A Rusty Toyota, a Mean Jump Shot, Good Ears

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.

* * *

On St. Patrick's Day in Chicago there are two parades: the one downtown, for the tourists, and the one in the 19th Ward, in the southwest corner of the city. That's the home of the real St. Patrick's Day Parade. More than 200,000 people show up and in 2000, when he was running against Bobby Rush in the Democratic congressional primary, Barack Obama marched in that parade. I remember he passed out a surprising piece of literature touting the important civil rights litigation he handled. On St. Patrick's Day, you don't hand out campaign literature to solicit law business. Perhaps that wasn't his intention, but his brochures were littering the sidewalks of the entire parade route, from 103rd Street to 115th. He was either very brash or naive in the way he was introducing himself to paradegoers. Whether he meant it or not, it came off as an attempt to sell that litigation background to an Irish Catholic crowd on the South Side of Chicago.

-- Patrick O'Malley, a Republican who served as an Illinois state senator from 1993 to 2003

* * *

I'd like to say I knew in law school that Barack would be a presidential candidate. But I didn't. Like many of my colleagues, I knew he was different -- more mature, intellectually rigorous, politically adept and capable of demonstrating real leadership -- than your average law student.

And we all had our suspicions that he would do something interesting in politics, but few if any of us had the foresight to predict that he would become the sort of national figure he is today.

Fast-forward to August 2004, sitting in one of the last rows, near the ceiling, of the Fleet Center in Boston, in the moments leading up to Barack's speech to the Democratic National Convention. The crowd was electric. We were surrounded by dozens of young volunteers, frantically waving Obama placards. He hadn't said a word yet, but the anticipation was palpable. By the time he was done, the crowd had exploded. My wife and I looked at each other, frankly amazed. This was the guy we ate doughnuts with at midnight?

And yet, in retrospect, one could see the seeds of his strengths today in his days at the Law Review: his ability to lead, to guide a group of politically diverse -- and divisive -- people toward a common goal, to wrestle intellectually with some of the most difficult and complex problems of the day, understand different perspectives and take a position based on principle but made all the more sound by his appreciation of alternative points of view.

-- Michael Froman, Obama's Harvard Law School classmate

* * *

I feel about Barack the way I do about my sons. He worked with us on Mayor Harold Washington's election, and on important issues such as job-training programs and getting asbestos out of the projects.

No matter what Barack did, he was thorough. When he brought plans to us, they were all laid out. He told us who we were supposed to see and who we were supposed to talk to. We had no expertise. We were just basically housewives and ministers. But when we had town hall meetings, Barack always stayed in the background. He would say: "It's not my community, you're the ones who have to be out there. The first thing people will say if they see me is, 'Who is he?' I have to empower you so that you will be able to express yourself well."

He kept us so energized. When we found a cause, he never said, "Well, you can't do that." He said, "I'll look into it, I'll bring you all the material you need." He has a way of making you want to follow him, and failing is not a part of anything you feel. Because if he said it was going to work, it was going to work.

It wasn't like he was bossing us around, though. If anything, we bossed him around. He was in Chicago without a family, so we made sure that he would eat right. He usually stuck to just sandwiches. We would go out to dinner with him sometimes and we would ask him, "Have you eaten today?" and he would laugh and say, "Yes, I did, I had breakfast."

He talked to everybody. He was right in the middle of us. The older people love a respectful young man, and he certainly was that. We hated to see him go. When he came to us and told us that he had decided to go to Harvard, it was very sad, but we knew he wanted to go.

Now when I look at him with his family, and I see him with those little girls, I think it's just fantastic. That's something I didn't know whether I'd live long enough to see, because when I first knew him he was just so into his work. We always had an idea that he was going into politics. One of the women in the organization said, "Well, when you make it to Washington. . . . " And he just started laughing and said, "Yes, of course you'll be at my inauguration."

-- Yvonne Lloyd, was on the board of the Developing Communities Project in Chicago when Obama became its director in 1985

* * *

The month after the 2004 Democratic convention, the Obamas visited my family in Martha's Vineyard for a much-needed vacation. Barack is an avid jogger, and one morning he went out for a run by himself in our secluded neighborhood. When he returned to the house an hour later, Michelle, our children and I were eating breakfast. As he entered the kitchen he had a look of complete disbelief on his face. "You aren't going to believe what happened to me," he said. "A guy took my picture as I jogged by!" He was completely mystified that somebody would be interested in a picture of him. Michelle just rolled her eyes and the girls ignored him completely. So now people take his picture all the time and he is still often surprised by the attention. As for the recent paparazzi shots of him on a beach, I called him the day I saw them and said teasingly, "I've seen you in a swimsuit and I don't remember you looking so buff." He was absolutely mortified.

-- Valerie Jarrett, former finance chair of Obama's Senate campaign

* * *

I was in my office in the church and he just walked up to the door. My church sits in the neighborhood, way off the main thoroughfare, so you had to be coming here to get here. And Barack just walked up and rang the bell. He said he was going through the neighborhood trying to talk to pastors about community organizing. My first impression was: Who is this skinny guy and what is he selling? But he wasn't selling anything. He just asked me what was important to me. I was really impressed with the fact that he spent more time listening to me and trying to hear what I thought was important in the neighborhood, rather than my experience of people coming in and telling me what I ought to do. He was more concerned about listening and hearing my ideas and asking: How can we get this done together?

The biggest lasting thing that Barack brought to this neighborhood is that he got a bunch of African American Protestant pastors to sit down at a table with white Catholic priests to say all of us are in the community, let's find a way to work together and get it done.

-- The Rev. Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church in Chicago, who worked with Obama on the Developing Communities Project

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