While reporting a story on Punahou High, I spoke to the school's most famous alum, who happened to be a member of the Buff n' Blue's 1979 state championship basketball team.
While Barack Obama was not a starter on that squad, the Senator "definitely had game," says Dan Hale, a member of that team who is now the school's boys' basketball coach. "There was a group of us gym-rat types, always looking for a game. Barack could play. He had a passion for it. He had a nice little running jumper in the lane, with his signature double-pump. If he missed, he'd be the first guy following his shot. If you left him open, he'd stick it, but he'd take you to the hoop, too."
Obama returned SI's call last Saturday, from a car somewhere in Oregon.
SI: Do you remember Dan Hale?
Obama: Of course I remember him. We were teammates. Dan was also a great water polo player. It's pretty unusual, actually, a guy who plays water polo and basketball."
SI: So you moved to Honoulu as a boy, and that was when you picked up basketball?
Obama: That's right, I didn't really play basketball until I was 10. [Obama had moved to Hawaii from Indonesia, where he'd live for four years.] There was a court nearby my grandmother's apartment where I'd dribble down there and shoot, and some older guys would help me out, give me some tips. I fell in love with the game, played it all through high school, and still get out there once in a while.
SI: One of the central themes of your first book, Dreams From My Father, is your quest to find your identity. Was basketball a kind of touchstone for you during a turbulent time?
Obama: I think it's absolutely true that for somebody who grew up without a father in the house, an African-American of mixed race who was living in a community where there weren't a lot of African-Americans, basketball was a refuge, a place where I made a lot of my closest friends, and picked up a lot of my sense of competition and fair play. It was very important to me all the way through my teenage years.
SI: How did the game you learned on the playground mesh with the style your high school coach, Chris McLachlin, insisted that you to play?
Obama: When I joined the high school team, there was some strain. Coach McLachlin was a terrific coach, but he was also Mr. Fundamentals. He was very big on picks and rolls and bounce passes and chest passes. He never cared for behind-the-back passes, or spin moves. So we had some conflict. We had some tension. In retrospect, I realize that he probably was right in most of our disagreements. At the time I thought he was unfair. But he was a terrific coach, we had a terrific team and we had some great players. I have very fond memories of our team.
SI: As a senior you played behind John Kamana, who went to USC on a football scholarship. In Punahou's Hall of Champions, there's a picture of Kamana going up for lay-up against Iolani. He looks like he's about 28. Did you ever take a charge from that guy?
Obama: [Laughing] No. John ended up playing tight end in the NFL. Another NFL player, Mark Tuinei, was two years ahead of me on the basketball team. He played a long time for the Dallas Cowboys. [In 15 NFL seasons, "Tui" won three Super Bowls and was twice All Pro.] When those guys set a pick on you, you stayed picked.
SI: Most ex-jocks have a highlight reel in their head from their glory days. Do you have a couple "greatest hits" from your days with the Buff 'n Blue?
Obama: My senior year, when we won the state championship, there were a couple games where I think I was a difference maker. I remember my grandfather, who'd listened to the broadcast of the game, telling me that the big sports announcer, sort of the Howard Cosell of Hawaii, had said about me on television, "Boy, this kid can really play." It was good to get a few props late in life. But the truth is that my favorite memories had to do more with seeing our team do well.
SI: Even though you didn't start? Was it a worthwhile experience just being part of a team?
Obama: Absolutely. Being part of something and finishing it up. And I learned a lot about discipline, about handling disappointments, being more team oriented, and realizing not everything is about you. Those are lessons that have stayed with me.
SI: When you returned to campus in 2004, you told the seniors, "I didn't reach my full promise until after I left Punahou. In fact I was kind of a pain in the butt when I was here." Can you elaborate?
Obama: I was working through a lot of stuff when I was in high school, both on and off the court. I probably could've been a better ball player and a better student if I hadn't been goofing off so much. But Punahou gave me a great foundation so that when I got older, and wiser, I knew what it was to work hard and strive for excellence. I think it instills that in a lot of kids."
SI: I was struck by the school's heavy emphasis on public service. How deep an influence did that have on you, if at all?
Obama: Certainly, there was an emphasis on values and ethics and being a good citizen, as well as a good student. I didn't always observe these admonitions. But [that emphasis] has an impact on you. It gives you a sense of what you should be striving for. And even if you're rebelling from it, as I was during my teenage years, it still sunk in, and had a long term impact on the trajectory of my life."