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Tom Topolinski

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. (51:06)

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.

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    Talk a little bit first about Punahou, the school you guys went to -- what it was like, what it looked like, how you guys all ended up there, what the environment was like.

    Yeah, to me, Punahou represented the best of students that had potential. It was a very high-standard type school. I do remember that even as kids we were always thinking about, man, I'd really want to go to Punahou because that is the cat's meow. It seemed as though everybody who was anybody had a kid in there or two. …

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    How about Barry Obama? How did he fit in?

    You know, when I first met Barry, obviously he stood out because he's half-African American, and at the time there were just a few or handful of blacks, as it were, on campus. I never really put him in a different category than any of us, because we're all multiracial. I'm Polish and Chinese. It's not uncommon in Hawaii to have these races that just like to mix it up.

    But at the same time, Barry, he looked black. In our day it was kind of cool to have a friend that was diverse and out of the ordinary. It wasn't the exception, but it was more the rule, that you had to be mixed to feel mixed in with the mixed races. And Barry was very gregarious, very happy, very outgoing. He was very, very easily [sic] to befriend.

    And how did he fit into the school? Did he have problems? Was he considered to some extent the smart kid? What was he considered?

    You know, Barry, to me, wore a lot of hats. He had the academics. He was always well spoken. He blended in with sports. He was dribbling that basketball around forever, and everywhere that he went on campus. He didn't isolate himself to any one particular clique. I took pride in knowing that I associated with everybody, and I didn't become a real clique person, because I, too, have different friends from different areas of life. …

    When you hear about the school, it's a prep school, I guess, a private school that is renowned for sending people to Ivy League, and very successful people come out of it. I guess some people consider it sort of a rich-kid, more exclusive kind of place. But Obama wasn't rich or anything, was he?

    No. There is a stigma attached to Punahou, and that's undeniable, and you hear that even when you're 8, 9 or 10 years old -- oh, the rich kids or the snob kids or even all the rich haole kids, haole meaning foreigner, and in Hawaii more so it means a foreigner from the mainland. So it was known to be a rich, haole school, and only the privileged got to go there. You had to be special.

    Now, when you look at Barry's background, it's almost the antithesis of that, because Barry lived in a very humble apartment, which was blocks away from the school. He didn't dress lavishly. He didn't show any bling, even though Punahou was bling, and still is in many people's minds. But Barry just was a normal, happy-go-lucky kid that didn't hold himself to be better than anybody else.

    To me, he was a perfect fit, because he had people like me that came from the same background, which is mixed. And it seemed to have worked well. And that's how we became friends so quick, so quickly. He didn't have any kind of attitude whatsoever. He was just always very diplomatic.

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     And you guys were in the same class, the class of '79.

    To be honest, we actually did not have a lot of classes in common. …

    But as far as Barry and I, our friendship began once we left the class, and it continued right on through basketball practices, playing what we called the "hack league" on lower courts, which was the basketball courts that he would actually walk to from his house. And we were in each other's lives from that and into the weekends and the nights, and the get-togethers, the socials, going to the beach, partying, all that good stuff. …

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    What was it like hanging out at Obama's grandparents' apartment?

    (Laughs.) Barry's apartment was very small, very modest. If you were able to set foot in his bedroom, it was a good day, because Barry liked to keep his things, let's say, on the ground floor. It was hard to walk into his room. But once you did, you just kind of got used to it -- last night's pizza, leftover breakfast from this morning, and Stevie Wonder up on the turntable, in the days of records and vinyl.

    But it was a very, very modest setup, and I actually, in a way, felt sorry for him, because I lived in a house. And it wasn't lavish or anything, but when I thought about Punahou and Barry being in this apartment, I was just like, this is an interesting situation. I wonder how this is all going to turn out. Well, as it did, it did turn out, and he has very good memories of that place, like any kid does with their environment.

    What do you mean when you say he liked to keep his room on the ground floor?

    Oh, he was a mess. He had stuff all over the floor. And it could be anything from basketball shoes to a basketball, textbooks, magazines, candy wrappers. His grandparents were very lax on Barry's housekeeping. I'm sure he's not doing that now. I'm sure he's cleaned it up quite a bit.

    In the White House, he has some help.

    Yes, he does have some help now, yeah. Not worried about it.

    The grandparents -- tell me about the grandparents a little bit, what they were like.

