Basketball: Playing to Win

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    Tell me about this basketball team. I don't think on the mainland people would understand it unless you defined it in Hawaiian terms, but how elite it was, what the feeling about basketball was, where you played; you played in an arena. So give me a little bit of what it was like to be part of that high school's basketball team.

    The one word I would characterize that is "fortunate," fortunate because of the support for the basketball program, support that Punahou put it out there as far as a really elite team with an elite coach. The starting five was almost insurmountable. When we were clicking, there was no stopping us.

    As far as the basketball program itself, it started way back in middle school. I mean, it was almost like you're being groomed to get to this level, whether it's freshman or JV or A or AA basketball. Punahou grew this stuff. And to be a part of that, we were really, really lucky, because we had some really good coaches. They weren't easy. …

    And it was really cool that we got to play in Hawaii's major arena. I mean, we're not talking about just a gym in some basketball high school facility. We're talking about a place downtown where people would drive to the game and they'd pay money to take a seat and watch us play. The turnout was great. I mean, we really, I don't think, got nervous about a crowd, but it was really special to see so many people out there, to follow you. And that's a feeling that I don't think Barry or I will ever forget. It was magic to play basketball at Punahou under Chris McLaughlin. …

    Obama doesn't make it onto the team until his senior year. Explain that.

    You know, Barry might have been given an option. First of all, the school was just loaded with basketball talent. At that time, it was really tough to make a team. There was some mention that some of the people that sat on the bench, including Barry -- I was sometimes the sixth or seventh or eighth man -- that we could have started for any other school. But at Punahou you were really going to have a hard time breaking into the top five to start the game.

    Barry may have taken an option to play at the single A level, because he would see more playing time. So Chris McLaughlin could have been saying one of two things: one, Barry's just not there yet; or two, he's almost there, but let's get him more playing experience and then we can talk about this next year.

    I do know another member of Choom Gang that fell into that situation, who, he could have made the AA team, but decided to play single A because it was all about playing the game. And nobody likes to sit on the bench.

    Barry was good, but he wasn't great. And at that time, great was the benchmark.

    And did he have some resentment? There's been the story told that he kind of felt that the coach didn't get his style of player, that his kind of street playing was not the same as what the team was. Was there some resentment there?

    Yeah, there definitely is a side where Barry loved the hack league kind of play. It was least centered around the team and a little bit more on individual efforts. But that's OK, because every now and then you need one player to step forward and make things happen. Barry always tried to make things happen, and in a good way.

    And I think that's why he maybe had a little difficulty in accepting that he wasn't going to be out there in the starting five or that his playing minutes weren't very much. Coach Chris runs a very, very team-discipline basketball game. It was all about, on offense you played what we called passing game -- you get the ball, set a screen for someone, open that person up. And it's team-focused, not individual-focused.

    So I think Barry wanted to make more of an impression. But I wouldn't go as far as to say he wanted to be a ball hog or that he was a crybaby for not playing. Everybody on the bench wants to play more. Maybe it seems more apparent now, because he's the president of the United States who sat on a bench.

    His style of play, he couldn't dunk the ball? What kind of style play did he have?

    (Laughs.) Barry was a decent ball handler. And he crashed the boards. He had an ability to rebound. I will say that he didn't have much of a jumping ability. But his defense was sound. Chris McLaughlin was able to instill in Barry good team discipline. So he became an effective member of the team, but as far as any individual or extraordinary talent, Barry just wasn't there, not at that time. But he loved to take the outside shot, and, like in many shooters, if he was hot, he was hot. …

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    Tell me about the pickup games at the lower basketball courts and stuff, what that was like, the type of basketball player Barry Obama was.

    Barry is very calm and level-headed. You see that today, but I also saw that back then. He got tested. I mean, we all got tested, because we loved basketball so much that we couldn't get enough of it. So on the weekends, we would go down to the Punahou lower courts and engage in these pickup basketball games.

    Now, mind you, we weren't just playing with other high school kids; we were playing against full-grown men who were bigger and stronger, and at times meaner, than our other teammates or people that went to Punahou. And we would choose up sides, and winners stay in, losers go out. It was just a very, very physical game.

