The 'Rat-Ballers': Obama's High School Crew

Former friends remember 'Barry' Obama

April 26, 2007 — -- The year was 1979 and Hawaii's Punahou High School basketball team was in the state finals, dominating, 32-11, at the half.

Out on the court was No. 23, but long before Michael Jordan made that number famous, another player was standing out for other reasons. His name was Barry Obama.

Sometimes called "Barry O'bomber" for his jump shot, that player is better known today as presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. At least, that's how he's known everywhere else.

Obama's teammates Alan Lum and Dan Hale say those years with the kid they called "Barry" are some of their most memorable. The three friends were part of a basketball-obsessed group of students known as the "Rat-ballers."

"I mean in that forum of a basketball or a pickup game or you know, as a teammate. … He just had something about him. He had this charismatic nature," Hale said.

And despite the nice suits and crisp ties Obama currently wears, both men say they still see him as Barry. "I see Barry, but he's a lot skinnier. … And he looks good," Lum said.

In a Private School, Barry Stands Out

With more than 3,000 students, Punahou is the largest private school in the country, and it sits on a lush, sprawling campus in Honolulu. And while the school is elite and wealthy, the young Obama was not.

It was the 1970s and Obama was one of the few black students on campus. The son of a white mother and black father, he attended Punahou on a scholarship starting in the fifth grade.

Obama's parents were divorced. He barely knew his father and spent most of his time living with his grandparents.

"For my grandparents, my admission into Punahou Academy heralded the start of something grand, an elevation in the family status that they took great pains to let everyone know," Obama writes in "Dreams From My Father," his memoir of those years.

"They were always here with him and I remember. I remember Grandpa being kind of a funny guy," said Pal Eldridge, Obama's former math teacher. "I mean he was always … kind of a character, but you know, it was always good to be around him because he was always joking with people too."

Teachers and friends here say there's actually quite a lot about Obama that hasn't changed, right down to the way he holds himself. "The way he walks, yeah. Exactly the same," Lum said.

Obama's coach, however, remembers one thing that has changed. Back then, Obama never went anywhere without his basketball, a ball given to him by his absent father. And he remembers Obama's drive, always pushing for more minutes on the court. He says that while Obama wasn't the best on the team, he might have worked the hardest.

"I can remember him being here early and playing before school," said his coach, Chris McLachlin. "I remember him bouncing his ball, books in one hand, ball in the other hand. Shooting baskets during recess or at lunchtime. I remember him shooting baskets after school. I remember him being, probably, in the gym when he wasn't supposed to be. When there wasn't a teacher but he went there anyway, he just had to shoot."

The Other Obama

But there was another Barry Obama that even his closest friends at Punahou never saw. It was a young man who often felt very much alone, who was struggling with his own identity, his own race and what it means to be black in America.

"I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant," Obama writes in "Dreams."

The basketball court became a place of refuge. His old friends say they had no idea of his struggle until they read his book more than 20 years later.

"In reading that … it doesn't surprise me at all that he said that because we were all going through our things out there," said Lum. "I mean, I didn't know to the extent of what he was going through for sure but we were all going through our things. And maybe that's why, the basketball court was kind of, a sanctuary for us too. … Kind of bring us together and. … Get us away."

And it would become the very place where Obama would refine perhaps his most important talent: his ability to communicate.

"He could beat anybody in a debate and we wouldn't even realize we got beat because we'd end up agreeing with him," Hale said. "He would be very straight to the point and then he'd just have a way of just getting people to agree."

In Punahou, Barry Lives On

Today even from a distance, Obama is still very much a part of Punahou, from articles in the school newsletter to fundraisers for his presidential bid.

His old coach remembers the last time he saw Obama in person a few years ago. He says he didn't want to bother the newly famous politician so he stayed off to the side.

"Part way through his speech," McLachlin said, "he kind of caught my eye in the back of the chapel and said, 'Coach Mac, how you doing? You know I used to play basketball here you guys and I really wasn't as good as I thought I was. Was I coach?' and we sort of laughed about it."

McLachlin continued. "He sort of admitted, you know, maybe I pushed the envelope a little bit too much on the minutes thing and I really wasn't as good as I thought I was and it was kind of, I thought, a very cogent remark."

Eldridge agreed. "It's like fatherly pride that I sit here and see that one of my students, you know, is running for president of the United States," he said. "That's almost beyond belief that if something like this happens that, you know, I don't know if I could take it."

Obama's communication skills continue to impress Eldridge. "I e-mail him and he writes, he e-mails me back," he said. "In three days, I got an e-mail in three days from Barry and I'm thinking, 'Geez, how many presidential candidates would write their, you know, former teacher back?"

After graduation Obama left the Punahou School for Columbia University, Harvard Law School and eventually the U.S. Senate. But first, along with his fellow Rat-ballers, he went on to win the state championships -- the best basketball team in school history.

No. 23 wasn't a star back then, but he was a standout. And his teammates are still cheering for him.