Obama drags pivot foot all the way across Eurasia

All this talk about foreign policy “pivots” in the last few weeks has completed our disillusionment with President Barack Obama, who claims to be a lifelong lover of basketball. 
There seems to be a total absence of basketball players among the critics of his policies (oh for the days of Sen. Bill Bradley, D-NJ), We say this because Obama has dragged his pivot foot all the way from the Dneiper River to the South China Sea and no one in the native home of basketball seems to have noticed. This is not something he could get away with at the Barkley’s Center in Brooklyn, where Dmitri Prokhorov's Nets, including forward Andrei Kirilenko, play. Even President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping can see a dragging pivot foot leaving a streak all the way across Eurasia.  -- blj
Asia Times
China pivot fuels Eurasian century
By Pepe Escobar 
A specter is haunting Washington, an unnerving vision of a Sino-Russian alliance wedded to an expansive symbiosis of trade and commerce across much of the Eurasian land mass - at the expense of the United States. 

And no wonder Washington is anxious. That alliance is already a done deal in a variety of ways: through the BRICS group of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian counterweight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; inside the Group of 20; and via the 120-member-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). 

Trade and commerce are just part of the future bargain. Synergies in the development of new military technologies beckon as well. After Russia's Star Wars-style, ultra-sophisticated S-500 air defense anti-missile system comes online in 2018, Beijing is sure to want a version of it. Meanwhile, Russia is about to sell dozens of state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters to the Chinese as Beijing and Moscow move to seal an aviation-industrial partnership. 

This week should provide the first real fireworks in the celebration of a new Eurasian century-in-the-making when Russian President Vladimir Putin drops in on Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. 

You remember "Pipelineistan," all those crucial oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing Eurasia that make up the true circulatory system for the life of the region. Now, it looks like the ultimate Pipelineistan deal, worth US$1 trillion and 10 years in the making, will be signed off on as well. In it, the giant, state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom will agree to supply the giant state-controlled China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) with 3.75 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas a day for no less than 30 years, starting in 2018. That's the equivalent of a quarter of Russia's gas exports to all of Europe. China's present daily gas demand is around 16 billion cubic feet a day, and imports account for 31.6% of total consumption. 

Gazprom may still collect the bulk of its profits from Europe, but Asia could turn out to be its Everest. The company will use this mega-deal to boost investment in Eastern Siberia and the whole region will be reconfigured as a privileged gas hub for Japan and South Korea as well. If you want to know why no key country in Asia has been willing to "isolate" Russia in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis - and in defiance of the Obama administration - look no further than Pipelineistan. 

Exit the Petrodollar, enter the Gas-o-Yuan
And then, talking about anxiety in Washington, there's the fate of the petrodollar to consider, or rather the "thermonuclear" possibility that Moscow and Beijing will agree on payment for the Gazprom-CNPC deal not in petrodollars but in Chinese yuan. 

One can hardly imagine a more tectonic shift, with Pipelineistan intersecting with a growing Sino-Russian political-economic-energy partnership. Along with it goes the future possibility of a push, led again by China and Russia, toward a new international reserve currency - actually a basket of currencies - that would supersede the dollar (at least in the optimistic dreams of BRICS members). 

Right after the potentially game-changing Sino-Russian summit comes a BRICS summit in Brazil in July. That's when a $100 billion BRICS development bank, announced in 2012, will officially be born as a potential alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as a source of project financing for the developing world. 

More BRICS cooperation meant to bypass the dollar is reflected in the "Gas-o-yuan", as in natural gas bought and paid for in Chinese currency. Gazprom is even considering marketing bonds in yuan as part of the financial planning for its expansion. Yuan-backed bonds are already trading in Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and most recently Frankfurt. 

Nothing could be more sensible for the new Pipelineistan deal than to have it settled in yuan. Beijing would pay Gazprom in that currency (convertible into roubles); Gazprom would accumulate the yuan; Russia would then buy myriad made-in-China goods and services in yuan convertible into roubles. 

It's common knowledge that banks in Hong Kong, from Standard Chartered to HSBC - as well as others closely linked to China via trade deals - have been diversifying into the yuan, which implies that it could become one of the de facto global reserve currencies even before it's fully convertible. (Beijing is unofficially working for a fully convertible yuan by 2018.) 

The Russia-China gas deal is inextricably tied up with the energy relationship between the European Union and Russia. After all, the bulk of Russia's gross domestic product comes from oil and gas sales, as does much of its leverage in the Ukraine crisis. In turn, Germany depends on Russia for a hefty 30% of its natural gas supplies. Yet Washington's geopolitical imperatives - spiced up with Polish hysteria - have meant pushing Brussels to find ways to "punish" Moscow in the future energy sphere (while not imperiling present day energy relationships). 

There's a consistent rumble in Brussels these days about the possible cancellation of the projected 16 billion euro (US$22 billion) South Stream pipeline, whose construction is to start in June. On completion, it would pump yet more Russian natural gas to Europe - in this case, underneath the Black Sea (bypassing Ukraine) to Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Italy, and Austria. 

Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have already made it clear that they are firmly opposed to any cancellation, and cancellation is probably not in the cards. After all, the only obvious alternative is Caspian Sea gas from Azerbaijan, and that isn't likely to happen unless the EU develops its own construction projects. 

