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.
* * *
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.
Obama moved his way up the system until finally, in his senior year, he made it to the top. In one of the scenes with Keith Kakugawa, the character he called Ray in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama broached the subject of basketball style, complaining that he did not get the breaks of other players on the team because “they play like white boys do” and that was the style preferred by the coach. Since Kakugawa was two years ahead of Barry, if this conversation took place he would have had to have been a sophomore, a fact that raises two contradictions. First, as a sophomore he was a long ways from making Varsity AA, and second, the head coach he was complaining about, Chris McLachlin, was on temporary leave during Obama’s sophomore year and did not return until the following season, when Kakugawa was gone.
In his junior year, Barry competed for a spot on the top varsity but lost out to Joe Hanson, one of his friends from the Choom Gang., the loose band of boys who found solace in smoking marijuana and playing basketball. The next year, Hanson inadvertently smoothed the way for Barry’s rise to the top varsity by flunking out of Punahou and creating an open roster spot. There was slightly more to it than that. For Obama and his pal Greg Orme and two juniors, Alan Lum and Matt Hiu, to make the squad, Coach McLachlin had to cut two seniors who had been on the roster the year before, including the son of the athletic director.
“It was so hard to make the team in those days. . .and McLachlin had to cut some veterans to make room for us,” recalled Lum, who decades later would be the Punahou basketball coach himself. “So it was amazing just to be on the team.. . .You look back and say that means Barack must have been special. Why would you go through the process of cutting a senior who had already been on the team to keep another senior?”
If Obama was unhappy about his playing time, the truth is he had to work exceedingly hard just to make the team. He made it more because of his intense passion for the game -- his will -- than anything else. The notion that he was hampered in his progress because his style was more playground-oriented, that he played “black” and the coach coached “white,” distorts the dynamics of his own game, the performance of the other players and the coaching philosophy of McLachlin. The reality was that Barry, as skilled and intelligent a player as he was, could not stand out in this group. He had good court sense and an ability to slash to the basket, but was an unreliable outside shooter and not much of a jumper, contradicting the stereotype of “black” ball. Decades later, a story emerged that his nickname was Barry O’Bomber, playing off his last name and a propensity to fire away from long range, but few team members recalled that nickname and said the real gunner was Darin Maurer, who was better than Obama but barely got more playing time. Maurer never started at Punahou but went on to play Division I basketball at Stanford as a walk-on. Maurer was a haole, the native Hawaiian slang for a caucasian; race had nothing to do with it.
The subject of Obama and basketball reaches into the complexities of self-perception and race. Since his self-discovery served as the organizing theme of his memoir, it was understandable that he focused his life through that racial lens, and that for dramatic effect he sometimes placed more emphasis on certain provocative scenes and topics. The tendency in his self-portrait was to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so. He did this regarding his portrayal of both Frank Marshall Davis, the Frank character in the book, old and black and cynical; and Keith Kakugawa, the Ray character, young and black and angry -- enhancing their roles in his teenage life at the expense of other people who spent vastly more time with him. And he did the same when it came to basketball. “He loved basketball so much, I think a lot of things have been blown out of proportion,” said Lum. “Anybody wants to play. His style of play was flashy, but it was okay. McLachlin didn’t really put a damper on it. If you did a behind-the-back pass, McLachlin would frown on that, but when it came down to playing time, he [Barry] wasn’t one of the five best.” In fact, Lum and other teammates pointed out, Barry was only occasionally considered one of the top eight, the number of players McLachlin usually used in his rotation, following the substitution pattern of John Wooden, the brilliant coach at UCLA.
