The Audacity of Hoops (cont.)
In those pickup games, Obama has written, "a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn't just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions -- like hurt or fear -- you didn't want them to see." An airy civility prevails in Hawaii -- No talk stink goes an idiom in the local pidgin -- but the playground offered an alien rhetoric that suited Barry just fine.
Obama admits to "living out a caricature of black male adolescence" with his embrace of the game. A Punahou senior who hoped to become a lawyer watched Obama, two years younger, inscribe a parting message in his yearbook: Get that law degree, and someday you can help me sue my NBA team for more money. But even if Obama played "with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent," as he writes, that passion came with perks. "At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn't be a disadvantage."
With all those hours of play he developed what he'd later call "an overtly black game." One of his favorite R & B songs was William DeVaughn's Be Thankful for What You Got, a mid-'70s ode to inner-city pose-copping, with its invocation of Diggin' the scene/With a gangsta lean. Obama's immersion in basketball was, in fact, a kind of pose. Eventually he would have to apply the message in the song title to his experience as a senior on McLachlin's Buff 'n' Blue varsity.
He had played jayvee as a sophomore and made Punahou's second varsity as a forward the next season. (The school fielded multiple teams in some sports to accommodate its huge enrollment.) After having learned the game on the playground, Obama ran up against McLachlin, a disciple of John Wooden, Dean Smith and Pete Carril. "We had some conflict," Obama told SI last year. "Some tension." A black friend, ratifying Obama's belief that he should be getting more playing time, hinted that Obama was now stuck in that other hoary African-American hoops narrative: Black Prometheus, Straitjacketed by the Man.
In McLachlin's telling, it was simpler and less sinister than that. "He was really, really good and could have started for any other team in the state," the coach says. "But we were really good, and it was so hard to break into that group. Three kids went on to Division I scholarships, two at his position." McLachlin, then in his early 30s, believes that if they had met later in his coaching career, Obama would have had a more rewarding experience. "I would have made a place for a player like him," McLachlin says. "But in those early days I was much more conventional. Play five, maybe one or two subs, go to the bench with a big lead. Obviously it was frustrating for him. So he negotiated."
During his senior season Obama led a delegation of pine-riders to McLachlin's office to make the case on their behalf for more playing time. "I reminded him it wasn't about him, it was about the team," McLachlin says, "and the end result was that we had a pretty amazing year." The Punahou team that beat Moanalua High 60-28 for the 1979 state title is regarded as one of the greatest in Hawaii history. In that game Obama missed a free throw and scored on a garbage-time breakaway.
That season, Obama told SI a year ago, he learned about "being part of something and finishing it up. And I learned a lot about discipline, about handling disappointments, about being more team-oriented and realizing that not everything is about you."
McLachlin agrees. "Despite the fact that there was pushback, he never lost sight of what the goal was," the coach says. "We sometimes don't get the lessons teachers teach us until years later."
When he returned to Punahou in 2004 to address a packed chapel, Obama admitted to having been "kind of a pain in the butt when I was here." From the dais the old second-stringer found McLachlin in the shadows. "Coach Mac, is that you?" said the new U.S. Senator from Illinois. "I've gotta tell you something. I really wasn't as good as I thought I was."
McLachlin felt a weight leave his shoulders. "As much as I berate myself for my own lack of maturity as a coach at that time, obviously some stuff stuck with him and helped shape his character," he says. "I didn't screw him up, is what I mean."
Obama has alluded to the many hours he devoted to basketball as time he might have spent rounding himself out. "I had bought into a set of false assumptions about what it means to be black," he has confessed. The game had nonetheless dug its hooks into him. And while by the time he left Punahou he knew how to get lost in a book, discuss geopolitics with friends and write up something for the literary magazine -- clique-conscious classmates wondered whether Barry wanted to be a jock or a brain -- one phrase leaps from his senior yearbook page. It's a kind of epitaph for his time in Hawaii: We go play hoop.
Community on the Court
If a presidential campaign is an MRI of the soul, as Obama strategist David Axelrod likes to say, a pickup basketball game is a polygraph of the heart. Obama's experience with the organized game would total three high school seasons, only one of them on Punahou's top varsity, and that largely on the bench. Thus he's less a retired ballplayer looking to keep in shape than what's known as a baller -- a product of basketball's speakeasies, not its licensed establishments.
"If he'd been in organized ball, it's very possible he'd have gotten the whole thing out of his system," Johnson says. "He might say he's better now than he ever was, but there's pathos there. You're still trying to prove you're good enough to start on your high school team. In basketball you're continually trying to prove yourself, and in pickup even more so, because there is no record. You can't say, 'Oh, I'm 19-1.' It's all on you."
Pickup ballplayers don't talk as much as golfers during a round, but they more quickly reach judgments about temperament and collaborative aptitude. And there's the emotional containment that ballers learn to bring to the court, even if only to ensure that no one can sneak up behind you to see emotions... you didn't want them to see. Asked the boxers-versus-briefs question, Obama gave the pitch-perfect pickup baller's reply: "I don't answer those humiliating questions, but whichever one it is, I look good in 'em."