    If you wanted to toughen up your basketball game, you played what we called hack league. And that's just what it was; you just got hacked all the time. No blood, no bones sticking out, no foul. Play the game. It was on an asphalt court. We've had our share of scrapes and strawberried knees, a couple elbows to the head. But we seemed to have thrived in that environment. Even though we were younger, we were more naive. And people like Barry was just like one of us.

    We weren't looking for a fight. We weren't out there to show our egos. We just showed up because we really wanted to play basketball. And if that's what we had to do to play basketball, then we did it without hesitation. I'm sure we all have at least a scar or two from hack league today.

    Does Obama's style of play say anything about him? What was he like to play with on the basketball court?

    Like any aspiring basketball player, we all liked to have the ball. Now, I'm not calling Barry a ball hog, but he loved to dribble. He loved to set up an offense. Very often he'd dribble the ball down court, stand at the top of the key, look for some good picks, hopefully someone breaks open, gets an open look, takes a lay-up. Or Barry did like to drive. He was very confident in his on-court abilities. He does go left, so if you played with Barry or against Barry for a while, you'd take away his left hand, and that took a big game out of him pretty much right away.

    But he was a non-selfish player. Always had an encouraging word. Whenever I would get into maybe a little scuffle with an opposing player, Barry would be there to just say: "You know what? Move on, we've got a game to play here. We need to make some baskets, not enemies."

    His type of on-court diplomacy was a very helpful part of our game, because we could all be a bunch of hotheads. (Laughs.) Someone had to control us. Barry kind of filled that role in a passive way.

    So explain this cool-head thing.

    It was always about being focused. It was all about, if everyone does their job, both on offense and defense, you play on both sides of the court, you're going to end up winning. And as soon as we start into a defensive kind of posture or attitude, that's when you start to play to not lose as opposed to playing to win. Barry was not a part of "Let's play to not lose." It was all about winning. Everything else came second. …

    Some people have talked about the fact that he was a good tennis player, too, and he moved from tennis into basketball partly because he was in search of a black identity, that basketball was more a black sport. … Do you think that's true?

    I did understand that he did play some tennis, and that perhaps he wasn't embraced in a way that he saw as anything good. But once he took the basketball court, he made you feel like he belonged on it. And it wasn't just because he was black. It's because he knew how to dribble, pass, shoot, and be a very good team member.

    And perhaps that's another thing about Barry, is that maybe he just wasn't an individual sport guy. When you're playing tennis, there's not four other people on your side of the court; in basketball there was. And I think there was a magic in that for Barry.

    What do you mean?

    He wanted to be part of the player, wanted to be a part of belonging. I think in tennis, I mean, you could still feel a belonging to it, but not when you've got a bunch of teammates on the court that are fighting and scratching for the ball, or willing to take a shot, to even sitting on the bench and cheering on the players on the court and helping them support, and keeping them excited about the game, and help to maintain that intensity level.

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    So then there's the March 10 game; this is the final game. We'll use this to sort of define what this experience was like. Describe that night, the locker room. You're controlling the music, I hear. Just lay that out for us on what that was like.

    What a magical night. In the previous year, we were in the double elimination state tournament. I was a junior, and we had every bit the team. We didn't take the state crown, however. And that's something that really bothered every team player in our junior year.

    And the senior year was a little bit of a hangover, like OK, we should have taken that title, but here we are in senior year; we've got to get it done. I mean, this has to happen. We came too close not to do this.

    Once that night came and we realized we had finally gone all the way, the euphoria that we all felt can't be matched by anything that I can think of in my entire life. It was magical. It was special. It was good to see the coaches smile and jump up and down after all the hard work they put into it.

    And as a family, the varsity championship family, we felt closer than ever. Together we felt like as one unit, and because of our chemistry, we were able to put icing on the cake. And that's all that really was. I'm not putting it down; I'm just saying we had spent so much time and so much sweat into building this team the way Coach Chris wanted it, that we finally had something tangible to say, "Look, here it is; we've arrived." And man, does it feel good. It's a night I'll never forget.

