A Rusty Toyota, a Mean Jump Shot, Good Ears

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

In law school, Barack drove an old mustard-yellow Toyota Tercel that was pockmarked with rust. It was the kind of car you would imagine a struggling community organizer driving. And while the car appeared to be on its last legs, it had a reliable engine that took him from Chicago to Cambridge without incident. Barack was attached to the car. Each time I saw the Tercel it reminded me of one of Barack's favorite songs growing up, William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got," and I could hear him enthusiastically singing it:

Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac/ Gangsta whitewalls TV antennas in the back/ You may not have a car at all/ But remember , brothers and sisters/ You can still stand tall. . . .

One evening after dinner with a group of friends, those of us who rode with Barack came out of the restaurant to find his car missing. We immediately concluded that it had not been stolen, because who would want it other than Barack? After some scrutiny and the application of our finely honed analytical skills, we determined that the car had been towed. We used the handy phone number on the "No Parking" sign to find the impound lot. We arrived at the lot after midnight and found the car looking quite at home in a parking space bordering on the junkyard. A relieved Barack paid the fine -- $75, no joke for a poor law student -- and the car was recovered. We ribbed him that the fine was probably half the car's value, but he was content to have it back, flaws and all.

Barack's connection to the car symbolized in its own way his loyalty, his humility and, yes, his frugality. I've always believed that one of the appeals to him of joining the Harvard Law Review and becoming its first black president was that the position came with a parking space. I think the car finally gave out on him when he went back to Chicago after law school, but like any good community organizer, Barack had never given up on it.

-- Cassandra Butts, senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress and Obama's Harvard Law School classmate

I was a basketball teammate of Barack's in high school. He was two grades ahead of me, the same class as my brother. I remember him as a charismatic guy who loved to play basketball. There were a number of courts on campus and if class schedules and time permitted, we would play pick-up ball when we could. He was a lefty with a great double pump shot in the lane. I remember him as a fierce competitor who could break intense situations (arguments over scores and fouls) with a flash of his smile and a voice of reason. Anyone who has ever played pick-up ball knows that such arguments are common. It's fair to say that Barack would never shy away from them but would somehow come out with his desired result. I did like to be on his team, even though he was not shy about shooting every time he touched the ball. I was a good rebounder. As a member of the varsity team, he was very encouraging to his fellow players and particularly to me. When we won the state tournament that year, all of us pick-up players felt justified, even though we were a little sweaty going to class.

-- Dan Hale was Obama's teammate on the championship 1979 basketball team at Punahou School in Hawaii. Hale is now the head coach of Punahou's Varsity I basketball team.

* * *

Barry (the name Barack used then) played a small forward, or "three man," in our system. I would define him as a "slasher," very good driving to the basket off the dribble. But with limited shooting range, although fairly accurate from 12 feet in. Very athletic, fast, good jumper. He had a long, lean body and was a very good defender. He was a starter who scored about 10 points and six or seven rebounds per game. We would put him on the best forward of the opposing team, regardless of their height. His athletic ability, jumping ability, etc., allowed him to guard bigger or smaller players. We pressed a lot and Barry was an integral part of the press with his quickness and speed.

Barry was the same in victory or defeat -- even-tempered. You could sense that the sport and competition were important, but once the season was over, it was time to focus again on academic issues.

-- Mike Zinn, a basketball coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles when Obama was a student there in 1980-81.


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