These points are not meant to diminish the important role basketball played in Obama’s coming of age as he began to explore black culture. He saw in it what he saw in jazz, an ineffable artistic expression of what it meant to be black and cool, a brother. The first spark of soulful recognition of basketball came not long after he arrived back from Indonesia at age 10, when his grandfather took him to see Red Rocha’s 1971 University of Hawaii Rainbows, a team fueled by black players who came over from the mainland and played with up-tempo flair. That team (nicknamed the Fab Five, long before a Michigan quintet appropriated the name) caught the public’s attention by earning a national ranking, winning the Rainbow Classic and more than 20 other games, and getting a coveted invitation to the still-popular National Invitational Tournament in New York. It also caught the attention of young Barry, and when he grew older he often made his way to the UH campus himself to watch the team or play pickup ball at their gym.
The question of whether Coach McLachlin sufficiently appreciated Barry’s style of play diverts attention from the deeper story of the 1978-79 Punahou team, Obama’s role on it, and the impact it had on his life. If the Choom Gang represented his boredom, alienation, and need to find family even in mild rebellion, if pickup games on outdoor courts gave him a place where he could test himself and find himself, the Punahou basketball team in many ways made him a member of a cohesive unit with shared goals for the first time in his life. It also gave him his first taste of what it felt like to win, to be adored, to be a champion. He would acknowledge later that McLachlin was “a terrific coach” and he learned a lot that year “about discipline, about handling disappointments, being more team-oriented, and realizing that not everything is about you.” In his rendering, McLachlin came across as a traditionalist coach who stressed fundamentals at the expense of free expression on the court, which is only part of the story. While he did stress fundamentals, McLachlin was a forward-thinker whose philosophy at times came closer to New Age than Old School.
A 1964 graduate of Punahou with a master’s degree from Stanford who had already led the team to the state championship in 1975 and to the state finals again in 1977 and 1978, McLachlin looked for any edge he could find. He had his players practice meditation, lying down on the court, finding their center, learning breathing techniques to deal with stress. He emphasized repetition and visualization. Shoot 100 free throws in a row. Visualize making 100 in a row. Don’t leave the gym until you make 20 in a row. Step to the line in a game with that vision in your mind. “We try to teach them to re-create their best day all the time,” he said. He gave them self-evaluation sheets and went over the answers with them, and told his players to read Wayne Dyer’s books on positive thinking, including Pulling Your Own Strings and Your Erroneous Zones (“We looked at each other like, what?” recalled one of his star players, Dan Hale). He trained his boys to be prepared for anything. Always have a backup plan was his daily mantra. If your car broke down on the way to practice, that was not an excuse. You should have prepared for that and had a contingency plan. “He expected you to have Plan B in place,” said Tom Topolinski, a backup big man on the 1978-79 team. “He would say, ‘That is part of life.’”
Along with mental agility, McLachlin was obsessed with physical conditioning. His practices lasted an hour and a half, all intensity. “His theory was the best conditioned teams make the least mistakes, so he killed us,” said Lum. “A lot of sprints, a lot of defensive sliding and five-man weaves where the ball couldn’t touch the ground. If someone forgot and the ball hit the ground we had to start over again.” During layup drills before games, he enlisted his wife to keep track of every shot; anyone who missed a layup knew he would be running “suicide” sprints in practice later. But there were rewards for performing at his level. McLachlin treated his players like adults, members of an elite club, and let them use his on-campus hideaway apartment to hang out and listen to music between classes. He wanted his players to think and act more like a college squad than a high school team, and drew his inspiration and game strategies from the best college coaches. “It was virtually unacceptable to him for us to play at a high school level,” said Topolinski.