In any case, Azerbaijan doesn't have enough capacity to supply the levels of natural gas needed, and other actors like Kazakhstan, plagued with infrastructure problems, or unreliable Turkmenistan, which prefers to sell its gas to China, are already largely out of the picture. And don't forget that South Stream, coupled with subsidiary energy projects, will create a lot of jobs and investment in many of the most economically devastated EU nations. 

Nonetheless, such EU threats, however unrealistic, only serve to accelerate Russia's increasing symbiosis with Asian markets. For Beijing especially, it's a win-win situation. After all, between energy supplied across seas policed and controlled by the US Navy and steady, stable land routes out of Siberia, it's no contest. 

Pick your own Silk Road
Of course, the US dollar remains the top global reserve currency, involving 33% of global foreign exchange holdings at the end of 2013, according to the IMF. It was, however, at 55% in 2000. Nobody knows the percentage in yuan (and Beijing isn't talking), but the IMF notes that reserves in "other currencies" in emerging markets have been up 400% since 2003. 

The Federal Reserve is arguably monetizing 70% of the US government debt in an attempt to keep interest rates from heading skywards. Pentagon adviser Jim Rickards, as well as every Hong Kong-based banker, tends to believe that the Fed is bust (though they won't say it on the record). No one can even imagine the extent of the possible future deluge the US dollar might experience amid a $1.4 quadrillion Mount Ararat of financial derivatives. 

Don't think that this is the death knell of Western capitalism, however, just the faltering of that reigning economic faith, neoliberalism, still the official ideology of the United States, the overwhelming majority of the European Union, and parts of Asia and South America. 

As far as what might be called the "authoritarian neoliberalism" of the Middle Kingdom, what's not to like at the moment? China has proven that there is a result-oriented alternative to the Western "democratic" capitalist model for nations aiming to be successful. It's building not one, but myriad new Silk Roads, far-reaching webs of high-speed railways, highways, pipelines, ports, and fiber-optic networks across huge parts of Eurasia. These include a Southeast Asian road, a Central Asian road, an Indian Ocean "maritime highway" and even a high-speed rail line through Iran and Turkey reaching all the way to Germany. 

In April, when President Xi Jinping visited the city of Duisburg on the Rhine River, with the world's largest inland harbor and right in the heartland of Germany's Ruhr steel industry, he made an audacious proposal: a new "economic Silk Road" should be built between China and Europe, on the basis of the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe railway, which already runs from China to Kazakhstan, to continue through Russia, Belarus, Poland, and finally Germany. That's 15 days by train, 20 less than for cargo ships sailing from China's eastern seaboard. Now that would represent the ultimate geopolitical earthquake in terms of integrating economic growth across Eurasia. 

Keep in mind that, if no bubbles burst, China is about to become - and remain - the number one global economic power, a position it enjoyed for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But don't tell London hagiographers; they still believe that US hegemony will last, well, forever. 

Take me to Cold War 2.0
Despite recent serious financial struggles, the BRICS countries have been consciously working to become a counterforce to the original and - having tossed Russia out in March - once again Group of 7, or G-7. They are eager to create a global architecture to replace the one first imposed in the wake of World War II, and they see themselves as a potential challenge to the exceptionalist and unipolar world that Washington imagines for our future (with itself as the global robocop and NATO as its robo-police force). Historian and imperialist cheerleader Ian Morris, in his book War! What is it Good For?, defines the US as the ultimate "globocop" and "the last best hope of Earth". If that globocop "wearies of its
role", he writes, "there is no plan B". 

Well, there is a plan BRICS - or so the BRICS nations would like to think, at least. And when the BRICS do act in this spirit on the global stage, they quickly conjure up a curious mix of fear, hysteria, and pugnaciousness in the Washington establishment. 

Take Christopher Hill as an example. The former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and US ambassador to Iraq is now an advisor with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm deeply connected to the White House and the State Department. When Russia was down and out, Hill used to dream of a hegemonic American "new world order". Now that the ungrateful Russians have spurned what "the West has been offering" - that is, "special status with NATO, a privileged relationship with the European Union, and partnership in international diplomatic endeavors" - they are, in his view, busy trying to revive the Soviet empire. Translation: if you're not our vassals, you're against us. Welcome to Cold War 2.0. 

The Pentagon has its own version of this directed not so much at Russia as at China, which, its think tank on future warfare claims, is already at war with Washington in a number of ways. So if it's not apocalypse now, it's Armageddon tomorrow. And it goes without saying that whatever's going wrong, as the Obama administration very publicly "pivots" to Asia and the American media fills with talk about a revival of Cold War-era "containment policy" in the Pacific, it's all China's fault. 

Embedded in the mad dash toward Cold War 2.0 are some ludicrous facts-on-the-ground: the US government, with $17.5 trillion in national debt and counting, is contemplating a financial showdown with Russia, the largest global energy producer and a major nuclear power, just as it's also promoting an economically unsustainable military encirclement of its largest creditor, China. 

Russia runs a sizeable trade surplus. Humongous Chinese banks will have no trouble helping Russian banks out if Western funds dry up. In terms of inter-BRICS cooperation, few projects beat a $30 billion oil pipeline in the planning stages that will stretch from Russia to India via Northwest China. 

