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Conventional pickup basketball etiquette doesn’t always apply in Washington. No matter who’s waiting at the J. Edgar Hoover Building court, for example, John Ashcroft has got next.

And, it turns out, the highest ranking law man in the land frequently does want next at the FBI’s gym, also famously frequented by Agent Mulder on The X-Files and Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. Over his first several months in office, when not busy keeping the first federal execution in nearly four decades on the fast track or pushing for the death penalty for alleged spy Robert Hanssen, Ashcroft has played a good bit of ball there. The three-on-three games organized by the attorney general have become a hot invite around town.

According to those who have RSVPed, for somebody who got whupped by a dead man in his last run for Senate, the 59-year-old Ashcroft still shows a lot of life on the court.

“He’s got a heckuva shot,” says D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, an occasional participant in the Ashcroft invitationals at the FBI gym. “Clearly, I don’t agree with all his politics, but those are some good games over there. He plays hard, plays to win. I like that about him.”

Ashcroft came off as an odd bird at times during his confirmation hearings in Congress. It was publicized, for example, that he would begin each term of office by rubbing Crisco on his body in a spiritual ritual. Those on the other side of the aisle mocked the new administration’s most openly conservative nominee as “the Crisco Kid.”

It also came out that, although he’s a devout musician who helped form a good-timey musical combo on the Hill—the “Singing Senators,” along with former colleagues Trent Lott and (former Republican) Jim Jeffords—Ashcroft still opposes dancing with the opposite sex on religious grounds. The sort of sweaty, same-sex clutching and grappling that takes place in the paint on the basketball court, however, has always been morally kosher to Ashcroft.

To know Ashcroft, say colleagues, is to know he loves hoops. An AP wire story before he took office described him as “a tireless competitor who approaches campaigning with the same elbows-out vigor he shows in rough pickup basketball games.”

Since assuming the top spot at Justice, Ashcroft has indicated a desire to get outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh on the court, though it’s unclear whether such a matchup has yet occurred.

Another Ashcroft underling recruited for the pickup games has been the Justice Department’s inspector general, Glenn Fine. But Fine, a Democratic appointee, former Rhodes Scholar, and point guard for Harvard (’79), has been otherwise engaged—he’s heading up the investigation into why Freeh’s FBI kept more than 4,500 papers away from Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers until a few days before his originally scheduled execution date.

“The attorney general has been trying to coax [Fine] out on the court,” says Paul Martin, spokesman for the inspector general. “But he hasn’t gotten him out there yet.”

Other Justice Department underlings haven’t been so successful in keeping the boss at bay.

“A lot of the guys who play with [Ashcroft] are on his staff, and I know they don’t like guarding him,” says Paul Gigot, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist who has been among those called to the courts by Ashcroft. “They’re afraid they’ll foul him.” (Perhaps staffers of the pro-death-penalty attorney general remember the legend of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator/cannibal who is said to have forced aides to play soccer with him, then killed anybody who stopped him from scoring.)

Gigot, who also serves as the conservatives’ mouthpiece on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, says he doesn’t mind playing Ashcroft tough on the court. Off the court? Well, that’s a different story. Gigot has always had a soft spot for the attorney general in print and on television. One night during his PBS gig, Gigot praised Ashcroft for being “graceful” by not asking for a recount last November after losing to the late Mel Carnahan. Lefty and customary adversary Mark Shields then pointed out that the dead guy had won by more than 51,000 votes. And during the confirmation debate, Gigot defended Ashcroft’s contention that when he gave a commencement address at Bob Jones University, he didn’t know anything about the school’s racist, sexist, and anti-Catholic ways. Shields then noted the unlikeliness of such ignorance, because Ashcroft was attorney general of Missouri in 1983, when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively stripped BJU of its tax-exempt status.

But Gigot, who says he also balled with Clinton appointees during the last administration, maintains that his politics had nothing to do with his receiving an invitation from Ashcroft to play at the FBI gym.

“He’s the highest-ranking official I’ve played with, but games like this aren’t unique in Washington,” says Gigot. “People at Justice know that I like to play—that’s why I got called. When [Ashcroft] calls a game, it’s not to leak a story. He’s looking for exercise. It’s a great place to play—your tax dollars at work.”

Indeed. There’s some nice irony in Ashcroft’s use of the FBI courts for his personal benefit. In the 1994 debate over a federal juvenile-crime bill, he wasn’t so supportive of using tax dollars so that others might play basketball. In fact, he took the lead in trying to kill a Democratic proposal that the crime package include funding for recreational initiatives to keep teens off the street. Among those programs the then-senator from Missouri singled out for ridicule were late-night youth hoop leagues, known as midnight basketball. Ashcroft tabbed the programs a “costly gimmick.”

“If they want to have midnight basketball in Philadelphia, let them pay for it out of their own pocket,” Ashcroft railed.

Asked if that stance now seems hypocritical, given how Ashcroft takes such liberties with the very federally funded FBI court, Gigot chuckles and says, “Well, we didn’t play at midnight. I think it was around 7 o’clock.” —Dave McKenna