Larry Tavares, his starting point guard, said McLachlin confined his criticism to practice and was upbeat during games. It was not just his coaching that made Punahou special. He benefited from a bounty of exceptional talent on the roster Barry Obama made as a senior. They had graduated one star from the team that lost the state finals the year before (Mark Tuinei, who went on to play pro football as an offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys for 15 years before his untimely 1999 death from an overdose of heroin and ecstasy). The returning players came in with the attitude that “we’re gonna die on the court before we lose again,” said Dan Hale, who replaced Tuinei as a six-foot-six sophomore center (so skilled he had made the team the year before as a freshman). Hale was joined on the front line by John Kamana III, the second-generation Squeeze, a sprinter as physical as he was fast, who could out-leap players half a foot taller, and went on the play fullback at Southern Cal; and Boy Eldredge, from Punahou’s legendary hapa-Hawaiian Eldredge clan, an all-around athlete who was considered the team’s best defensive player and inspirational leader. Tavares, as the point guard (another hapa teenager, his father of Portuguese descent, his mother Filipino), was a three-sport letterman and smooth floor-leader, though not much of an outside shooter (McLachlin established the Taveres Rules detailing where on the court he could shoot and where he could not). And the star of the team was Darryl Gabriel, the shooting guard, who went on to play Division 1 college ball at Loyola-Marymount.
Squeeze, Gabes, T, Danny, and Boy. No team in Hawaii, and few on the mainland, featured a more versatile starting five. All five went on to play college sports -- baseball, football, or basketball. Topo was the first big man off the bench, and Orme the first small forward – two of Barry’s Choom Gang pals. Next in, usually, was the gunner, Darin Maurer, and the reserve point guard, Jason Oshima. Obama was in that mix, and often played well when he came in, but only as the eighth, ninth or tenth man.
Troy Egami, who covered the team for the student newspaper, wrote a feature story in which he described McLachlin “giggling boyishly to himself” as he watched “the ritual slam dunk” contest his players enjoyed after practice. “Pyschos, all of them,” McLachlin muttered under his breath, smiling. Obama, the hapa black on the team, might have been one of the psychos, but he was also among the most earthbound – he could not jump high enough to dunk the ball. “Barry’s lack of ups was obvious,” recalled Topolinski. In fact, McLachlin coined a phrase for the phenomenon: Barry Obama, famous for his no-jump jump shot! The coach not only tolerated the high-flying dunk, he made it part of his game plan, especially against Punahou’s rival, University High, whose six-foot-ten center could change the intensity of a game with thunderous slams. Dan Hale was instructed to sprint down court whenever that center dunked so Punahou could abruptly switch the momentum with a countering slam at the other end. This was part of McLachlin’s larger notion of always having a backup plan. “He even thought that through -- the psychology of the dunk,” said Hale. “We had to be prepared.”
If Obama and Maurer in particular carried a grudge against McLachlin for not giving them more playing time, they did not disrupt the team. “I never saw [Barry] complain or do anything detrimental to the team, to what we were doing,” said Hale, who played countless hours with Barry in pickup games. “Maurer wanted more playing time. Everybody did. They all worked hard for it.” If anything, their inner anger only fueled the team. They channeled their frustrations into practice, pounding away at the starters as leaders of the second string. “We had good, tough practices” Hale noted. “Guys would go at it hard. Taking charges, getting in each other’s faces. Maurer was leading the charge for the second team, but also Topo and Barry. They were never going to concede a shot. You got hammered. You never thought you could just take off a practice. You fought every day.” Most of the time Barry had Squeeze Kamana or Boy Eldredge, and those guys are tough. But we could play with those guys and it was all to better the team. That was the understanding. Your contribution may not be on the court that night at eight o’clock, but what the team reaps is the benefit of your dedication during the week.”
After his team finished the preseason schedule, including winning the St. Anthony’s Invitational on Maui, McLachlin became increasingly stingy with playing time for Obama and Maurer and most of the other subs. One exception, though not by choice, came in the game against ‘Iolani, a smaller private school in Honolulu, on the Friday night of Feb. 2, the first night of the Carnival. In the Punahou social world, nothing compares to the Carnival, a two-day extravaganza of exotic foods (particularly the school’s legendary malasada Portuguese doughnut-like treat), art, auctions, white elephant flea markets, and amusement rides run by the junior class but involving the entire student body along with faculty and parents. The purpose is to raise money for academic scholarships such as the one that helped Barry Obama. With the considerable wealth available from the Punahou family, the fund-raising in this case goes far beyond the normal school bake sale. For the 1979 Carnival the gross profits were $360,519.01.
