To say that President Obama loves basketball understates the role of the sport in his life. He has been devoted to the game for 40 years now, ever since the father he did not know and never saw again gave him his first ball during a brief Christmastime visit. Basketball is central to his self identity. It is global yet American-born, much like him. It is where he found a place of comfort, a family, a mode of expression, a connection from his past to his future. With foundation roots in the Kansas of his white forebears, basketball was also the city game, helping him find his way toward blackness, his introduction to an African American culture that was distant to him when he was young yet his by birthright .
As a teenager growing up in Hawaii,he dreamed the big hoops dream. He had posters of the soaring Dr. J on his bedroom wall. A lefty, he practiced the spin moves of Tiny Archibald. And in the yearbook of an older high school classmate who wanted to be a lawyer, he wrote: “Anyway, been great knowing you and I hope we keep in touch. Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Some day when I am an all-pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I’ll call on you. Barry.”
It never happened, of course. But the adolescent known as Barry kept on playing, even after he took back his given name of Barack and went off to college at Occidental, Columbia and Harvard and went into community organizing, then politics in Illinois. He played whenever he could on playgrounds, in fancy sport clubs, at home, on the road. During his first trip back to Honolulu after being elected president, he rounded up a bunch of his old high school pals, got the key to the gym at Punahou School, and went at it. When the pickup game was over, Darryl Gabriel, who had been the star of their championship-winning team, found himself muttering to another former teammate, “Man, Barack is a lot better than Barry ever was!”
In his presidency, basketball has become a recurring theme, one of the visible ways that he has escaped the confines of the White House and the pressures of his job. He’s sat courtside at a Washington Wizards game, cheering on his team, the Chicago Bulls. He’s talked trash on the court behind the White House, taken in a game between North Carolina and Michigan State on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, and invited ESPN into the Oval Office to watch him fill out his bracket for March Madness.
This is the story of the roots of his obsession, back in his days as a teenager, when Barry Obama played on one of the best high school teams in the country.
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It was one thing to play basketball every day on the outdoor courts on the Punahou School campus in the late 1970s, quite another to play for the school team. The athletic model at the elite Honolulu prep school could be compared to major league baseball and its farm system. There were three levels of minor teams after ninth grade intramurals -- Junior Varsity A, Junior Varsity AA, and Varsity A -- before a player reached the major leagues of Varsity AA.