Chinese companies are already eagerly discussing the possibility of taking part in the creation of a transport corridor from Russia into Crimea, as well as an airport, shipyard, and liquid natural gas terminal there. And there's another "thermonuclear" gambit in the making: the birth of a natural gas equivalent to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that would include Russia, Iran, and reportedly disgruntled US ally Qatar. 

The (unstated) BRICS long-term plan involves the creation of an alternative economic system featuring a basket of gold-backed currencies that would bypass the present America-centric global financial system. (No wonder Russia and China are amassing as much gold as they can.) The euro - a sound currency backed by large liquid bond markets and huge gold reserves - would be welcomed in as well. 

It's no secret in Hong Kong that the Bank of China has been using a parallel SWIFT network to conduct every kind of trade with Tehran, which is under a heavy US sanctions regime. With Washington wielding Visa and MasterCard as weapons in a growing Cold War-style economic campaign against Russia, Moscow is about to implement an alternative payment and credit card system not controlled by Western finance. An even easier route would be to adopt the Chinese Union Pay system, whose operations have already overtaken American Express in global volume. 

I'm just pivoting with myself
No amount of Obama administration "pivoting" to Asia to contain China (and threaten it with US Navy control of the energy sea lanes to that country) is likely to push Beijing far from its Deng Xiaoping-inspired, self-described "peaceful development" strategy meant to turn it into a global powerhouse of trade. 

Nor are the forward deployment of US or NATO troops in Eastern Europe or other such Cold-War-ish acts likely to deter Moscow from a careful balancing act: ensuring that Russia's sphere of influence in Ukraine remains strong without compromising trade and commercial, as well as political, ties with the European Union - above all, with strategic partner Germany. This is Moscow's Holy Grail; a free-trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which (not by accident) is mirrored in China's dream of a new Silk Road to Germany. 

Increasingly wary of Washington, Berlin for its part abhors the notion of Europe being caught in the grips of a Cold War 2.0. German leaders have more important fish to fry, including trying to stabilize a wobbly EU while warding off an economic collapse in southern and central Europe and the advance of ever more extreme rightwing parties. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, President Obama and his top officials show every sign of becoming entangled in their own pivoting - to Iran, to China, to Russia's eastern borderlands, and (under the radar) to Africa. The irony of all these military-first maneuvers is that they are actually helping Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing build up their own strategic depth in Eurasia and elsewhere, as reflected in Syria, or crucially in ever more energy deals. They are also helping cement the growing strategic partnership between China and Iran. The unrelenting Ministry of Truth narrative out of Washington about all these developments now carefully ignores the fact that, without Moscow, the "West" would never have sat down to discuss a final nuclear deal with Iran or gotten a chemical disarmament agreement out of Damascus. 

When the disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea and between that country and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyou islands meet the Ukraine crisis, the inevitable conclusion will be that both Russia and China consider their borderlands and sea lanes private property and aren't going to take challenges quietly - be it via NATO expansion, US military encirclement, or missile shields. Neither Beijing nor Moscow is bent on the usual form of imperialist expansion, despite the version of events now being fed to Western publics. Their "red lines" remain essentially defensive in nature, no matter the bluster sometimes involved in securing them. 

Whatever Washington may want or fear or try to prevent, the facts on the ground suggest that, in the years ahead, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran will only grow closer, slowly but surely creating a new geopolitical axis in Eurasia. Meanwhile, a discombobulated America seems to be aiding and abetting the deconstruction of its own unipolar world order, while offering the BRICS a genuine window of opportunity to try to change the rules of the game. 

Russia and China in pivot mode
In Washington's think-tank land, the conviction that the Obama administration should be focused on replaying the Cold War via a new version of containment policy to "limit the development of Russia as a hegemonic power" has taken hold. The recipe: weaponize the neighbors from the Baltic states to Azerbaijan to "contain" Russia. Cold War 2.0 is on because, from the point of view of Washington's elites, the first one never really left town. 

Yet as much as the US may fight the emergence of a multipolar, multi-powered world, economic facts on the ground regularly point to such developments. The question remains: will the decline of the hegemon be slow and reasonably dignified, or will the whole world be dragged down with it in what has been called "the Samson option"? 

While we watch the spectacle unfold, with no end-game in sight, keep in mind that a new force is growing in Eurasia, with the Sino-Russian strategic alliance threatening to dominate its heartland along with great stretches of its inner rim. Now, that's a nightmare of Mackinderesque proportions from Washington's point of view. Think, for instance, of how Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser who became a mentor on global politics to President Obama, would see it. 

In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski argued that "the struggle for global primacy [would] continue to be played" on the Eurasian "chessboard", of which "Ukraine was a geopolitical pivot". "If Moscow regains control over Ukraine," he wrote at the time, Russia would "automatically regain the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia." 

