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."
Organized basketball, particularly in high school, is an exercise in submission to social control. Pickup ball, by contrast, involves collective governance and constant conflict resolution. It is, to borrow Sarah Palin's phrase, community organizing in which everyone has "actual responsibilities." For all its associations with inner-city pathologies, pickup ball harks back to a traditional time, when kids weren't squired to playdates or stashed with third parties but made their way to the park on their own, picked teams and—as Obama did—grew up along the way.
"There's an ethical undertone in pickup that people miss," Robinson says. "The game has to be played fairly or it breaks down. You practice an honor code, making your own calls and giving them up. If Barack travels, he'll give it up, not sneak it by you. You play with hundreds of guys who'd never do that. It all gets back to how you can tell a guy's character on the court."