    Both grandparents were very dedicated, and they committed themselves to Barry. They were at every basketball game. When he needed a ride, that Ford, that brown-red Ford Granada would come on campus, and Barry would get dropped off.

    Now, his grandparents were very -- what's the word here? -- they were very conservative. They really weren't outspoken. They really did not get into any kind of tense situations. They were just happy to be there and to watch Barry flourish. They were never any kind of trouble; they never asked any questions. They just seemed like they were along for the ride, and that whatever they could do for Barry, they would do. I wouldn't mind grandparents like that.

    Certainly loving. Were they up to the task of taking care of a young guy like that when the mom was back and forth a lot, and there was no dad? Was that difficult?

    You know, I've thought about that, and how lucky I was to have a mother and father in a traditional role. Barry did seem to have a very good relationship with his grandparents. I will guess that with grandparents and grandchildren, it's a different relationship, and in this case it still seemed pretty typical.

    It didn't seem like Barry's parents were going to step in and say, "We're going to be the parents now." I think they held on to that grandfather and grandmother role, and it was a very, very loving relationship. Barry called his grandparents Gramps. I mean, it was always, "These are part of my family." It never felt like something that was being stressed or taxed.

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    But you've got -- as he's said in his book or his interviews, his grandmom is a closet alcoholic. The grandfather is not so closeted; he drinks a lot. That's not an easy situation. And they're white, by the way. They're also white, and he's half-white/half-black, but he's seen by the outside world as black because his skin color, the tint of his skin is dark. How much of a problem was that? Did it ever seem like that was a problem? Did he ever talk about it? Do you guys, when you went there, ever wonder that it's not the best situation?

    You know, it may have been a thing that we maybe thought about very rarely. But I did not notice, nor did Choom Gang I think notice that Barry was going through any kind of quest for identity. It didn't seem like anything was really missing.

    Like I said, we spent hours throughout the day together, and to Barry's credit, he didn't wear that on his sleeve. He just seemed like everything was going fine, and yes, he was brought up in a special environment, but he didn't act special or he didn't request to be treated special by anybody, including teachers, principals.

    There was no apologies, there was no, "Oh, my God, I don't have parents; something must be wrong with me." There was none of that. Barry always held himself in a high regard, and you never thought about it. And he never really talked about looking for this identity.

    Now, mind you, this was still in middle school and high school. Perhaps some of this was amplified once he left Punahou. But back then he was just one of the boys. …

    Did he ever talk about the dad?

    He never did. Not to me anyway. He may have had other friends that he felt maybe they needed to know, but for us, it was just all fun and games and basketball, and hanging out, listening to music and going to the beach.

    … Did you ever meet the mother?

    Honestly, I don't have any recollection of Barry's biological mother. I honestly don't know if he had been in contact with her or was close to her by the time I had befriended Barry in seventh, eighth and even in ninth grade. It just seemed to be like a missing person, for me, and I never asked about it. …

    Did he ever talk about the mom in any way whatsoever?

    I can't say that he did speak of his mother either in a positive or negative light. It was just all fun and games.

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    All right, tell me about the Choom Gang. Who is the Choom Gang? In a lot of ways it seems that the Choom Gang was his family, in a lot of ways. So tell me about who the Choom Gang was and its importance in Obama's life.

    Yes. The Choom Gang was a bunch of typical high school teenagers, who were out to explore the world, to make it an adventure, to make it fun, to make it funny, and just generally become a family on our own. I mean, the Choom Gang became more of a family to me more than my own family.

    Now, in this modern day, the word "gang" represents something else. For us, it was the old-fashioned gang. You could have been saying "gang" or "family." To me, those two terms would have been synonymous.

    And that's why I am surprised to hear about so much of Barry's repressed feelings back then, because we did campouts; we slept at each others' houses on the weekend. It was very, very common for us to take turns and "Whose night is it tonight to sleep over?" We had these sleepovers where we partied with the Choom Gang, "choom" meaning indulge in pakalolo. So that kind of became our symbol of our friendship. But clearly, we weren't a gang; we were a family.

    Number one, what's pakalolo?

    Pakalolo is the Hawaiian world for marijuana. Lolo means crazy, and I guess you can say it's crazy weed, or weed that makes you crazy. I don't think it did. (Laughs.)

    The importance of the Choom Gang to Obama. You just sort of defined it for yourself. Tell me how important the guys were to Obama.