But basketball players at Punahou considered Carnival weekend a jinx. There would be a basketball game on opening night, and usually something would go wrong.
On that Friday afternoon, Barry and the boys were driving back to school after a shoot-around at Neal S. Blaisdell Center, the multiuse arena between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu where they played their league and tournament games. The shoot-arounds were part of the pre-game ritual. They returned in a car caravan, with several players jammed into Darin Maurer’s van. On the approach to campus, they passed the girls softball team, and Darryl Gabriel, the star shooting guard, could not resist opening the van’s sliding door and yelling out to the girls. Just then, Maurer made a sudden stop and the heavy door slid on its track to close, clobbering Gabriel in the head. “I heard it. THUNK! Whoa! He was down. A big knot on his head,” recalled Dan Hale. Alan Lum said “Gabe had a huge head. His nickname was Pineapple Head.” But not even Pineapple Head could withstand the bruising of this playful accident. He was woozy the rest of the night, and did not play against ‘Iolani, though press reports said he had a swollen ankle. To make matters more problematic, Squeeze Kamana had the flu and could play only sparingly.
Their misfortune provided an opening for Obama and Maurer, both of whom played well, though Punahou, in keeping with the Carnival jinx, lost in overtime, 44-42. In the ‘Iolani game and a few others where he saw more playing time, Obama showed a keen court sense. “He could see the pattern and zero in on the opening,” said Barbara Czuries Nelson, who came to all the games and often sat near Barry’s grandparents.
We’ll die on the court before we lose again was the team’s attitude. And soon enough they were in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association championship game for the third straight year. They faced a squad from Moanalua, a public school on a hill out toward Honolulu International Airport, that had upset University High in the tournament quarterfinals. On March 10, the day of the final game, McLachlin and his players gathered for a team training meal at Hale’s home in Manoa Valley between their school and the University of Hawaii. The Hales frequently opened their doors to Punahou athletes. Dan’s older brother, David, in Barry’s class, was a competitive swimmer and water polo star. Their father, Dr. Ralph Hale, was a leading figure at the university’s medical school. “We always try to have an event like this toward the end of the year,” Coach McLachlin explained to Troy Egami, the student reporter who spent that entire day with the team. “When the season gets a little long, we need a little team unity. This is just a good non-gym situation.”
It was a sunny day in paradise, and the boys seemed loose as they gathered in the living room before the meal. Some watched a Chaminade game on television; others played the board game Battleship. The twelfth man, Matt Hiu, team prankster and comic, rose and delivered a stirring pep talk that bordered on satirical hyperbole, shouting GOD ONLY KNOWS! WE WILL NOT BE DENIED! IMUA OHANA! (Go forward with spirit, family!). His pal, Alan Lum, finally shut him up by punching him.
The mid-afternoon meal was a feast: chili, rice, cold cuts, chop suey, salad, potato and mac salads, cinnamon bars, apple bars and plates piled high with Super Burgers. The coach’s wife, Beth McLachlin, a health food advocate, was the creator of the super Burger. She had been making them for nine years, starting with her husband’s first JV team, a ravenous horde that included Mosi Tatupu, who went on to star as a running back for the New England Patriots, and the massive Keith Uperesa, who played briefly as an offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders. The ingredients in the hamburgers included carrots, celery, onions, teriyaki sauce, wheat germ and what McLachlin described as “a mystery substance that makes them jump higher.” The power of the Super Burger was mystical, according to Dan Hale. “It was the power of commitment -- we were committed to eating them.” This was “the post-hippie era when everything was alfalfa sprouts and soy beans,” said Tom Topolinski -- yet the Super Burgers tasted so good that he and Barry and their teammates devoured them along with the rest of the food, for better or worse.
“I figure I ain’t going to play the first half,” said Lum, as Egami watched him attack the training table.
Boy Eldredge walked by with “a heaping plate” of chili and rice. “This is only my second serving,” he said. “Coach told me to take it easy on the food today.”
