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.