That remains most of the rationale behind the American imperial containment policy - from Russia's European "near abroad" to the South China Sea. Still, with no end-game in sight, keep your eye on Russia pivoting to Asia, China pivoting across the world, and the BRICS hard at work trying to bring about the new Eurasian Century. 
Washington Post
President Obama’s basketball love affair has roots in Hawaii high school team
By David Maraniss
To say that President Obama loves basketball understates the role of the sport in his life. He has been devoted to the game for 40 years now, ever since the father he did not know and never saw again gave him his first ball during a brief Christmastime visit. Basketball is central to his self identity. It is global yet American-born, much like him. It is where he found a place of comfort, a family, a mode of expression, a connection from his past to his future. With foundation roots in the Kansas of his white forebears, basketball was also the city game, helping him find his way toward blackness, his introduction to an African American culture that was distant to him when he was young yet his by birthright .
As a teenager growing up in Hawaii,he dreamed the big hoops dream. He had posters of the soaring Dr. J on his bedroom wall. A lefty, he practiced the spin moves of Tiny Archibald. And in the yearbook of an older high school classmate who wanted to be a lawyer, he wrote: “Anyway, been great knowing you and I hope we keep in touch. Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Some day when I am an all-pro basketballer, and I want to sue my team for more money, I’ll call on you. Barry.”
The teenage Obama: Here are 11 things you may not know about our 44th president’s adolescence in Hawaii, from David Maraniss’s new biography “Barack Obama: The Story” (Simon & Schuster).
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It never happened, of course. But the adolescent known as Barry kept on playing, even after he took back his given name of Barack and went off to college at Occidental, Columbia and Harvard and went into community organizing, then politics in Illinois. He played whenever he could on playgrounds, in fancy sport clubs, at home, on the road. During his first trip back to Honolulu after being elected president, he rounded up a bunch of his old high school pals, got the key to the gym at Punahou School, and went at it. When the pickup game was over, Darryl Gabriel, who had been the star of their championship-winning team, found himself muttering to another former teammate, “Man, Barack is a lot better than Barry ever was!”
In his presidency, basketball has become a recurring theme, one of the visible ways that he has escaped the confines of the White House and the pressures of his job. He’s sat courtside at a Washington Wizards game, cheering on his team, the Chicago Bulls. He’s talked trash on the court behind the White House, taken in a game between North Carolina and Michigan State on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, and invited ESPN into the Oval Office to watch him fill out his bracket for March Madness.
This is the story of the roots of his obsession, back in his days as a teenager, when Barry Obama played on one of the best high school teams in the country.
* * *
It was one thing to play basketball every day on the outdoor courts on the Punahou School campus in the late 1970s, quite another to play for the school team. The athletic model at the elite Honolulu prep school could be compared to major league baseball and its farm system. There were three levels of minor teams after ninth grade intramurals -- Junior Varsity A, Junior Varsity AA, and Varsity A -- before a player reached the major leagues of Varsity AA.
Obama moved his way up the system until finally, in his senior year, he made it to the top. In one of the scenes with Keith Kakugawa, the character he called Ray in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama broached the subject of basketball style, complaining that he did not get the breaks of other players on the team because “they play like white boys do” and that was the style preferred by the coach. Since Kakugawa was two years ahead of Barry, if this conversation took place he would have had to have been a sophomore, a fact that raises two contradictions. First, as a sophomore he was a long ways from making Varsity AA, and second, the head coach he was complaining about, Chris McLachlin, was on temporary leave during Obama’s sophomore year and did not return until the following season, when Kakugawa was gone.
In his junior year, Barry competed for a spot on the top varsity but lost out to Joe Hanson, one of his friends from the Choom Gang., the loose band of boys who found solace in smoking marijuana and playing basketball. The next year, Hanson inadvertently smoothed the way for Barry’s rise to the top varsity by flunking out of Punahou and creating an open roster spot. There was slightly more to it than that. For Obama and his pal Greg Orme and two juniors, Alan Lum and Matt Hiu, to make the squad, Coach McLachlin had to cut two seniors who had been on the roster the year before, including the son of the athletic director.
“It was so hard to make the team in those days. . .and McLachlin had to cut some veterans to make room for us,” recalled Lum, who decades later would be the Punahou basketball coach himself. “So it was amazing just to be on the team.. . .You look back and say that means Barack must have been special. Why would you go through the process of cutting a senior who had already been on the team to keep another senior?”
If Obama was unhappy about his playing time, the truth is he had to work exceedingly hard just to make the team. He made it more because of his intense passion for the game -- his will -- than anything else. The notion that he was hampered in his progress because his style was more playground-oriented, that he played “black” and the coach coached “white,” distorts the dynamics of his own game, the performance of the other players and the coaching philosophy of McLachlin. The reality was that Barry, as skilled and intelligent a player as he was, could not stand out in this group. He had good court sense and an ability to slash to the basket, but was an unreliable outside shooter and not much of a jumper, contradicting the stereotype of “black” ball. Decades later, a story emerged that his nickname was Barry O’Bomber, playing off his last name and a propensity to fire away from long range, but few team members recalled that nickname and said the real gunner was Darin Maurer, who was better than Obama but barely got more playing time. Maurer never started at Punahou but went on to play Division I basketball at Stanford as a walk-on. Maurer was a haole, the native Hawaiian slang for a caucasian; race had nothing to do with it.
