The subject of Obama and basketball reaches into the complexities of self-perception and race. Since his self-discovery served as the organizing theme of his memoir, it was understandable that he focused his life through that racial lens, and that for dramatic effect he sometimes placed more emphasis on certain provocative scenes and topics. The tendency in his self-portrait was to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so. He did this regarding his portrayal of both Frank Marshall Davis, the Frank character in the book, old and black and cynical; and Keith Kakugawa, the Ray character, young and black and angry -- enhancing their roles in his teenage life at the expense of other people who spent vastly more time with him. And he did the same when it came to basketball. “He loved basketball so much, I think a lot of things have been blown out of proportion,” said Lum. “Anybody wants to play. His style of play was flashy, but it was okay. McLachlin didn’t really put a damper on it. If you did a behind-the-back pass, McLachlin would frown on that, but when it came down to playing time, he [Barry] wasn’t one of the five best.” In fact, Lum and other teammates pointed out, Barry was only occasionally considered one of the top eight, the number of players McLachlin usually used in his rotation, following the substitution pattern of John Wooden, the brilliant coach at UCLA.
These points are not meant to diminish the important role basketball played in Obama’s coming of age as he began to explore black culture. He saw in it what he saw in jazz, an ineffable artistic expression of what it meant to be black and cool, a brother. The first spark of soulful recognition of basketball came not long after he arrived back from Indonesia at age 10, when his grandfather took him to see Red Rocha’s 1971 University of Hawaii Rainbows, a team fueled by black players who came over from the mainland and played with up-tempo flair. That team (nicknamed the Fab Five, long before a Michigan quintet appropriated the name) caught the public’s attention by earning a national ranking, winning the Rainbow Classic and more than 20 other games, and getting a coveted invitation to the still-popular National Invitational Tournament in New York. It also caught the attention of young Barry, and when he grew older he often made his way to the UH campus himself to watch the team or play pickup ball at their gym.
The question of whether Coach McLachlin sufficiently appreciated Barry’s style of play diverts attention from the deeper story of the 1978-79 Punahou team, Obama’s role on it, and the impact it had on his life. If the Choom Gang represented his boredom, alienation, and need to find family even in mild rebellion, if pickup games on outdoor courts gave him a place where he could test himself and find himself, the Punahou basketball team in many ways made him a member of a cohesive unit with shared goals for the first time in his life. It also gave him his first taste of what it felt like to win, to be adored, to be a champion. He would acknowledge later that McLachlin was “a terrific coach” and he learned a lot that year “about discipline, about handling disappointments, being more team-oriented, and realizing that not everything is about you.” In his rendering, McLachlin came across as a traditionalist coach who stressed fundamentals at the expense of free expression on the court, which is only part of the story. While he did stress fundamentals, McLachlin was a forward-thinker whose philosophy at times came closer to New Age than Old School.