"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
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.'"