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Originally published Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Obama "plays to win" on basketball court

On the morning of the biggest speech of his life, Barack Obama found himself, quite literally, sidelined.

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — On the morning of the biggest speech of his life, Barack Obama found himself, quite literally, sidelined.

Obama shot baskets alone at the Denver Athletic Club, talking trash to friends as they ran the basketball court in what had become a campaign ritual, the pickup hoops game. Worried he might be elbowed in the jaw hours before he was to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, the players persuaded Obama he'd better sit this one out.

"There was a particular concern about not wanting him to turn up with a busted lip," said Alan King, a Chicago attorney and a regular in Obama's movable basketball games.

On some of the most momentous days on the election calendar, Obama has defused the tension by running the basketball court. The tradition began the day of the Iowa caucuses in January. Obama set up a game while nervously awaiting the caucus results, knowing a poor showing might have killed off his campaign.

He played ball; he finished first in the caucuses.

Obama and his crew skipped Election Day games in New Hampshire and Nevada — and lost the balloting in both states. Was there a connection?

"He was trying to figure out what we did differently in Iowa," said Eric Whitaker, a friend since graduate school at Harvard. "He said, 'We played basketball in Iowa, and we didn't play in New Hampshire and Nevada. We have to start playing again.'

"We've played every primary day ever since."

Old friends from Chicago have flown in just to play. To round out the teams, Obama plucks a few athletically inclined aides and any stray players who happen to be in the gym that day. Games may last an hour or two, with two teams of five squaring off as Secret Service agents stand guard. The public and the media usually are barred.

Play is competitive. Obama bruised a rib playing the day of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries in May, when Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias knocked him to the floor.

"Barack was between Alexi and the basket," Whitaker said. "Alexi lowered his shoulder and took him out."

Vic Lombardi, a Denver sports TV anchor recruited to play in a game that same month, said the competition was so fierce that one of Obama's sneakers came apart.

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"There've been a couple of plays where you see him go down and you're just like, 'Oh, man. That could be bad,' " said Reggie Love, 26, Obama's personal aide, who played basketball and football at Duke University.

Regulars include Love, King and Arne Duncan, chief executive of the Chicago public schools, who played professionally in Australia. Marty Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama's campaign, often plays, along with Whitaker, the Harvard friend who is now executive vice president of the University of Chicago Medical Center, and John Rogers, founder of the investment firm Ariel Capital Management.

Obama, 47, has been playing most of his life. He played on a high-school team that won the state championship, although he was not a starter.

Teammates at Punahou School in Honolulu recall a teenage "Barry" Obama who was bulkier and flashier than today, a player who liked to drive the lane and take double-pump shots.

Friends said his game has evolved. Less dazzle, more thought. He moves without the ball in hopes of getting open and looks to pass to the player cutting toward the basket. But he has the same competitive drive.

"He's got a killer instinct," said Duncan, who is 6-foot-5 and played on Harvard's basketball team. "There are a lot of folks who play for the workout or because it's something to do. Barack plays to win."

In April, Obama scrimmaged with the University of North Carolina men's squad, one of the best teams in the country. A skinny 6-foot-2, he looked small and out of his depth as he tried to keep up with some of the nation's top college players.

But Marcus Ginyard, a guard and forward, said: "He wasn't scared to stick his nose in there. A couple of times we were a little nervous about a collision. It wouldn't be too good for him, considering how small he was."

In the Obama campaign, every conceivable asset is deployed to win votes. In a bid to register voters before the Indiana primary, the campaign dangled a chance to play a game of three-on-three with Obama as a reward for registering the most voters.

The game took place April 25 at a middle-school gym in Kokomo. The players included a Marion high-school junior and an Indiana University, Kokomo, freshman, each of whom registered more than 150 voters. Another was Alison Bales, a 6-7 women's basketball star whose appearance did not hurt at a time Obama was battling for the women's vote against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama's team won 15-5.

The biggest date on the political calendar is Nov. 4, Election Day. King expects that Obama will play even on that most white-knuckled of days.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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