Basketball

The President and his Basketball Coach

How Barack Obama and his high school basketball coach, Chris McLachlin, learned from each other's mistakes and formed a bond during his years in office

Teenage Barack Obama went to school early as the sun rose over Oahu, dribbling a basketball in one hand with books safely in the other. Barry, as he was better known in those days, lived across the street from the prestigious Punahou School, a private K-12 institution in Honolulu. He would arrive early to shoot baskets before class on Punahou’s outdoor courts, occasionally sneaking into the main gym if he could, and then resuming his reps during lunch. Following after-school practice with the varsity team, Barry would go home, have dinner, and then go play pickup at the park for another hour or two.

Chris McLachlin was the Punahou varsity basketball head coach during the 1978-1979 season, Obama’s senior year. A Punahou graduate himself in 1964, McLachlin won three state boys’ basketball championships and 11 in boys’ volleyball over a 37-year coaching career at the school. Obama’s love for the game was something he remembered fondly.

“He was a guy that we would call a ‘Basketball Jones’ who lived, ate and breathed the sport,” said McLachlin. “I was like that as well so I really identified with him a lot.”

This 1979 photo from The Oahuan, the yearbook of Punahou School, shows Barack Obama as he takes a jump shot over a defender at the Punahou School in Honolulu, one of the state’s top private schools. (AP Photo/The Oahuan, yearbook of Punahou School)

Obama’s senior season was his lone year on the Varsity AA team, which was the top tier of varsity basketball in Hawaii at the time. He was on the second-tier Varsity A team as a junior and his sophomore year was spent on the JV team. The AA team lost the state title game by two points in the each of the two previous years, and the returning players had a chemistry that didn’t include Obama, who was a rookie on the team. Obama had hoped that his last year of high school basketball would be a culmination of all the extra work he put in, but he simply didn’t have the goods athletically to match up with some of the players the Buffanblu had already developed.

Punahou was and still is a school that cultivates college and professional athletes. The 1978-79 team was no different, as more than half of the team’s roster during Obama’s senior year went on to compete in various sports at the collegiate level. Larry Tavares, the team’s point guard, played baseball for Oregon State. His backcourt mate, Darryl Gabriel, won Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year in Hawaii that season and ended up hooping for Loyola Marymount. Sophomore center Dan Hale eventually played for the University of Hawaii before transferring to nearby Division II Chaminade University. At the forward sports were David “Boy” Eldredge, who played baseball for BYU, and John Kamana, who was the fullback at Southern California and blocked for Marcus Allen, followed by a brief stint in the NFL. Even off the bench, Darin Maurer eventually walked-on to Stanford’s basketball team.

“That team was really strong. It was a team that was loaded with talent,” McLachlin recalled. “At times, my best philosophy was to get out of the way and let them play.”

McLachlin, however, admits that the traditional side of him wanted to follow the mold of coaching legends John Wooden and Dean Smith, so he ran his teams as such. It started with a tight seven or eight-man rotation which Barry never cracked. Like Wooden’s UCLA teams, they’d run a lot of high post offense and stress the importance of ball movement and high percentage shots, especially since there wasn’t a 3-point line at the time. With the team’s speed, they pressed on defense.

“Because we were so athletic, we could force other teams into errors and turnovers just by doing these gimmicky presses,” McLachlin explained.

In addition to the clear athletic prowess the starters had, they executed McLachlin’s strategy to a tee on both ends of the floor.

Barry was a 6’ 2” swingman who had decent handles and jumping ability. His skill was evident, thanks to all those extra reps. And according to McLachlin, he could have started for any other team in the state. But Obama, along with the second unit, turned the ball over a little bit more than the starters did and preferred a less disciplined style of basketball. When asked about Barry’s defense, McLachlin slightly grimaced.

“I think he just liked offense better, and what teenager doesn’t like offense better than defense?” McLachlin reasoned. “I was a pretty defense-oriented coach. He was much more comfortable on offense, let’s put it that way. It wasn’t that he was a bad defensive player, he could do the basics, but defense wasn’t something that he would go and practice all the time. He’d rather go shoot, which a lot of young teenagers would rather do, too.”

McLachlin vividly remember the news frenzy that came when Obama announced his presidential candidacy in 2008. Media members flocked to Oahu and wanted a piece of anyone that saw young Barry on a daily basis. Forty-five reporters in total showed up to McLachlin’s house during that period, many of them setting up by the avocado tree in his backyard.