    Well, it was one of those friendships where you felt more like a brother. There was no restrictions on what you could say or do. You were among family. You can cry if you want. You can laugh if you want. You can call each other names. To me, that all indicates there was a real family bond there between, I would say, five to seven of us that defines Choom Gang. And Barry was very much a part of that feeling and that support group and that kind of anything-goes mentality. And it was a beautiful thing. It was a lot of fun.

    And why was it important to him specifically?

    I think it was important to Barry because perhaps it did fill a void that wasn't apparent at the time. I don't think any of us thought of it that way, but now in retrospect, we look back and went, "Hey, we really were a family." This was really, really cool.

    And to this day, I am still very close with Choom Gang, many, many years later. Barry's been a little harder to get a hold of. But we were, I think, a very, very close bunch, and that allowed him to be himself. And that was our main thing; you just had to be yourself. There were no other rules.

    Take me into some of what you guys would do, going to the beach or Aku Ponds or the Pumping Station. Give us a feeling of what it was like to hang out with the Choom Gang. …

    The Choom Gang was all about adventure. We could turn anything into an event. Whether it was small things like playing Nerf basketball … that was one of our go-to activities. … And we'd go ahead and listen to some music, smoke some pot, play some basketball. And everything was animated; everything was funny. It was all about laughter. It was also about competition; we'd play one-on-one in the living room.

    OK, so if we're not in the home playing Nerf basketball, we were at the beach, body surfing at Sandy Beach. … Barry got on a surfboard; we'd paddle out try to catch some waves.

    Again, we did a lot of these things, let's just say, with an altered state of mind, but it was all about fun and not being devious.

    Pumping Station was the main hangout of our class and many other classes at Punahou. It was a very tucked-away, beautiful place. It was quiet, unless we were there. It had a lot of tropical foliage. We would sit there and drink beer. Play some really, really loud music. And it was kind of like our safe haven. At any time of the weekend or night, you'd cruise over to Pumping Station. You'll sometimes find someone that's already there, and the party just continued.

    There were nights when some of these Pumping Station parties would be lined up with cars. Now, Pumping Station was a single, unmarked road, and on a good night that road would be lined up with cars. And we're talking a really, really dark shade of night. And it would just be lined up with cars and cars and cars, and the next thing you know, you'd have 15 to 20 cars, maybe even more, lined up. And we would just go from car to car, socializing, listening to music, acting silly.

    It was like bar-hopping, except for this was Pumping Station. You just kind of went to other people's cars and maybe passed a joint around, shared some beer. It was a really fun time.

    And if we weren't at Pumping Station or the beach or playing Nerf basketball, we were watching basketball, talking about who we wanted to become. Everything really had a sports and recreational side to it.

    We often cut class, and Mark, his mom was a teacher at Punahou, so we would borrow her car. I cut European history a few times. We'd take the car and go back to his house, play some Aerosmith, play some basketball. That would work up a good sweat. Jump into the pool, or go to the beach.

    I got busted. My parents found out because I came home with sand in my shoes. That was another story. But we liked to do this quite a bit, and we got away with it for a long time. And it was just pure fun. We weren't out to hurt anybody; we just wanted to make another adventure out of another day.

    That is, I think, the theme of Choom Gang, was just explore, adventure, and do things a little nontraditional.

    Sounds a bit like paradise on Paradise.

    It truly was. I look back at my memories with Barry and the Choom Gang. They were all -- this whole thing was special. We probably grew up in the most beautiful place. People were not prejudicial. Everything was wide open, and back then you didn't have the kind of crimes that take today's headlines. Back then, it was just easygoing. Hawaii, they have the theme of hang loose, and that's what it was all about.

    There really was a truly carefree time, and that was Hawaii in the '70s. And we enjoyed every single second of that because we didn't have any ulterior motives. It was just a good place to be. Our backyard was a beach. I mean, how bad can that be?

    The Pumping Station -- was there ever worries about the police coming out and stuff?

    There were only a couple of incidents where the police came up and broke us up. The police, at that time, was a different type of mind-set than it is today. There were times where we'd be drinking beer and we'd have our empty bottles around, and some of these officers would come up and ask us a bunch of questions, and then upon leaving say, "Make sure you throw all your bottles away." And everything was peaceful. There was no harsh words; there was no threats.