The subject of Obama and basketball reaches into the complexities of self-perception and race. Since his self-discovery served as the organizing theme of his memoir, it was understandable that he focused his life through that racial lens, and that for dramatic effect he sometimes placed more emphasis on certain provocative scenes and topics. The tendency in his self-portrait was to present himself as blacker and more disaffected than he was, if only slightly so. He did this regarding his portrayal of both Frank Marshall Davis, the Frank character in the book, old and black and cynical; and Keith Kakugawa, the Ray character, young and black and angry -- enhancing their roles in his teenage life at the expense of other people who spent vastly more time with him. And he did the same when it came to basketball. “He loved basketball so much, I think a lot of things have been blown out of proportion,” said Lum. “Anybody wants to play. His style of play was flashy, but it was okay. McLachlin didn’t really put a damper on it. If you did a behind-the-back pass, McLachlin would frown on that, but when it came down to playing time, he [Barry] wasn’t one of the five best.” In fact, Lum and other teammates pointed out, Barry was only occasionally considered one of the top eight, the number of players McLachlin usually used in his rotation, following the substitution pattern of John Wooden, the brilliant coach at UCLA.
These points are not meant to diminish the important role basketball played in Obama’s coming of age as he began to explore black culture. He saw in it what he saw in jazz, an ineffable artistic expression of what it meant to be black and cool, a brother. The first spark of soulful recognition of basketball came not long after he arrived back from Indonesia at age 10, when his grandfather took him to see Red Rocha’s 1971 University of Hawaii Rainbows, a team fueled by black players who came over from the mainland and played with up-tempo flair. That team (nicknamed the Fab Five, long before a Michigan quintet appropriated the name) caught the public’s attention by earning a national ranking, winning the Rainbow Classic and more than 20 other games, and getting a coveted invitation to the still-popular National Invitational Tournament in New York. It also caught the attention of young Barry, and when he grew older he often made his way to the UH campus himself to watch the team or play pickup ball at their gym.
The question of whether Coach McLachlin sufficiently appreciated Barry’s style of play diverts attention from the deeper story of the 1978-79 Punahou team, Obama’s role on it, and the impact it had on his life. If the Choom Gang represented his boredom, alienation, and need to find family even in mild rebellion, if pickup games on outdoor courts gave him a place where he could test himself and find himself, the Punahou basketball team in many ways made him a member of a cohesive unit with shared goals for the first time in his life. It also gave him his first taste of what it felt like to win, to be adored, to be a champion. He would acknowledge later that McLachlin was “a terrific coach” and he learned a lot that year “about discipline, about handling disappointments, being more team-oriented, and realizing that not everything is about you.” In his rendering, McLachlin came across as a traditionalist coach who stressed fundamentals at the expense of free expression on the court, which is only part of the story. While he did stress fundamentals, McLachlin was a forward-thinker whose philosophy at times came closer to New Age than Old School.
A 1964 graduate of Punahou with a master’s degree from Stanford who had already led the team to the state championship in 1975 and to the state finals again in 1977 and 1978, McLachlin looked for any edge he could find. He had his players practice meditation, lying down on the court, finding their center, learning breathing techniques to deal with stress. He emphasized repetition and visualization. Shoot 100 free throws in a row. Visualize making 100 in a row. Don’t leave the gym until you make 20 in a row. Step to the line in a game with that vision in your mind. “We try to teach them to re-create their best day all the time,” he said. He gave them self-evaluation sheets and went over the answers with them, and told his players to read Wayne Dyer’s books on positive thinking, including Pulling Your Own Strings and Your Erroneous Zones (“We looked at each other like, what?” recalled one of his star players, Dan Hale). He trained his boys to be prepared for anything. Always have a backup plan was his daily mantra. If your car broke down on the way to practice, that was not an excuse. You should have prepared for that and had a contingency plan. “He expected you to have Plan B in place,” said Tom Topolinski, a backup big man on the 1978-79 team. “He would say, ‘That is part of life.’”
Along with mental agility, McLachlin was obsessed with physical conditioning. His practices lasted an hour and a half, all intensity. “His theory was the best conditioned teams make the least mistakes, so he killed us,” said Lum. “A lot of sprints, a lot of defensive sliding and five-man weaves where the ball couldn’t touch the ground. If someone forgot and the ball hit the ground we had to start over again.” During layup drills before games, he enlisted his wife to keep track of every shot; anyone who missed a layup knew he would be running “suicide” sprints in practice later. But there were rewards for performing at his level. McLachlin treated his players like adults, members of an elite club, and let them use his on-campus hideaway apartment to hang out and listen to music between classes. He wanted his players to think and act more like a college squad than a high school team, and drew his inspiration and game strategies from the best college coaches. “It was virtually unacceptable to him for us to play at a high school level,” said Topolinski.
