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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Barack Obama

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Barack Obama was 10 years old when he first fell in love with basketball. His grandfather had taken him to a game at the University of Hawaii, which had climbed into the national rankings behind an all-black starting five, and young Barry was hooked. So he spent much of his teenage years seeking out pickup games at playgrounds and rec centers around his native Honolulu.

Though he later conceded in his memoir Dreams from My Father that he was "living out a caricature of black male adolescence," he also wrote of how the city game taught him truisms about life that his absent father could not: "That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions -- like hurt or fear -- you didn't want them to see."

The game reinforced those precepts throughout Obama's life, from his lone season on the varsity at Punahou High School (where he bridled at not being good enough to start for a state-championship team); to the night that he joined some Harvard Law School buddies to play against inmates at a Massachusetts prison; to the day his girlfriend, Michelle, secretly arranged for him to play with her brother so he could assess whether Barack was worthy enough to join the family.

And in 2008 Obama put those rules of the asphalt to the ultimate test, betting his career on the belief that American voters would judge him not on the color of his skin but on whether he had the skills and the toughness they wanted in a president. When he hit the electoral game point on Nov. 4, he made history by winning the right to become America's first-ever Hoopster-in-Chief. For that, Barack Hussein Obama earns my nomination Sportsman of the Year.

Obama's genuine passion for the game was on display throughout the campaign. On Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, he played pickup hoops to help him relax. He won the caucuses by 7-percentage points that night, and when he realized later that he did not play on the days of the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses -- both of which he lost -- he decreed that he would henceforth hoop it up every election day. He staged three-on-three tournaments in New Hampshire and Indiana as part of a voter-registration effort. In July he famously sank a three-pointer on his first try while visiting American troops in Kuwait. When reporters asked him in late August if he had been rattled by the verbal zingers uttered at his expense by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin during the Republican National Convention, Obama, still unwilling to let his opponents see hurt or fear, simply smiled and said, "I've been called worse on the basketball court."

In allowing himself to be filmed so often while playing hoops, Obama was taking a considerable political risk. After all, if he did something goofy, it could have produced one of those memorable photo-ops gone bad. (Think Dukakis in a tank or Kerry on a windsurfer.) But Obama innately understood the footage wouldn't just showcase his skills. It would also reveal his character. That's why his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, who played at Princeton and is now the head coach at Oregon State, offered up a scouting report on Barack's game during a speech at the Democratic National Convention. "If you're looking for a political analysis based on his playing, here it is," Robinson said. "He's confident but not cocky, he'll take the shot if he's open, he's a team player who improves the people around him, and he won't back down from any challenge."

Obama often promised that if he became president he would have a basketball court built inside the White House. But there probably isn't enough room in the executive mansion for a full-sized court, and the outdoor court on the South Lawn has just one rim. So I've got some advice for the Hoopster-elect: Once in a while, when you really need some stress relief, grab your sneakers, hop into your limo, and show up unannounced at the courts outside the Watts Branch Recreation Center on Bank Street, or at the "Candy Cane" court in Rock Creek Park, or even the Barry Farms housing projects in southeast D.C., the District's answer to Harlem's Rucker Park. The locals will be thrilled, but don't expect that to count for much when it comes time to choose up sides. You may be the President of the United States, but if you don't have game, you won't be picked.

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