    The cops just wanted us to clean up our mess. Choom Gang always did. We cleaned up our mess. And once they changed the laws, I think it was during my latter half of my high school years, then it became a little bit more, "OK, you're not supposed to drink in public; you're underage," or whatnot. But at the time, even the police were really, really, really relaxed. And we enjoyed that, too. None of us wanted to get thrown in jail.

    What was the music that was being played out at Pumping Station?

    Music varied. It was anywhere from Earth, Wind & Fire to Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Boston, Kiss, Stevie Wonder, Ohio Players, the O'Jays. It was really a mixed bag, but they were all, I think, indicative of the music explosion of the '70s. …

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    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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    Did you see over time a change in him? Did he get a bit more of a swagger? Did he get into more black music and black writers? He grew his 'fro out a little bit. Did you see sort of a change in him?

    You know, now that I look back, there was a change. However, it was subtle. It was something I think all of us kind of expected anyway. It wasn't that he decided to turn on us or to be a different person; it was just something that he grew with. And we understood that. I mean, we listened to all kinds of music. There really was no prejudice. So there wasn't that, "OK, now Barry's going to start pursuing his roots," because as far as we were concerned, we were part of a whole family. Yes, he probably could have spent some time trying to find roots or a pigeonhole for himself, but we thought we were it.

    But you did see a change. Explain what the change was.

    … I started to see Stevie Wonder on his record player more often. And he'd play it, he'd sing it; we'd all try to chime in. As far as anything heavier than that, didn't see it, because he even went to comic book meetings, which is a little nerdy.

    So Barry, if he did pursue some of these things in his pursuit of his identity, it didn't seem so one-sided. He was still very much the all-around kid.

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    Let's go scholastically here for a second. How was he in school? Was he considered sort of one of the smart guys? Did he have any problems with his classes?

    From my recollection, Barry was very much a jack of all trades. It seemed that whatever he wanted to do he did well. Anyone that knew Barry knew that he was intelligent. But no one really questioned, did he get As, did he get Bs, or did he get Ds or Fs? I never looked that far because, in knowing Barry, I already knew he was smart, and whatever grades he got or where he stood scholastically, I really didn't count that as a very important side for me to know. I just knew he was Barry; he was a cool guy, and he was intelligent.

    There was one story -- I think you might have said it, or maybe somebody else did --  but one of the things that Barry told you guys was that the trick to tests was to put a textbook under his pillow. Tell me that story. I love that story. 

    Well, yeah, he had quite a following on how to prepare for tests at Punahou. It didn't work for me, but there was a following where, it didn't hurt, if you had a big test coming up tomorrow, go ahead and stick that book under your pillow. …

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    Did the Choom Gang have a reputation? Did everybody know about the Choom Gang?

    You know, everyone did. The word "choom" did come out before our gang was particularly formed. "Choom" was the slang for smoking marijuana. Somehow it reached our group and became an identifier as who we were. We were the Choom Gang. There were other people who have used that term, but no one coined the phrase for the type of friendships that we had. (Laughs.) We were the only ones that said, "All right, let's make this our name," or, "Let's be regarded as one of the Choom Gang friends." And it wasn't an aggressive gang; it was just a bunch of guys who just want to hang out and have fun. …

    …There's a story of Ray, the drug dealer. Was there a bit of a dark side to the whole thing?

    You know, I probably felt that dark side, and felt more awkward about it than anybody else in Choom Gang. I was raised by my parents that you keep your nose clean; you deal with the right people; don't associate with this person or these types of people.

    So Ray freaked me out. I was afraid of the guy. But he did befriend us, and he was our connection for a few things. And there were times where he would take us to a drive-in movie. Back then there were still drive-ins. And he had a Volkswagen bus as well. He partied with us, but there was something about him that never made me feel comfortable. And I probably was affected by that more than anyone else. It seemed as though the other friends and associates of Choom Gang didn't really pay it a whole lot of matter; it was not a big deal.

    The guy was a maniac on the road. He tailgated everybody. I was afraid for my life every time I rode with him. But he was a connection for us; that's what it was. So therein lies the dark side. …

    Obama thanking him in his yearbook -- what's the relevance of that?