Larry Tavares, his starting point guard, said McLachlin confined his criticism to practice and was upbeat during games. It was not just his coaching that made Punahou special. He benefited from a bounty of exceptional talent on the roster Barry Obama made as a senior. They had graduated one star from the team that lost the state finals the year before (Mark Tuinei, who went on to play pro football as an offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys for 15 years before his untimely 1999 death from an overdose of heroin and ecstasy). The returning players came in with the attitude that “we’re gonna die on the court before we lose again,” said Dan Hale, who replaced Tuinei as a six-foot-six sophomore center (so skilled he had made the team the year before as a freshman). Hale was joined on the front line by John Kamana III, the second-generation Squeeze, a sprinter as physical as he was fast, who could out-leap players half a foot taller, and went on the play fullback at Southern Cal; and Boy Eldredge, from Punahou’s legendary hapa-Hawaiian Eldredge clan, an all-around athlete who was considered the team’s best defensive player and inspirational leader. Tavares, as the point guard (another hapa teenager, his father of Portuguese descent, his mother Filipino), was a three-sport letterman and smooth floor-leader, though not much of an outside shooter (McLachlin established the Taveres Rules detailing where on the court he could shoot and where he could not). And the star of the team was Darryl Gabriel, the shooting guard, who went on to play Division 1 college ball at Loyola-Marymount.
Squeeze, Gabes, T, Danny, and Boy. No team in Hawaii, and few on the mainland, featured a more versatile starting five. All five went on to play college sports -- baseball, football, or basketball. Topo was the first big man off the bench, and Orme the first small forward – two of Barry’s Choom Gang pals. Next in, usually, was the gunner, Darin Maurer, and the reserve point guard, Jason Oshima. Obama was in that mix, and often played well when he came in, but only as the eighth, ninth or tenth man.
Troy Egami, who covered the team for the student newspaper, wrote a feature story in which he described McLachlin “giggling boyishly to himself” as he watched “the ritual slam dunk” contest his players enjoyed after practice. “Pyschos, all of them,” McLachlin muttered under his breath, smiling. Obama, the hapa black on the team, might have been one of the psychos, but he was also among the most earthbound – he could not jump high enough to dunk the ball. “Barry’s lack of ups was obvious,” recalled Topolinski. In fact, McLachlin coined a phrase for the phenomenon: Barry Obama, famous for his no-jump jump shot! The coach not only tolerated the high-flying dunk, he made it part of his game plan, especially against Punahou’s rival, University High, whose six-foot-ten center could change the intensity of a game with thunderous slams. Dan Hale was instructed to sprint down court whenever that center dunked so Punahou could abruptly switch the momentum with a countering slam at the other end. This was part of McLachlin’s larger notion of always having a backup plan. “He even thought that through -- the psychology of the dunk,” said Hale. “We had to be prepared.”
If Obama and Maurer in particular carried a grudge against McLachlin for not giving them more playing time, they did not disrupt the team. “I never saw [Barry] complain or do anything detrimental to the team, to what we were doing,” said Hale, who played countless hours with Barry in pickup games. “Maurer wanted more playing time. Everybody did. They all worked hard for it.” If anything, their inner anger only fueled the team. They channeled their frustrations into practice, pounding away at the starters as leaders of the second string. “We had good, tough practices” Hale noted. “Guys would go at it hard. Taking charges, getting in each other’s faces. Maurer was leading the charge for the second team, but also Topo and Barry. They were never going to concede a shot. You got hammered. You never thought you could just take off a practice. You fought every day.” Most of the time Barry had Squeeze Kamana or Boy Eldredge, and those guys are tough. But we could play with those guys and it was all to better the team. That was the understanding. Your contribution may not be on the court that night at eight o’clock, but what the team reaps is the benefit of your dedication during the week.”
After his team finished the preseason schedule, including winning the St. Anthony’s Invitational on Maui, McLachlin became increasingly stingy with playing time for Obama and Maurer and most of the other subs. One exception, though not by choice, came in the game against ‘Iolani, a smaller private school in Honolulu, on the Friday night of Feb. 2, the first night of the Carnival. In the Punahou social world, nothing compares to the Carnival, a two-day extravaganza of exotic foods (particularly the school’s legendary malasada Portuguese doughnut-like treat), art, auctions, white elephant flea markets, and amusement rides run by the junior class but involving the entire student body along with faculty and parents. The purpose is to raise money for academic scholarships such as the one that helped Barry Obama. With the considerable wealth available from the Punahou family, the fund-raising in this case goes far beyond the normal school bake sale. For the 1979 Carnival the gross profits were $360,519.01.
But basketball players at Punahou considered Carnival weekend a jinx. There would be a basketball game on opening night, and usually something would go wrong.
On that Friday afternoon, Barry and the boys were driving back to school after a shoot-around at Neal S. Blaisdell Center, the multiuse arena between Waikiki and downtown Honolulu where they played their league and tournament games. The shoot-arounds were part of the pre-game ritual. They returned in a car caravan, with several players jammed into Darin Maurer’s van. On the approach to campus, they passed the girls softball team, and Darryl Gabriel, the star shooting guard, could not resist opening the van’s sliding door and yelling out to the girls. Just then, Maurer made a sudden stop and the heavy door slid on its track to close, clobbering Gabriel in the head. “I heard it. THUNK! Whoa! He was down. A big knot on his head,” recalled Dan Hale. Alan Lum said “Gabe had a huge head. His nickname was Pineapple Head.” But not even Pineapple Head could withstand the bruising of this playful accident. He was woozy the rest of the night, and did not play against ‘Iolani, though press reports said he had a swollen ankle. To make matters more problematic, Squeeze Kamana had the flu and could play only sparingly.
