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Posted: Tuesday January 13, 2009 9:18AM; Updated: Tuesday January 20, 2009 1:51PM
Alexander Wolff Alexander Wolff >

The Audacity of Hoops: How basketball helped shape Obama

Story Highlights

As a boy Barack Obama began playing basketball, and he never stopped

As president, Obama is expected to put a full court in the White House

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Obama looked worry-free in December 2007 before playing one-on-one against SI senior writer S.L. Price in Des Moines, Iowa.
Bill Frakes/SI
Obama's style on the court charismatic as his persona
While working on the piece for this week's SI about how basketball made Barack Obama who he is, I made sure to ask people I spoke with -- from Obama's high school coach back in Hawaii; to brother-in-law and Oregon State coach Craig Robinson; to pickup buddies in Chicago; to Webmaster Claude Johnson -- who the 44th President of the United States most plays like.

It was like administering a Rorschach test. Check out the Barack O'Balla mixtape and see who pops into your mind.

When I suggested an Internet poster's nomination of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, Johnson came back at me with, "Right team, wrong guy." Manu may be a lefty, but he's too mercurial, Johnson says; in Obama he sees instead the even temper and elegance of point guard Tony Parker.


The path is a familiar one: Ancestry in Kansas; influences from Africa; a kind of apotheosis in Michael Jordan's Chicago; eventual acclamation by the world. And while, no, basketball itself won't be sworn in next Tuesday as the 44th president of the U.S., the game has played an outsized role in forming the man who will. Basketball, says his brother-in-law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, is why Barack Obama "is sitting where he's sitting."

The game provided space in which the young Obama explored his identity as an African-American. He won a reputation as a consensus builder while playing recreationally in college and law school. A pickup game with Robinson did nothing less than confirm Obama as a worthy suitor to his wife-to-be. In Chicago, basketball helped him connect with the South Siders he worked with as a community organizer and with the circle of professionals who would help launch his political career. He began to scratch out notes for his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, the one that loosed his career from the D league of state politics, while in a hotel room watching the NBA on TNT. As for the two reddest states Obama flipped in the '08 general election, Indiana and North Carolina, each narrowly chose him after he made a basketball lover's case to basketball-loving people.

The more than 300,000 people who have watched the Barack O-Balla mixtape on YouTube, with its highlights from high school through Election Day, might describe Obama's game as old-school schoolyard: reverse layups, double-pumps in the lane, mambos off the dribble and a signature fake-right, drive-left move. (Obama also shoots a decent midrange jumper, though his high school nickname, Barry O'Bomber, is a misnomer.) Ask whom he resembles, and an array of answers comes back. Claude Johnson, founder of the website, sees the elegance and even temper of San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker. Others receiving votes include Kenny Anderson, Dick Barnett, Manu Ginóbili, Lionel Hollins and Delonte West (sans neck tattoos).

Robinson weighs the evidence -- 6' 1 1/2", savvy, lefthanded -- and comes up with Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame playmaker who campaigned for Obama and whose autograph graces the basketball that decorated the President-elect's spare Chicago transition office. "Lenny was a thicker player and Barack is very slight, even if [defensive] physicality doesn't bother him," says Robinson. "But the calmness of Lenny, that's Barack. He knows the game well enough to fit in and isn't out of his element athletically."

In the same way that his candidacy confounded much of the political wisdom about race, Obama's game at age 47 makes a muddle of categories. "Here you have a laced-up professional off the court -- a 'white' persona -- who throws behind-the-back passes and busts crossovers," says Johnson. "You'd think he'd have a basically stiff game, like Tim Duncan's, but no, he's showing up at a North Carolina practice or playing ball with [NBA guard Chris] Duhon. So the guy on the street says, 'Whoa, he's got a little game!' It's part of his appeal."

Obama remains something short of the total hoops package. He can't dunk. He doesn't have a nickname. His usual getup of black sweatpants and gray T-shirt (call it the Police Academy Trainee look) isn't likely to set a trend. But he does stick his nose in it. In Kuwait last July he didn't merely visit U.S. troops, he swished a three for them -- first try, no warmup. And as president he'll keep the counsel of a roster's worth of former ballplayers, in and out of his Cabinet, many better at the game than he.

Elizabeth Alexander is handling poetry duties at the Inauguration, but Obama himself could serve ably as bard of the new First Sport. In Dreams from My Father, his 1995 memoir, he captures both the cadences and the beguiling essence of the game: "And something else, too, something nobody talked about: a way of being together when the game was tight and the sweat broke and the best players stopped worrying about their points and the worst players got swept up in the moment and the score only mattered because that's how you sustained the trance. In the middle of which you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn....' "

Hoop Dreams from My Father

Obama's father, Barack, a Kenyan exchange student at the University of Hawaii, left his wife and son soon after the latter's birth in 1961. White, Kansas-born Ann Dunham was left to raise Barry first in the islands, then in Indonesia, where she moved in 1967 after marrying another exchange student, Lolo Soetoro. His mother, Obama writes in Dreams, believed that "to be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear... [and] we were to carry with style."

Yet one day, roaming the library of the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, where his mother worked, Barry read in a magazine of a black man's unavailing efforts to lighten his skin and the physical and emotional scars that followed. By age 10, sent back to Honolulu to live with his grandparents and attend Punahou, the elite private school to which he won a scholarship, Barry sensed a gap between his mother's romantic notion of blackness and the signals society sent his way. As for raising oneself to be a black man in America, he remembers, "no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant." Aside from those stationed with the military, Hawaii in the mid-1970s could count barely 400 black residents.

Soon two events conspired to help Obama address his alienation. In December '71, during a visit that would constitute Barry's only memory of the man, his father gave him a basketball as a Christmas present. A photo survives of the two of them posing with the ball before the Christmas tree. Barry would come to regard that basketball as a charge as much as a gift.

The second event would take place a few months later, after Barry's grandfather scored two scarce tickets to watch Hawaii play. Between 1970 and '72 the Rainbows put together a 47-8 record and received the university's first NIT and NCAA invitations. With aloha-print shorts and bountiful Afros, the Fabulous Five averaged 90 points a game as the pep band played Jesus Christ Superstar and fans spilled into the aisles. As Obama recounts in Dreams, "I had watched the players in warmups, still boys themselves but to me poised and confident warriors, chuckling to each other about some inside joke, glancing over the heads of fawning fans to wink at the girls on the sidelines, casually flipping layups or tossing high-arcing jumpers until the whistle blew and the centers jumped and the players joined in furious battle."

This, he decided, was a world into which he could fit his young black self. By the time he hit his teens, he was taking his father's gift to school, shooting between classes and over the lunch hour. Teachers and students soon remarked that his gait had taken on a ballplayer's bounce, a suppleness of foot that can be seen today when he bounds onto a stage. As he grew more confident, he drifted to the school's lower courts, even after basketball practice. There, and at the university gym and at playgrounds around town, he would engage the island's best adult players. Chris McLachlin, Punahou's varsity coach, can't recall a player who loved the game more.

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