“Hawaiian people know how to eat,” Topolinski explained decades later. “Boy Eldredge was a freaking pig. I have never met anyone who ate that much food on a regular basis. But he was lean and burned that shit off. But he made us pay for it. He and Matt Hiu were known to be the Gas Bombs. Cleared out the pregame locker room during chalk talk.”
After lunch, some players went up to Dan’s bedroom, where a Nerf basketball hoop was suctioned to his wall. “Slam dunks,” Hale recalled. “Flying slam dunks against the wall. It sounded like the house was crashing down.” No-jump Barry could slam dunk a Nerf ball. Eventually they calmed down, went into meditation mode, visualizing what they would do on the court that night. At five-thirty they left the house -- cars, jeeps, vans backing out of the crowded driveway -- and returned to Punahou to get dressed. Darryl Gabriel, a star who acted like one, a cocksure killer, went through his pregame preening, as he described to Egami. “We take showers, blow dry our hair, brush our teeth, put on cologne like we’re going to the theater. Nah, we just like to smell nice for the other team.” They dressed in white uniforms, the short shorts of that era, with shimmering blue warm-up suits. Topo was “the biggest Boston freak on the whole campus” and tended to control locker room music. His theme song of choice -- “More Than a Feeling” -- was blasting away.
On the ride to Blaisdell Center, the bus reverberated with the team shrieking “We Will Rock You” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” As they unloaded, someone realized they were wearing the wrong uniforms. Moanalua was to be in white. Greg Ramos, one of Barry’s buddies, a junior adjunct member of the Choom Gang, was a team manager; he later acknowledged the mix-up was his fault. No one seemed to care. These hours were supreme for a high school athlete. “The players majestically strode into the arena as their little admirers flooded around them as if they were Blue and Buff Gods,” Egami noted. “They willingly signed autographs and received handshakes from parents and well-wishers [including Stan and Madelyn Dunham]. Twelve young gods, Barry among them, adored. Topo gazed into the stands as they made their way toward the locker room. “The crowd is UNREAL!” he shouted. Full house, standing room only.
The trainer came in with the right uniforms, and McLachlin reviewed the game strategy on a chalk board after they changed. They could hear the roar of the crowd; a lesser game was finishing. The coach started shouting, his players more intense with every word. We must scramble.. . .We must guard the baseline.. . .We have to run UCLA, Vegas, North Carolina on defense.. . .Then his voice softened. “You know you’ve come a long way since the Maui tournament.. . .No matter what happens tonight, this year has been a success.. . .I’m proud of every one of you. You’re all as good as everyone says you are. You are OUT OF THIS WORLD like all the sports writers say. Listen, we’ve got the good uniforms, we’ve got the good bench, and the good basket to start the game. Let’s go out there and play 32 minutes of clinic basketball. Let’s go out there and do it for one more half. LET’S TAKE THIS THING!”
The Buffanblu raced out from the locker room, into the arena lights, Boy Eldredge leading the way (”Last half, seniors!” he yelled) followed by his classmates -- Gabriel, Tavares, Topolinski, Orme, Oshima, Maurer, and Obama, and underclassmen Kamana, Hale, Lum, and Hiu. Prep school versus public school. Powerhouse versus underdog. Experience versus newcomer. No one expected Moanalua to be there. They were slated to lose long ago to University High. They had two African Americans, the Johnson brothers, sparking their rise. “They were on a roll. They were Cinderella,” recalled Lum. “I remember stretching before the game, and I remember looking up and it was standing room only and we had a little section of Punahou but the rest was basically Moanalua, -- and it would have been a great story if they had come in and won, but. . .”