He remembered that some of them had more to ask than others, but almost all of them approached him with a variation of the same question: what did Barack Obama do back then that was presidential? McLachlin points to the same answer whenever he’s asked it.

During that 1978-79 season, Barry asked for a meeting with McLachlin. The premise was simple: he wanted more playing time.

Obama, the odd man out in the rotation, thought he and two juniors on the team, Alan Lum and Matt Hiu, should get more playing time due to the way Punahou had been breezing by opposing teams. McLachlin admitted that the meeting caught him a little off-guard, but he was impressed with the “lawyer-like” manner in which Obama conducted himself. By the same token, it would have been unfair for anyone at the time to predict that Barry would eventually run for President of the United States of America.

“At the time, I didn’t think it was ‘presidential,’ I thought it was courageous. Not many players would call a meeting, bring two other guys and represent all three,” McLachlin said.

“He had a plan and I think it was a well-stated argument. They weren’t claiming that they should be the starters, they just thought I could be more generous with the playing time. I just remember it all making sense.”

McLachlin responded with more minutes for the trio, but not as much as Obama would have liked. The season ended on a high note, however, as all 12 players logged close to equal playing time in the Hawaii state championship game that year, a game in which Punahou routed Moanalua High School 60-28.

Although Lum appreciated the gesture, he was far more content than Obama was. Obama wanted to relish his senior season whereas Lum was just happy to make the team as a junior. Lum suggested that maybe Obama should have felt the same way.

“If he looked back at it, he would probably tell you that it was a good ride because coach McLachlin didn’t have to keep him,” Lum said.

One of McLachlin’s cuts before the season was the son of the athletic director, another a senior who was on the team the year before. Lum would later go on to coach the Varsity AA team himself and guided it to a state championship in 1999.

“If you think about it like that, it’s a pretty ballsy move,” Lum said. “But I think coach McLachlin awarded Barry because he was a gym rat who loved the sport.”

Part of the reason that was done, Lum contends, is because two-thirds of the team were seniors. McLachlin wanted the program to reload and not rebuild in his absence. With his first son on the way, he did not coach the team the next year.

McLachlin’s long term plan worked, and the Buffanblu won the next two state championships after his departure. He eventually returned to coach the AA team, winning the 1990 state title.

Coach McLachlin at home
McLachlin currently serves as the color commentator for both of the University of Hawaii’s volleyball teams during its telecasts. (Photo by Christian Shimabuku)

Obama made regular return trips to Hawaii to visit his grandmother, but he didn’t see McLachlin again until he visited Punahou’s campus in 2004 for a chapel service. Obama, who had left Punahou as Barry, the lefty kid with a case of the Basketball Jones, returned now as Barack, candidate for senator of Illinois.

Initially hesitant to attend because he wanted others to see this up-and-comer, McLachlin says the school president pleaded with him to go. “You’re one of the few from back then that are still here and still alive,” McLachlin recalls being told with a grin.

Obama walked into the chapel and stepped up to the dais, the light shining so brightly he had trouble seeing beyond the first few rows. He carefully surveyed the chapel, which was packed with over 450 people. Then he spotted his old coach in the back.

“Coach Mac, is that you?”

“Yes, Barack, it’s me.”

“Coach, I really wasn’t as good as I thought I was, was I?”

Again, Obama had managed to catch his coach by surprise. McLachlin says he felt a weight lifted off of his shoulders in that moment. Afterwards, the two had a quick chat and exchanged pleasantries.

Barack Obama’s prep career as an athlete had stayed with him, as he confirmed in a 2008 interview with Chris Berman on ESPN’s Monday Night Football during his presidential campaign. Obama told Berman:

I was really somebody who had learned the game on the playgrounds. I was playing for a coach who was cut from the Bobby Knight cloth and I kind of rebelled against him a little bit. At some point he said to me ‘Look, this is not about you, it’s about the team.

It took me a while, I think, to really understand that. But that’s how I’ve approached the work that I’ve done in politics ever since.

Coach McLachlin had not forgotten that moment either. Although he didn’t watch the interview live, his phone blew up with calls and texts afterwards. He appreciated the shout out, but he didn’t think he was as harsh as Knight.

Obama returned to Punahou during the 2008 Christmas break that followed his election, about a month before he was to be inaugurated. He set up a private pick-up game at the Punahou gymnasium.

