By The Politico's Hans Nichols.
Until recently, the players on Hawaii's 1979 state basketball championship team thought their glory days were behind them, consigned to yearbooks and faded newspaper clippings.
Now lots of people are interested in helping graduates of Punahou School jog their foggy memories, trolling for revelations about a young man who spent much of his time that season riding the bench. The Los Angeles Times weighed in the other day. Vanity Fair is coming soon.
So far, the candidacy of the man known by his high school friends as Barry Obama has been good for the Hawaii economy and bad for newsroom budgets. Since January, more than a dozen news organizations from around the globe, from the BBC to TV Asahi to People magazine, have dispatched reporters to Oahu.
Most classmates and teachers recall an easygoing, slightly chunky young man, with the same infectious smile he sports today. Yet many say they have trouble reconciling their nearly 30-year-old memories with Obama's more recent descriptions of himself as a brooding and sometimes angry adolescent, grappling with his mixed race and the void left by a father who gave him his black skin but little else.
The attention on Obama's time at Punahou — a country club campus with nine tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and an endowment of $180 million — represents the next important challenge for a celebrity politician who leapt onto the national stage with a few swift strides.
Obama's presidential prospects have been fueled in large part by an arresting life story: The son of a Kenyan goatherder, he wrestled with his dual identities to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and a member of the U.S. Senate. So far, it has been a narrative spun almost entirely on Obama's terms and in his own words — most prominently in his bestselling memoir, "Dreams From My Father."
Now that life story is being edited by others. He is undergoing what some have called the "Profile Primary" — which is testing his ability to keep control of his public image, as journalists sketch portraits of the candidate as a young man and comb for contradictions and potential embarrassments in his past.
So far, this process has not yielded anything especially damaging to Obama's candidacy. But it has revealed the vagaries of memory, as well as the ambivalent emotions stirred among old acquaintances when someone they once knew becomes famous.
Dan Hale, the 6-foot-7-inch star center of the 1979 Punahou basketball team, said Obama's depiction of Hawaii as a place where race really mattered hardly resonates with him.
"I was certainly oblivious to a lot of what he references," Hale said in an interview. "If you look at our teams, that year I was the only white guy on the starting five. You had three part-Hawaiians, one Filipino and me."
But Hale said he is still enjoying the novelty of a famous classmate. "It's good for me, pre-Alzheimer's, to try and remember this stuff," he said, struggling to recall something other than Obama's love for basketball and his improbable hook shot. "If only I had saved that Nerf hoop we used to dunk on. I'd put that up on e-Bay."
Alan Lum, another teammate from the championship squad who now teaches second grade at Punahou, has done enough interviews that his fellow teachers have started to rib him about his newfound fame. After a recent lunch with a reporter, he winked at a table of faculty-lounge colleagues and joked, "This one is with Playgirl."
The fun may wear off, if history is any guide. Journalistic excavations of a presidential candidate's past often turn ugly. In the 2004 presidential campaign, both John F. Kerry and President Bush were embroiled in disputes over their Vietnam-era records, controversies that were stoked by the conflicting recollections of people who knew them.
Arkansas is filled with people still burned from their interactions with the national news media, which descended on the state during Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and stayed for his presidency, continuing to poke and prod at his business and personal dealings.
Obama's family is already insulating itself. "I am not giving any interviews," Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, curtly interjected when a reporter phoned. "I am in poor health."
The number at Dunham's apartment in a nondescript Honolulu high rise has not changed in more than a quarter-century. It is the same one that a young Obama wrote in the yearbook of a petite black-haired beauty named Kelli Furushima — the object of his high school crush.
She wistfully showed a reporter the love note Obama wrote in June 1979.
Furushima paused, then sighed, pointing out how the potential president was prone to drawing a little Afro atop the "B" and the "O" on his signature. "Isn't that sweet?" she asked. "You can see how he was much more sensitive than the other guys, even back then."
But Furushima, too, is learning to be on guard around the press. She said a woman from People came to visit with her and then walked away with the Punahou reunion list and all its phone numbers. "I don't want to accuse her of stealing it, but it was on the table when she arrived and it wasn't when she left," said Furushima.
A spokeswoman for People said the reporter, West Coast correspondent Maureen Harrington, did not take the list.
Meanwhile, the search continues for Obama's closest high school friends — the self-proclaimed "Basketball Jones," who raced around the island in Darin Maurer's two-toned beige VW van with the band Earth, Wind and Fire blaring from the cassette deck.
Some of that crew has stayed in Hawaii, but others have moved "off island." The race to track them down and coax them to open up likely will include reporters as well as "opposition research" experts for political rivals.
"You need to find Greg Orme," instructed Obama's old basketball coach, Chris McLachin. "If this story is eight paragraphs, seven of them go to Greg. I get one, maybe."
For most of their high school years, Orme and Obama lived and loved basketball, even if their hours of practice never translated into much playing time on game day.
But Orme is a hard man to find. "Greg? He's kind of in and out. He's off the grid," said Hale, who is now the school's head basketball coach.
Most of his teachers and friends express sorrow that they did not know of Obama's racial anguish or inner demons. "I wish I would have known that those things were bothering him, or if they did bother him," said Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher from grades nine through 12. "Maybe we could have helped him. But he seemed to have coped pretty well."
Others are more skeptical that the boy known as Barry felt the angst described by Barack. Furushima said that many of her classmates have expressed dismay at Obama's rendering of the past.
"We are just such a mixed-up bag of races. It was hard to imagine that he felt that way, because he just seemed happy all the time, smiling all the time," she said. "We have so many tones of brown here. If someone is brown, they can be Samoan or Fijian or Tongan. I can't tell if someone is Fijian or black."
His middle school yearbook captures the multiracial mood that many Hawaiians say has always defined the "Aloha spirit." In front of a chalkboard with "Mixed Races of America" written in a student's hand, Obama waved the peace sign for the camera.
On the lower half of the seventh-grade page is the same group, under a heading of "Useless Races in America." The joke, it seems, is on intolerance.
"In Hawaii, our diversity defines us; it doesn't divide us," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a close friend of Obama's father in graduate school in the early '60s. "We all come from so many backgrounds, we have to get along."
Obama's teammates for the most part are careful not to judge an old friend, even if his memories of racial attitudes at Punahou differ from their own. "I would never say, ah, that didn't happen," said Hale. "But I was pretty wrapped up in my own world back then."
If Obama did show flashes of anger or hurt, according to friends and teammates, it sprang from his lack of minutes on the basketball court more than his angst as a young black man in a multiracial society.
There are, however, chapters in Obama's high school narrative that are not subject to dispute. Just as he was the only African-American on the basketball team, he was also the only jock working on the school's literary magazine, Ka Wai Ola. In his poem, "An Old Man," there are glimpses of a tortured adolescent as well as a budding orator.
"I saw an old forgotten man/On an old, forgotten road," begins the 12-line poem. The man is "staggering and numb" but eventually "pulls out forgotten dignity from under his flaking coat,/And walks a straight line along the crooked world."
That thoughtful poet is not remembered by any of his basketball buddies, coaches or friends. Through the haze of the '70s, they recall only the "rat baller" who was always up for a game.
Of course, Obama embraced the image of the athlete, dribbling a ball to school and between classes. It was also how he wanted to be remembered.
On his senior yearbook page, he left behind these words: "We go play hoop."
By Hans Nichols
TM & © 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company