    Everyone got in some playing time that night, because as I recall, it wasn't our closest game of the season, and we were ahead of the game here, so everyone got to see some playing time. I was happy about it, and so was Barry, and everybody else in the AA squad.

    So explain Obama's role that night.

    Barry came in, I believe, as a forward. At that point, it was just almost going through the motions because we knew unless we really blew it, we had the game. So it was like an out-of-body experience. Here we are taking the court. The starting five are already getting watered down, and we're out there just like it was a play day, like we're going to have fun, there's nothing we can lose, and it was all to gain.

    So once you take the court with that kind of attitude, man, it becomes even more fun, because you didn't have to worry about excessive fouls or throwing a pass away or encountering a turnover. We were going to play, and the lights are on us; the crowd is going crazy. And we're out there already kind of celebrating while we're still playing. And you don't get to do that a whole lot. (Laughs.) Most of the time it's hard work, and you don't smile a whole lot. But if we weren't smiling physically, we were definitely smiling on the inside once we took the court and saw those last minutes tick away.

    And Obama got two, right?

    He did, he did. We were all one that night. As they say, there is no I in team. And that night we were all about making sure everyone got their fill in and had a slice of this pie, because it tasted so good.

    And Obama's reaction afterward?

    He was as elated as everybody else. I think it left him with a special feeling in being a champion, and perhaps that's one of the things that helped him to become who he is today, is being aboard winning teams, being around high achievers, having a very tough coach that knew a lot about the game and made sure that we knew about it as well. So I think the impact on Barry with this sendoff couldn't have been better. It was special. I relive that night many, many times over. …

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    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

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    ... Was basketball important as far as you could tell?

    Yeah, basketball was definitely important to Barack. He played a lot. The main gym at Harvard is called the MAC [Malkin Athletic Center], and students play, people from outside the university play, service workers at the university play, and the level of play at the main gym is pretty intense. And if you're going to go down there, you're going to run; you've got to have some game.

    And Barack had game, and he was serious about it. He did that regularly. And for most of us, we didn't have the game to go down there regularly or have the commitment to the game to go down there regularly.

    Is there a metaphor at all in basketball and Barack Obama at Harvard?

    I think Barack is a very competitive person. He was good at basketball, and he was very proud of that. Even though it was Harvard, you could find a lot of different kinds of people on the court. I think he liked that. He was the president of the Harvard Law Review, but he would go down to the gym, and he could run with people who were [not] students, service workers at the university, people from working-class backgrounds. I mean, I think he very much enjoyed those aspects of playing basketball.

    During those three years at the law school, did you see a trajectory, like an arc of development, of orientation, of him gathering and figuring stuff out and heading in another direction? ...

    No, I would not describe Barack's years in law school as an arc or as a development in a particular direction. He certainly got a lot of confidence out of the experience, coming here, and it's the big leagues, and he did really well. He was well respected not only intellectually but as a leader on campus. It certainly gave him the confidence that he was going to go back to Chicago and really do something to impact his world. But I don't think he changed much in law school. I don't think he reoriented himself or redirected himself in any way.

    I think he arrived thinking that he was going to go back to Chicago when he was done. He soaked up the experience. He thought about many things he could do when he was finished. And ultimately he went back to Chicago. ...

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Did you used to play basketball with him? And why was that important to him? And what does that say about the Barry that you knew?

    He's a great athlete. He's a good athlete. He played hoops. He was a skinny guy in those days. So I think that was probably the sport he picked up on early on, in high school or what have you. But he was competitive. He played at Punahou. And we had pickup games in the gym at Occidental. And, you know, he may have had what they call a "basketball jones"; he had a hankering for basketball. It was one of his passions. And I think it still is. I mean, he can play. …

    Did the way he played it say anything about him?

    Yeah. I think the way he played was very, very smart, very shrewd, intellectual, making the most of his own abilities -- not his physical, but adroit in other ways, to deal with bigger, taller, meaner, more aggressive opponents. He's got a great outside shot. And he's a leftie, you know. He's a southpaw. So he looked like an unorthodox shot, but it goes in. Yeah, he loved basketball. …

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