Their misfortune provided an opening for Obama and Maurer, both of whom played well, though Punahou, in keeping with the Carnival jinx, lost in overtime, 44-42. In the ‘Iolani game and a few others where he saw more playing time, Obama showed a keen court sense. “He could see the pattern and zero in on the opening,” said Barbara Czuries Nelson, who came to all the games and often sat near Barry’s grandparents.
We’ll die on the court before we lose again was the team’s attitude. And soon enough they were in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association championship game for the third straight year. They faced a squad from Moanalua, a public school on a hill out toward Honolulu International Airport, that had upset University High in the tournament quarterfinals. On March 10, the day of the final game, McLachlin and his players gathered for a team training meal at Hale’s home in Manoa Valley between their school and the University of Hawaii. The Hales frequently opened their doors to Punahou athletes. Dan’s older brother, David, in Barry’s class, was a competitive swimmer and water polo star. Their father, Dr. Ralph Hale, was a leading figure at the university’s medical school. “We always try to have an event like this toward the end of the year,” Coach McLachlin explained to Troy Egami, the student reporter who spent that entire day with the team. “When the season gets a little long, we need a little team unity. This is just a good non-gym situation.”
It was a sunny day in paradise, and the boys seemed loose as they gathered in the living room before the meal. Some watched a Chaminade game on television; others played the board game Battleship. The twelfth man, Matt Hiu, team prankster and comic, rose and delivered a stirring pep talk that bordered on satirical hyperbole, shouting GOD ONLY KNOWS! WE WILL NOT BE DENIED! IMUA OHANA! (Go forward with spirit, family!). His pal, Alan Lum, finally shut him up by punching him.
The mid-afternoon meal was a feast: chili, rice, cold cuts, chop suey, salad, potato and mac salads, cinnamon bars, apple bars and plates piled high with Super Burgers. The coach’s wife, Beth McLachlin, a health food advocate, was the creator of the super Burger. She had been making them for nine years, starting with her husband’s first JV team, a ravenous horde that included Mosi Tatupu, who went on to star as a running back for the New England Patriots, and the massive Keith Uperesa, who played briefly as an offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders. The ingredients in the hamburgers included carrots, celery, onions, teriyaki sauce, wheat germ and what McLachlin described as “a mystery substance that makes them jump higher.” The power of the Super Burger was mystical, according to Dan Hale. “It was the power of commitment -- we were committed to eating them.” This was “the post-hippie era when everything was alfalfa sprouts and soy beans,” said Tom Topolinski -- yet the Super Burgers tasted so good that he and Barry and their teammates devoured them along with the rest of the food, for better or worse.
“I figure I ain’t going to play the first half,” said Lum, as Egami watched him attack the training table.
Boy Eldredge walked by with “a heaping plate” of chili and rice. “This is only my second serving,” he said. “Coach told me to take it easy on the food today.”
“Hawaiian people know how to eat,” Topolinski explained decades later. “Boy Eldredge was a freaking pig. I have never met anyone who ate that much food on a regular basis. But he was lean and burned that shit off. But he made us pay for it. He and Matt Hiu were known to be the Gas Bombs. Cleared out the pregame locker room during chalk talk.”
After lunch, some players went up to Dan’s bedroom, where a Nerf basketball hoop was suctioned to his wall. “Slam dunks,” Hale recalled. “Flying slam dunks against the wall. It sounded like the house was crashing down.” No-jump Barry could slam dunk a Nerf ball. Eventually they calmed down, went into meditation mode, visualizing what they would do on the court that night. At five-thirty they left the house -- cars, jeeps, vans backing out of the crowded driveway -- and returned to Punahou to get dressed. Darryl Gabriel, a star who acted like one, a cocksure killer, went through his pregame preening, as he described to Egami. “We take showers, blow dry our hair, brush our teeth, put on cologne like we’re going to the theater. Nah, we just like to smell nice for the other team.” They dressed in white uniforms, the short shorts of that era, with shimmering blue warm-up suits. Topo was “the biggest Boston freak on the whole campus” and tended to control locker room music. His theme song of choice -- “More Than a Feeling” -- was blasting away.
On the ride to Blaisdell Center, the bus reverberated with the team shrieking “We Will Rock You” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” As they unloaded, someone realized they were wearing the wrong uniforms. Moanalua was to be in white. Greg Ramos, one of Barry’s buddies, a junior adjunct member of the Choom Gang, was a team manager; he later acknowledged the mix-up was his fault. No one seemed to care. These hours were supreme for a high school athlete. “The players majestically strode into the arena as their little admirers flooded around them as if they were Blue and Buff Gods,” Egami noted. “They willingly signed autographs and received handshakes from parents and well-wishers [including Stan and Madelyn Dunham]. Twelve young gods, Barry among them, adored. Topo gazed into the stands as they made their way toward the locker room. “The crowd is UNREAL!” he shouted. Full house, standing room only.