    You know, even though this is part of the dark side, in the Punahou yearbook, it was very common for us as seniors to look back and thank, and also glorify what we did and who we hung out with. And I think there was a little bit of that with Barry. I honestly think that when he said, "Thanks, Ray, and thanks, Choom Gang," there was not a dark aspect to that. That was all about, "Hey, thanks for the good times."

    As far as Ray is concerned, I don't know if Barry felt like since he wasn't in the yearbook, because he wasn't one of us, that he felt the need to acknowledge his presence and what he did for Choom Gang.

    And lastly on drugs and stuff, I should ask it journalistically, the harder stuff, the cocaine, the possibility of heroin, did any of that come into play, and how do you view that?

    Well, during high school we were potheads. We loved our beer. I was too afraid to try anything harder. From my recollection, there was no evidence of Barry or any one of us jumping into cocaine or heroin or pills or anything with a syringe or needle. We were just happy with the pot. It was good; it was fun; it was enough. …

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    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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    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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    Others on this topic:
    The Choom Gang
    'Barry was very good with girls.'

    Girls. We haven't mentioned girls. How big a part is girls in all of this lifestyle?

    We did a lot more talking with girls than walking with girls. We were all girl crazy, and we all shared our secrets about who we had crushes on. We all wanted each other to hook up with someone hot. I think that's indicative of any male-bonding type of group. But yeah, we'd sit there and just shoot the bull about who was looking good today and who you want to take the dance. And we would share notes a lot. And there was no relation to anyone's nationality. It was like either you were hot or you were not. And we were just your typical boys.

    And I don't know if Barry took this any different, being of mixed race -- like I said, we're all mixed race. So I don't know if he felt like he would be at a disadvantage. If he did, it didn't show. He was always charismatic.

    But yeah, we were about girls, too. So yeah, beach, basketball and babes. Yeah, it was all that.

    Was Obama pretty good with girls?

    Barry was very good with girls. And it's because of his mannerisms. He was very much a gentleman. He always had a lot of class. He was non-offensive. He wasn't very forward. He was just very, very, very much the gentleman. And I used to, at times even I was jealous because he'd strike up a conversation with someone that I probably couldn't get a "Hi" out of. And I thought maybe I need to work on my approach a little bit more.

    But Barry had made a lot of friends, both male and female, and was highly regarded by the females as well. …

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    Obama's Ambition

    The idea of leaving and going to Occidental and all, what was motivating him at that point?

    First of all, it is very easy to become complacent when you live in paradise. When the living is good and free and easy, it's easy to just kind of exist. But many of us did not feel just that. We wanted more out of life, and I definitely think that this was already a template for Barry, for him to follow. I don't think he would have been happy living in Hawaii his entire life. He was one of those that needed more. The same goes for me; I’m living here in Washington now because living in Hawaii was great, but it stopped becoming a growth experience. And it was all about growth.

    And I think Barry grew into his own, and the path that he did follow was always there. It was easily forgotten about in high school, but once we were released into the world at 18 years of age, I think a lot of us had flipped the page and said, OK, now we need to get on with life. And I think Barry did that very, very diligently. And I'm not surprised that he is where he is today. …

    When did you notice, oh, my God, my good buddy Barry is moving ahead in the world? Do you remember hearing things over the years that sort of impressed you and surprised you? ...

    You know, I had lost touch with Barry, and then one day about five years ago I had heard that he had become active in politics, had become a senator, and did well in the college part of that, getting his law degree. He had that intelligence. And so I was surprised, but then at the end I was like, not surprised at all.

    And then I heard something about his name and "presidential" being lumped in the same sentence, and I caught myself, and I was a little amazed, surprised, confused. And then as I read more and I got on the Internet and I did a little bit more Googling, and you're kidding, Barry wants to be president? How can this be? He was one of us! How does this happen? (Laughs.)

    To this day, I don't think it's hit me. Every time that I walk by the TV and see Barry on there, I don't know that I've connected with that yet. It just seems so surreal. And I mean that in a good way.

    In some aspects, one of his favorite words in high school was "veto," which is why you'll see in one of the pictures that some of us going like this or like this, which could be saying peace, but in our Choom Gang, it was "veto." We loved to get on someone who had an idea: "Hey, let's cut class and go to the beach." "Veto, I've got a test tomorrow." Barry was using that word freely at the time. …

    So did I see this coming? Not really. But now that I've seen him, I'm starting to realize he really is our president, and this is not a dream. But it's still surreal, very surreal. …

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