The Audacity of Hoops (cont.)
On Election Day, Obama and 40 or so others picked teams and played round-robin at the Attack Athletics complex in Chicago. "He was the one who had noticed the pattern," Nesbitt says. "We played in Iowa and won. We didn't play in New Hampshire and lost. We played every election day thereafter."
Before the Iowa caucuses, after Team Obama won a game, the candidate offered a high five to the captain of the losing team. Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, refused to deal digits in return. "Why are you being a sore loser?" Obama asked.
"I'll give you a high five back if you admit you stack the teams."
"I don't care who I play with. I'll play with anybody. You want to switch teams? We can switch teams if you want!"
Giannoulias declined as a point of pride, then got the grin that Obama has long deployed to defuse tense moments.
As the lone former Division I players under 35 in Obama's basketball circle, Giannoulias and Reggie Love always line up on opposite teams. Obama makes sure he's teamed with Love, the 6' 4", 225-pound former Duke captain (class of 2005) who served as his "body man," or personal assistant, during the campaign. "Barack gets feisty," says Giannoulias, 32, who stands 6' 2" and played at Boston University. "He always makes Reggie guard me, and it drives me nuts."
Indeed, following the May 6 primaries Obama campaigned with bruised ribs, the result of a shoulder Giannoulias gave him on a drive to the basket. "He's tough but not dirty," says Giannoulias, who won statewide office at age 30 thanks largely to Obama's support. "He has fun, but he's intensely competitive. Even as he gets along with everyone, he tries to find a way to win."
"I've seen him stand up for himself," says Robinson, "but I've never seen him lose his cool. That's the Lenny Wilkens part of him."
Not everyone accepts the Wilkens comparison. The McCain campaign aired an attack ad suggesting that Obama had disrespected the troops by shooting hoops with them, with footage of his three-pointer in Kuwait drawing a portrait, as New York magazine's John Heilemann put it, of someone "blinged up and camera-hungry.... Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree." By the end of the campaign, however, Obama had sold himself to the great, broad middle as a Wilkens type, a man who could channel street cred into the mainstream, who wanted the challenge and was up to it.
"It wasn't that he made or missed that shot," Robinson says of Obama's three-pointer in front of the troops in Kuwait. "It's that he took it."
That, Axelrod says, is what consistently strikes him about his boss. Before the first debate with McCain, Axelrod recalls, "We're standing in the greenroom and he's about to take the stage, and I could've easily gone to the bathroom and thrown up. So I ask him how he's feeling. 'I'm a little nervous, but it's a good nervous,' he says. 'Give me the ball. Let's play the game.' "
The outdoor half-court on the White House grounds isn't up to the all-seasons, all-court basketball ambitions of the new President. Giddy at what Obama's election could mean for its product around the world, the NBA has offered to help install an indoor full court. Meanwhile, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin has offered use of the Verizon Center. At the very least, Axelrod and Nesbitt predict, there will be regular trips to the full court at Camp David.
After helping make him who he is, after helping him get elected, how might basketball influence the way Obama governs? People it will behoove him to get along with -- both Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) and Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero play regularly -- could wind up as guests in Presidential games. For Cabinet officials there will be face time with the President, and for those who play (prospective Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder) there will be in-your-face time as well.
Much has been made of how Obama has assembled, Lincoln-like, a "team of rivals" to advise him. Last summer McLachlin, Obama's high school coach, asked an AP reporter to relay a message to the candidate: In 40 years of coaching he'd learned that there's no such thing as the perfect coach, but there is such a thing as a perfect staff if you surround yourself with people who are good at what you're not. "People seem to agree he's done an amazing job of putting together a Cabinet," says the old coach. "It says a lot about why so many people latched on to him as a dream-giver. Because he's honest about his shortcomings, he can reach for the stars."
During his family Christmas vacation on Oahu, Obama and several Chicago friends met up with a handful of the President-elect's high school buddies and Coach Mac at the Punahou gym. Over nearly two hours they squeezed in four games. Obama dished out no-look passes and finished off a spin in the lane with a finger roll. He sank several shots from deep. Twice he crossed over former Punahou teammate and NFL player John Kamana, the best athlete on the floor. McLachlin, having bought into Craig Robinson's analogy, yelled "Lenny!" from the sidelines a half-dozen times.
There's more of McLachlin and his coaching influences in Barack Obama than Barry O'Bomber would ever have imagined. "Avoid the peaks and valleys," John Wooden used to tell his teams, much as Obama told his campaign. Dean Smith was a master at setting aside a loss and moving on, as Obama did after New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In November, Rogers, the old Princeton Tiger, supplied interim offices for the Obama transition team at his firm, Ariel Investments -- which meant that for three days the President-elect called world leaders from a conference room named after Pete Carril. The undomesticated high school ballplayer has fallen in with Duncan, Robinson and Rogers, ex-Ivy Leaguers who have won national three-on-three titles by using smarts and structure to school players half their age. Says Rogers, "He's around a lot of guys who know how to play and aren't just running up and down the court."
Throughout Obama's career there's been a pattern of counterweight, of his providing yin where there's yang, and vice versa. At Punahou, with order and orthodoxy all around, he chose to develop a gut-bucket game. On Chicago's South Side, where hoops and life tend toward entropy, he worked as an organizer. At a Harvard Law School roiled by ideological polarization, he was the difference-splitter. Basketball's appeal, Obama told HBO's Bryant Gumbel last year, lies in an "improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful." With its serial returns to equilibrium -- cut backdoor against an overplay; shoot when the defense sags -- the game represents Obama's intellectual nature come alive.
Another dialectic, as old as the ancients, poses the great challenge of government: How best to balance the rights of the individual with the welfare of the group? That tension surfaces in Obama's speeches and writings again and again. "Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values," he writes in The Audacity of Hope, "the glue upon which every healthy society depends." In the Africa of his roots he sees the pendulum swung so far toward the collective that the individual can be overburdened and paralyzed. In the America he's poised to lead he sees individuals gaming a financial system so enfeebled that the collective faces deficits and recession. Where is the golden mean, that place where We the People might find "a way of being together," where the best players stop worrying about their points and the worst players get swept up in the moment and the score only matters because that's how you sustain the trance?
The same tension sits at the heart of hoops. Titles await teams that can braid what Obama, speaking of America here, has called "these twin strands -- the individualistic and the communal, autonomy and solidarity." Maybe Barry O'Bomber needed to be a Punahou reserve to become a Hawaii state champion. Maybe Barack Obama needed to be a community organizer to become a U.S. Senator. And maybe, just maybe, Americans chose him as their next president because they too have come to recognize that in the end it's not about you, it's about the team.
Perhaps on Tuesday he will say it: Come, let us get swept up in the moment. Let us create and sustain the trance.
MORE ON OBAMA
VIDEO: Barack O-Balla
TIME: B-Ball with Barack
VIDEO: Obama's White House court