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The Audacity Of Hoops
Alexander Wolff
January 19, 2009
IF THERE'S ANY ONE REASON BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, IT MIGHT JUST BE THIS: AS A BOY HE BEGAN PLAYING BASKETBALL, AND HE NEVER STOPPED
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January 19, 2009

The Audacity Of Hoops

IF THERE'S ANY ONE REASON BARACK OBAMA WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, IT MIGHT JUST BE THIS: AS A BOY HE BEGAN PLAYING BASKETBALL, AND HE NEVER STOPPED

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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.

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."

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