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.
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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.