McLachlin had suffered a near-fatal stroke that January, but he was healthy enough to watch. Obama and his staff, along with a few of his teammates on the ’79 team plus McLachlin’s two sons made up the 12 players that day.

There were six breaks during the two-hour run. During the first breather, Obama went right up to McLachlin.

“Coach Mac, how you feeling? Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I’m doing OK. My medications are working alright. I’m kind of getting back into it, thanks for asking.”

Obama approached McLachlin during each break. Their interactions were each similar to the one before it, until the last.

“Coach, the reason why I ask is because I’m really concerned about health care in this country and I really want to make sure everyone has health care. I really want to pay attention to you and follow your journey. If you ever come to Washington, make sure you look me up, OK?”

Obama kept his word. McLachlin would later fly up to see him on a handful of occasions in D.C. But throughout the runs, McLachlin also noticed an evolution in Obama’s game. His former teammates only affirmed what McLachlin saw.

“Coach, Barack is way better than Barry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Barack sets screens. Barack looks for guys that have a better shot than he does. Barack boxes out. Barack loves giving assists. Barack takes charges.”

McLachlin saw Obama do all the little things on the court that help a team win. It was the highlight of the day for him.

“He was taking better shots, looking for somebody who’s got a better shot. He was very willing to distribute the ball and be a leader,” McLachlin recalled. “Over time, we all get better at whatever we do. He became a better basketball player.”

Punahou Pick Up Game 01
Alan Lum (directly to the right of Obama) still calls seeing his former teammate on television ‘surreal’ to this day. ‘His gait from back then is still completely the same,’ Lum joked. (Photo courtesy of Alan Lum)

In 2009, McLachlin felt he needed to volunteer with the organization that helped save his life, the American Heart Association. He was asked to represent the state of Hawaii in an upcoming conference in Washington D.C.

Could he reach Obama? The AHA had previously gotten its resources in front of senators and representatives, but never the President.

McLachlin gave Obama’s office a call, thinking he would be away or too busy. As it turned out, he was available and agreed to a meeting. The two met for half an hour in the Oval Office and McLachlin handed in the materials from the conference over to him. The conversation then turned to basketball, and McLachlin brought up the ’79 team.

“Barack, you know what, I’m really sorry. You were better than you thought you were.”

McLachlin explained to him that he was only 10 years into coaching, and he believes that it takes 15 to 20 years to become a good one. He confided to Obama that had he coached him 10 years later, he would take the top six or seven guys to run his style of play. The other guys, the more creative ones, would do pretty much whatever they wanted to. The “riot squad,” he’d call the second unit.

The two shared a brief laugh as Obama shrugged off the notion.

Seven years later in 2016, after what McLachlin called, “a lot of work,” $2 billion was sent to the American Heart Association for heart research at the National Institutes of Health. McLachlin went to D.C. a total of six times, seeing his former player five times. The only time they didn’t connect, Obama was out of town.

After every meeting, Obama told McLachlin to call any time he was in the area.

“Barack, the only reason why I call is because you told me to.”

“Yup, and I want you to keep doing it each time you come back.”

Coach McLachlin and President Obama 01
Coach McLachlin in the Oval Office for one of his five official meetings with President Obama. (Photo courtesy of Chris McLachlin)

Despite Obama’s acknowledgement during the chapel service, McLachlin still kicked himself for not giving Barry more playing time and each meeting served as a reminder. In the bigger picture, it was perhaps irrelevant considering all the progress he made for the AHA, but McLachlin could tell that Obama felt his sense of guilt.

After the conclusion of another meeting, McLachlin headed out to leave in the narrow hallway between the Oval Office and the world beyond. A handful of guards and Secret Service stood against the walls like pillars. McLachlin thought to himself that he better not do anything wrong with all the force that was around him. As he was about to step out, Obama called out for his attention as if he forgot something.

“Hey! Coach!”

“Yes, Barack?”

“Coach, I love you, man.”

“I love you too, Barack.”

Tears filled McLachlin’s eyes on his walk out of the White House, and he cried all the way through Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I’ll never forget that. That’s part of his legacy as far as I’m concerned — that particular endearing quality of forgiveness. He forgave his old coach for not playing him enough in the middle of his presidency,” McLachlin said. “There was probably turmoil that week in the world somewhere, but he still found time to be really nice to this old coach. Good guy. I think he’s looking better and better with each day that goes by.

“He seems to look better and better, doesn’t he?”

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