We all gathered a week later on a sunny Saturday spring morning at a neighborhood high school gym at the University of Chicago Lab School. It was here, in this beautiful old gymnasium—with the tall, thin windows I loved for their view of the trees and the graceful campus outside—that I had spent many hours in a volunteer coaching job back in those days when I was not yet ready to leave my career in the financial field. Our pickup games often took place here, so there was nothing forced or unusual about the vibe as everyone arrived, on time, ready to play. Barack strolled in without any apparent intimidation, thankfully unaware that he was being vetted. Nor did he seem to detect anything out of the ordinary when I made sure that he was on my team—so I could keep an eye on him—as we began a series of five-on-five games intended to take us all through the paces for the next hour and a half.

My initial concern was that Barack would be so far out of his element that I'd have to protect him on the court—not wanting him in any way to lose face. The other worry was that he might turn out to be one of those jerks who is oblivious to everyone else on the floor but himself. Almost as soon as we started playing, it was clear that I didn't have to worry about his competence. He was a typical basketball player who could hold his own, though there was more to be determined in terms of skill and character. The first test, however, had been passed.

Then, as we played on, came the next set of clues that he had definitely attained experience in the game at some point—which turned out to be high school basketball. And, lo and behold, Barack Obama proved to have some skills. He had a nice little shot and liked to go to the basket. He played with guts. Interesting. He also knew how to find the open shot. Excellent. Definitely a very left-handed player—not like some lefties who have developed right-handed maneuvers and can even outdo other righties. But Barack used his strengths to compensate for his weaknesses. Self-awareness! The more we played, the more he showed his basketball intelligence—the fact that he had knowledge of the game. He didn't have to constantly score to show he could play. He knew when to pass and when not to pass (even if he preferred going for that open shot). He knew when to cut, when to set a pick, and what to do after the pick. In my terminology, he knew the x's and o's, the nuts and bolts, of basketball.

Better still, Barack conformed to the unspoken rules of integrity that apply in these friendly but highly competitive gatherings where there are no refs. That meant when he fouled somebody else and was called for it, he didn't argue, but gave it up, acknowledging the push or the trip he'd committed with a mea culpa nod or by saying in a very cool, matter-of-fact way, "My bad"—and then allowing play to continue. When he was fouled, depending on the degree, he called it without overdoing the dramatic indignation or flopping that are usually signs of bad habits.

It should be mentioned that compared to most of us out there that day—me at six feet six plus, then at a medium build, and guys like the muscular Arne Duncan at six-five, who had been co captain of his team at Harvard (later to become secretary of education for the Obama administration)—Barack was definitely on the slight side. Now, not everyone in our group was a big guy. My longtime friend and colleague John Rogers—who was captain of the team at Princeton when I arrived to play there and who opened doors when I entered the business world—was only six feet tall, more than an inch shorter than Barack. Then again, Rogers packed so much power into how he moved and shot the ball that he would later famously beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. So, looking at Obama as he was then, you might have come to the conclusion that he'd be hitting the hardwood most of the time. Not so. Of course, I knew that in basketball—as in life—you never want to infer too much from appearances. That said, I gave him brownie points for toughness.


Next Story