Cruz’s match-up with Kimmel got tons of local and national coverage and raised $80,000 for an education non-profit and Texas Children’s Hospital. The basketball itself, though, was brutal. The game quickly devolved into a contest between two overweight, middle-aged guys throwing up bricks and groping each other on defense like college kids on the dance floor at a frat party. It was supposed to go to 15, but baskets were so hard to come by, Cruz and Kimmel agreed to play to 11. The crowd at the Texas Southern University gym was mostly pro-Kimmel, and one reporter who covered it told me the game took so long the place had mostly emptied out by the end. Kimmel, never passing up the chance to dunk on Cruz, called it the Blobfish Basketball Classic because of Cruz’s perceived resemblance to the fish—big nose, sagging skin, etc. But in the end, the joke was on him. Cruz, improbably, won 11-9, when he nailed a long jumper from the wing with Kimmel’s hand in his face.
Would any of this matter to voters in his narrowing Senate race against O’Rourke, which recent polling has him now leading by only single digits in one of the country’s most Republican states? Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary who has also done consulting work for numerous pro sports teams and leagues, told me basketball—something everyone can relate to—could make a small, but real difference in the big mix of politician favorability, but only if Cruz is genuine. There was always the risk of a John Kerry windsurfing moment. I waited on the phone while Fleischer called up the video from the Kimmel game. “I’m impressed,” Fleischer said. “He looks good!” Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas who helped elect Ann Richards, the last Democratic governor of the state, was having none of it. He laughed out loud when I asked him about Ted Cruz the basketball player. “He’s awkward and not charming and it’s too transparent to work,” he said, adding, “He’s not Barack Obama.”
Cruz is smart enough to recognize that much. His basketball charm can only work as a weekend warrior, not as a brand of cool. “There’s no doubt Obama spent his time in public office as a hip, Hollywood celebrity hanging out with Hollywood celebrities, NBA stars, movie stars,” he told me. “I don’t know any NBA stars, that’s not who I hang out with on weekends.” Given the outspoken progressive politics of many of today’s NBA stars, Cruz also knows he couldn’t run with that crowd, even if he wanted to. (For what it’s worth, I asked Cruz if he could take Obama in a game of one-on-one. His answer: “I would play and I would certainly lose. But I am sure he wouldn’t be willing to play with me.”)
In his office, Cruz showed me the highlight video his campaign put together—“Buckets and Blocks: Keeping Jimmy Kimmel from Going Left” was the tagline. Cruz leaned back in his swivel chair and put his hands behind his head, as he watched himself drive past Kimmel, pop a jump shot over Kimmel, then scoop in a layup around him. Then came the blocks. Cruz stuffed Kimmel with one hand, then with two hands. Cruz chuckled. “For the next 50 years, Hollywood celebrities are going to give Jimmy grief for losing to Ted Cruz,” he said. Then, he added with great satisfaction: “You’ll see this on TedCruz.org.”