BARACK OBAMA WAS DRAWN TO BASKETBALL AS A KID, AND HE HAS
NEVER LET IT GO. He would play for hours on the courts behind his grandparents' apartment in Hawaii, and in 1979 was a member of the Punahou school's state championship team. "At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own," he wrote in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father."
Through hoops he acquired some of the swagger that he later carried into politics. Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree Jr. recalls first meeting Obama on the court at Harvard's Hemenway Gym. He was a fierce trash talker, Ogletree says, with an awkward-looking left-handed jump shot. One of Obama's ball mates was actor Hill Harper (known as Frank in law school), who later played a high school basketball player in Spike Lee's "He Got Game."
Even on the campaign trail, Obama tries to squeeze in some hoops. His personal aide, Reggie Love, played for Duke's 2001 national championship team. "There is nothing worse than losing to Barack Obama," Love, 25, told the Chicago Tribune. "You never hear the end of it." Obama, 46, has rarely suffered from a lack of confidence -- whether on the court or in the pursuit of public office. In 1996, he sought the Illinois state Senate seat of Alice Palmer, who was running for Congress and who endorsed him. But when her congressional bid sagged, she decided she wanted to keep her seat and asked Obama to move aside. Not only did he decline, but he challenged the legality of her nominating petitions and those of other candidates, ultimately knocking them all off the Democratic primary ballot.
Ambition got the better of Obama in 2000, however, when he unwisely challenged Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), a former Black Panther with a 70 percent approval rating. He was drubbed. But four years later, he ran for the U.S. Senate and won easily.
Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and an Obama mentor, says Obama consults with others but doesn't necessarily feel constrained by what he hears. "That is the interesting thing about Barack," he says. "He doesn't come to you for advice -- what should I do? He comes to you with an idea and asks you to critique it." Take, for example, the question of whether to run for president as a rookie U.S. senator. "I don't think he spent much time with people who told him not to do it," Mikva says.
-- Kevin Merida