One of the flaws Obama owns up to is "a chronic restlessness." As he made his fitful way after high school, however, basketball abided. He spent two years at Occidental, a small liberal arts college near Pasadena. The first fall he worked out informally with 15 or so freshman hopefuls, many of whom remember his stylish game. He never was on the school team, but he played "noonball" with faculty, students and staff. As Eric Newhall, a professor who played in those games, has put it, "The greatest contribution Occidental has made to American democracy was to help Barack Obama decide that his future wasn't in basketball."
By his sophomore year Obama had thrown himself into classwork and antiapartheid activism, and begun to map a path east. He transferred to Columbia and became more serious about his future, though he still made pilgrimages around Manhattan "to play on courts I'd once read about." After graduation he took a job on Chicago's South Side, where he brought together white priests, black pastors and civic leaders to solve common problems. It was frustrating work marked by intermittent victories. For example, he used basketball as a means to get through to an on-the-edge adolescent who was scaling back his expectations for life.
Several years later, at Harvard Law, Obama joined a group of law students who played against inmates at a nearby prison, where the cons lining the court made sure their visitors knew how many packs of cigarettes rode on the outcome. When he became the first African-American elected to head the Harvard Law Review, he won a 19th-ballot victory largely because conservative and liberal factions both believed he'd give them a fair hearing. At least a few fellow students had taken his measure on the court. "He was a passer despite the fact he could score," remembers classmate Andrew Feldstein. "Inclusive is the best way to describe him."
Soon after Obama began his second tour in Chicago, as a summer associate with the law firm of Sidley & Austin, he started seeing a lawyer there named Michelle Robinson. She would introduce him to John Rogers, an investment executive who had captained the team at Princeton; her brother would connect Obama to Marty Nesbitt, a parking garage baron and former small-college player. Both would help bankroll Obama's plunge into elective politics.
But before matters between Barack and Michelle could advance too far, she had a test to administer. Having grown up listening to her father and her brother, a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton, insist that a man's character gets laid bare on the court, she hatched a plan. Craig Robinson rounded up a quorum of friends of varied abilities. "I didn't want the game to be too intimidating," he says, because it would've been painful to tell Michelle the prospect with the odd name hadn't made the grade. He needn't have worried. Obama found that sweet spot between not shooting every time and not always passing to Craig. In campaign appearances Robinson would retell the story with a kicker: "If I could trust him with my sister, you can trust him with your vote."
HE GOT NEXT
IN THE SPRING of 2007 the Obama campaign looked like tiny Milan ( Ind.) High next to Hillary Clinton's Muncie Central. The director of the candidate's New Hampshire operation wanted to have Obama play ball with high school kids around the Granite State. Axelrod, who has a track record of persuading white voters to support black candidates, balked. "People didn't know him well yet, and I didn't want him to play into a stereotype," he says. But after losing primaries to Clinton in Ohio and Texas on March 4, the campaign looked at a two-month gap before critical votes in Indiana and North Carolina. "We wanted to do campaigning that got us closer to the ground—more diners and less platform speeches," Axelrod says. "Basketball was a no-brainer. Besides, any excuse to play is one he'll take."
Obama engaged voters in those two states with an idiom familiar to Hoosiers and Tar Heels alike. In Indiana he played H-O-R-S-E with a boy in the hamlet of Union Mills. He played three-on-three in Kokomo. He sank a "buzzer-beater" at an arcade game during a visit to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle. Then he ran full-court with coach Roy Williams's varsity in Chapel Hill. "He actually got to the hole and blew the layup when he saw [college Player of the Year Tyler] Hansbrough coming at him," says Axelrod. On May 6 Obama won North Carolina and nearly captured Indiana, essentially locking up the nomination. Six months later, by which time Dean Smith had endorsed him, Obama carried both states against John McCain—in each case by a lone percentage point. Basketball might well have made the difference.
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.