnwood, serves as Giannoulias' golf adviser.
"Some people have accused me of making Alexi's life miserable by introducing him to it," Diamond said.
Yes, Giannoulias has a combination of characteristics that are dreadful for golf — high-energy, hyper-competitive and cocky. And yet he's so new to the game that he doesn't own clubs and refers to a golf simulator as a "video machine."
I gave him two shots a hole, with the winner claiming a Bryn Mawr visor.
His first shot sliced into the ninth fairway, but his triple-bogey was good for a push. He stunned me with an up-and-down for double bogey on No. 3.
"What's up and down?" he asked.
As a kid growing up in Edgewater/Rogers Park, Giannoulias had no time for golf. He practically lived on the basketball court at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church on Sheridan Road. Many of his Friday and Saturday nights consisted of three activities: "Shoot. Shoot. Shoot."
After Boston University, he played professionally in Greece, teaming with Bo Kimble for some of the best times of his life, except when he got stuck with a $4,000 dinner tab on his birthday. (A tradition in Greece, or so he was told.)
While focused on his wealth-management job, Giannoulias could re-enter politics. He emphasizes the environment, ethics reform, financial literacy in high schools and making college more affordable.
After I made par on No. 9 to win our match, Giannoulias was out $10 for the visor. I was hoping it would cost more, of course.
"This has been the best day," he said. "Beautiful weather, played hoops and let you win in golf."
Five-second bio: The former Division I college basketball player (Boston University) ran for his friend President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat in 2010.
Where: Bryn Mawr Country Club, Lincolnwood (Green tees: 3,240 yards).
Giannoulias' handicap: "What if I told you I've never (recorded) a score?"
What he shot: 59 for nine holes.
His take on golf: "I prefer sports where you sweat more."
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