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Maraniss, Obama and the City Game

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More than 100 of us Madisonians squeezed into the Barnes & Noble bookstore on the west side of town last week to welcome back a hometown hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Maraniss. The occasion was the publication of his latest book, the one about the president, titled simply enough Barack Obama: The Story. As the old line from the film Jerry Maguire goes, "he had us at hello." The affection, respect and pride for the "local kid who'd made good" that filled the room was palpable.

Of course, this didn't stop a couple birthers and truthers in the audience from demanding answers to their questions about Obama's true origins, his social security card, his relationship to Reverend Wright and other inconsequential topics. Polite and measured in his responses, Maraniss dispatched such nonsense with aplomb, lamenting that "it's fruitless to argue with people who want to believe what they want to believe, despite all facts and common sense to the contrary."

As I listened to David relate his narrative of our 44th president's odyssey from Hawaii to Jakarta to Chicago, with a few other stops in between (Barack Obama: The Story ends with the president's arrival in Chicago), I was struck by how researching and writing this book had been an epiphany of sorts for Maraniss himself. In tracing the president's roots, David seemed to get more in touch with his own, as well as develop a much greater appreciation of the power of randomness and serendipity. When asked by a questioner, what was the one most remarkable moment he had while writing the book, Maraniss indicated it was encountering the world of Jakarta and realizing that that, too, had somehow shaped the man that would lead our nation. I had a sense that David had found more than just the president's connections to Indonesia during that visit.

My other major takeaway from David's talk was something that resonated with me personally -- the president's love of my own favorite athletic pursuit, basketball. I got the sense that Barack Obama found his blackness in playing basketball and that realization had me remembering my own boyhood, growing up with the "city game" in inner-city Philadelphia in the 1950s when basketball was my entre to different people, different cultures, and different conversations.

Our local playground, with its prototypical rusted metal rims and chain nets on courts covered with broken glass, sat at the intersection of West Philly's black and white neighborhoods. Other than my parochial school a few blocks away, the playground's courts were the only other place where I encountered folks of a different color. On those days when both neighborhoods converged on the court at the same time, it became a game of white vs. black.

But on some days, when the older enforcer types weren't around, a few of us younger hoopsters would mix it up and have someone "different" play on each other's team. I won't pretend to becoming color blind in the 1950s, but I must admit to not really seeing color when I was looking for an outlet pass or breaking toward the basket or diving after a loose ball.

But looking back on it, I now realize that I spent most of those days in awe of what my black brothers could do with that ball on those courts. It was like watching the blues or jazz being performed, with even more grace and speed and pure expression. I was also aware that, regardless of how competitive I was, winning the game meant a lot more to the black players.

Later, when I was older and would return to visit my Philadelphia family, I'd join a playground pick-up game or two, distressingly made aware that I'd long ago left the city for the suburbs. That experience was reminiscent of what William Ellerbee, the coach at Philadelphia's well-known Simon Gratz High school (a national powerhouse in basketball) once said: "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it ... but inner city kids look at basketball as a matter of life and death."

I remembered, too, reading Nelson George's Elevating the Game and his take on how much basketball means to inner-city black players, often becoming the greatest piece of culture they have, something they will fight for and something at which they will fight to be the best. I suspect this may be part of what Barack Obama discovered on the basketball courts of his youth. It was for a white boy like me and for my own personal growth and development.

But, then again, there 's probably some birther or truther out there who can find something wrong about young men running around and tossing a ball at a basket. Just ask David Maraniss and Barack Obama.