Not a chance. In the opening minutes, Punahou scored 15 straight points and jumped ahead 18-4. They were pressing, double-teaming, cornering, smothering. Moanalua went 11 minutes and 51 seconds during one early stretch without making a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots, while Punahou was hitting two of every three shots. Pineapple Head was feeling it, getting feeds on the wing from Tavares and pouring them in. Squeeze was jumping out of the gym. McLachlin, who rarely let up, knew the game was theirs. “I remember him pulling out Squeeze and me in the first quarter, fairly early in the game, and I remember I was confused,” Hale recalled. “Why are we going out? Championship game. We gotta go! And he went, ‘Danny, look at the score. And it was something like 35 to 3 [not quite, but almost]. It was such a team of dedication and it all came together at that moment.”
Topo was sent in, and Oshima and Obama, and Orme and Maurer. Matt Hiu shouted with excitement “I might play!” -- and he was right. Everyone played. Near the end, Boy Eldredge asked McLachlin if all eight seniors could go in together in the final minute. Barry ended up making the box score, with two points, but executed some nifty passes and played stifling defense. Gabriel had 18, Kamana 15, Hale 9 on the way to an overwhelming win, 60-28. At the end, the crowd recognized their brilliance and showered the winners with love and cheers. Little boys rushed the court. Parents and grandparents and teachers and friends came forward after the awards ceremony (Gabes was MVP) and placed lei after lei around the necks of the ecstatic champions.
On the bus ride home, McLachlin choked up speaking to his team. “This particular team in this particular tournament played as good a game as I’ve ever seen a high school team play. You played a perfect game -- and that included everyone who stepped on the court. This is the finest effort by twelve young men that I have ever seen.” It was also the last time he coached Punahou basketball. He decided to go out with a perfect game.
Troy Egami was with McLachlin and the players, soaking it in, gathering material for his story, and that night he noticed something for the first time about Barry Obama. Egami was a year younger, but he had known Barry since they played on the same seventh-and-eighth grade football team coached by Pal Eldredge, when Obama was this chubby lineman who grunted a lot in pads and helmet. Egami watched over the years as Obama thinned out and chilled out. Now Barry wanted to be part of history. He wanted recognition. He wanted to be recorded in this glorious moment. He had seemed so cool and laid back -- never panicked, never fazed -- but now his burning will was on rare display. “One thing that stuck in my mind was the extent to which Barry. . .was in my face giving me the equivalent of sound bites, giving quotes left and right,” Egami recalled decades later. “He made sure he got something he said in the paper. Such good stuff, I couldn’t leave it out, though kind of schmaltzy. That night I knew there was a side to him that was scary. This guy is ambitious. He wanted the quote, and he got it.”
Here was how it read: “’You know,’ said Barry Obama in a quiet moment off to the side. ‘These are the best bunch of guys. We made so many sacrifices to get here.’”
Virtually none of this part of Obama’s basketball history was recorded in Dreams From My Father. Nor should that have been expected. Most anecdotes in his memoir flowed through the thematic stream of race. So the reader learned of a few jolting moments of awareness and understandable anger, such as when a JV coach flippantly used the word “niggers” to describe black players in a pickup game, and then lamely tried to differentiate them from people like Obama. The result was powerful storytelling. But what he left out unwittingly made it easier for political critics decades later to portray him as a stranger in their midst, whose life was outside the American mainstream -- a purposefully negative construct derived from distorted history. If there is a representative teenager’s life, Barry Obama lived a version of it in Hawaii in the late 1970s. Several things stood out -- he went to a prestigious school, he lived with his grandparents, his father was gone, his mother was infrequently present, he was a hapa black in a place where most people were a lighter shade of brown-- and those traits helped shape his particular character, but they did not make his life odd or mysterious. He smoked pot with his Choom Gang and goofed around outside the classroom, where he came across as smart and mature if not notably studious, but the central activity of his high school life was basketball. With equally strong roots in the Kansas of his ancestors and the playgrounds of black America, basketball connected the disconnected parts of him -- and he was good enough to play with “the best bunch of guys” on the best team in Hawaii, one of the best teams in the nation.
Excerpted from Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, to be published June 19 by Simon & Schuster.