The trainer came in with the right uniforms, and McLachlin reviewed the game strategy on a chalk board after they changed. They could hear the roar of the crowd; a lesser game was finishing. The coach started shouting, his players more intense with every word. We must scramble.. . .We must guard the baseline.. . .We have to run UCLA, Vegas, North Carolina on defense.. . .Then his voice softened. “You know you’ve come a long way since the Maui tournament.. . .No matter what happens tonight, this year has been a success.. . .I’m proud of every one of you. You’re all as good as everyone says you are. You are OUT OF THIS WORLD like all the sports writers say. Listen, we’ve got the good uniforms, we’ve got the good bench, and the good basket to start the game. Let’s go out there and play 32 minutes of clinic basketball. Let’s go out there and do it for one more half. LET’S TAKE THIS THING!”
The Buffanblu raced out from the locker room, into the arena lights, Boy Eldredge leading the way (”Last half, seniors!” he yelled) followed by his classmates -- Gabriel, Tavares, Topolinski, Orme, Oshima, Maurer, and Obama, and underclassmen Kamana, Hale, Lum, and Hiu. Prep school versus public school. Powerhouse versus underdog. Experience versus newcomer. No one expected Moanalua to be there. They were slated to lose long ago to University High. They had two African Americans, the Johnson brothers, sparking their rise. “They were on a roll. They were Cinderella,” recalled Lum. “I remember stretching before the game, and I remember looking up and it was standing room only and we had a little section of Punahou but the rest was basically Moanalua, -- and it would have been a great story if they had come in and won, but. . .”
Not a chance. In the opening minutes, Punahou scored 15 straight points and jumped ahead 18-4. They were pressing, double-teaming, cornering, smothering. Moanalua went 11 minutes and 51 seconds during one early stretch without making a field goal, missing 14 consecutive shots, while Punahou was hitting two of every three shots. Pineapple Head was feeling it, getting feeds on the wing from Tavares and pouring them in. Squeeze was jumping out of the gym. McLachlin, who rarely let up, knew the game was theirs. “I remember him pulling out Squeeze and me in the first quarter, fairly early in the game, and I remember I was confused,” Hale recalled. “Why are we going out? Championship game. We gotta go! And he went, ‘Danny, look at the score. And it was something like 35 to 3 [not quite, but almost]. It was such a team of dedication and it all came together at that moment.”
Topo was sent in, and Oshima and Obama, and Orme and Maurer. Matt Hiu shouted with excitement “I might play!” -- and he was right. Everyone played. Near the end, Boy Eldredge asked McLachlin if all eight seniors could go in together in the final minute. Barry ended up making the box score, with two points, but executed some nifty passes and played stifling defense. Gabriel had 18, Kamana 15, Hale 9 on the way to an overwhelming win, 60-28. At the end, the crowd recognized their brilliance and showered the winners with love and cheers. Little boys rushed the court. Parents and grandparents and teachers and friends came forward after the awards ceremony (Gabes was MVP) and placed lei after lei around the necks of the ecstatic champions.
On the bus ride home, McLachlin choked up speaking to his team. “This particular team in this particular tournament played as good a game as I’ve ever seen a high school team play. You played a perfect game -- and that included everyone who stepped on the court. This is the finest effort by twelve young men that I have ever seen.” It was also the last time he coached Punahou basketball. He decided to go out with a perfect game.
Troy Egami was with McLachlin and the players, soaking it in, gathering material for his story, and that night he noticed something for the first time about Barry Obama. Egami was a year younger, but he had known Barry since they played on the same seventh-and-eighth grade football team coached by Pal Eldredge, when Obama was this chubby lineman who grunted a lot in pads and helmet. Egami watched over the years as Obama thinned out and chilled out. Now Barry wanted to be part of history. He wanted recognition. He wanted to be recorded in this glorious moment. He had seemed so cool and laid back -- never panicked, never fazed -- but now his burning will was on rare display. “One thing that stuck in my mind was the extent to which Barry. . .was in my face giving me the equivalent of sound bites, giving quotes left and right,” Egami recalled decades later. “He made sure he got something he said in the paper. Such good stuff, I couldn’t leave it out, though kind of schmaltzy. That night I knew there was a side to him that was scary. This guy is ambitious. He wanted the quote, and he got it.”
Here was how it read: “’You know,’ said Barry Obama in a quiet moment off to the side. ‘These are the best bunch of guys. We made so many sacrifices to get here.’”
Virtually none of this part of Obama’s basketball history was recorded in Dreams From My Father. Nor should that have been expected. Most anecdotes in his memoir flowed through the thematic stream of race. So the reader learned of a few jolting moments of awareness and understandable anger, such as when a JV coach flippantly used the word “niggers” to describe black players in a pickup game, and then lamely tried to differentiate them from people like Obama. The result was powerful storytelling. But what he left out unwittingly made it easier for political critics decades later to portray him as a stranger in their midst, whose life was outside the American mainstream -- a purposefully negative construct derived from distorted history. If there is a representative teenager’s life, Barry Obama lived a version of it in Hawaii in the late 1970s. Several things stood out -- he went to a prestigious school, he lived with his grandparents, his father was gone, his mother was infrequently present, he was a hapa black in a place where most people were a lighter shade of brown-- and those traits helped shape his particular character, but they did not make his life odd or mysterious. He smoked pot with his Choom Gang and goofed around outside the classroom, where he came across as smart and mature if not notably studious, but the central activity of his high school life was basketball. With equally strong roots in the Kansas of his ancestors and the playgrounds of black America, basketball connected the disconnected parts of him -- and he was good enough to play with “the best bunch of guys” on the best team in Hawaii, one of the best teams in the nation.