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CROWE'S NEST

Obama honed his skills at Occidental, on team or not

November 10, 2008|Jerry Crowe

On his historic run to the White House, Barack Obama spent two years at Occidental College, the basketball-loving future president spending countless hours honing his game on the Eagle Rock campus when he wasn't studying.

A self-described gym rat who played basketball regularly on the campaign trail -- he even played for two hours on election day last week in Chicago -- Obama is fondly remembered by those who once challenged him on the Occidental courts.

What his fellow ballers don't seem to recall, however, is whether Obama played for the Tigers in a more formal capacity, as a former coach insists and the media have reported, and no tangible proof seems to exist that he did.

No photos showing the skinny teenager in short shorts.

No roster.

No box score.

No score book.

No mention in the school paper.

Nothing has been found, school spokesman Jim Tranquada says.

Basketball Coach Brian Newhall, who enrolled at Occidental the same year as Obama, says Obama does not appear in the JV team photo from the 1979-80 season, when Newhall and the future leader of the free world were freshmen.

Newhall was the starting point guard on that team. He says he clearly remembers Obama from pickup games -- "I can say that I guarded Barry many a time in open gym," notes the coach -- but whether the left-leaning left-hander from Hawaii was part of a team that won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship, Newhall can't say for sure.

Nor can Galen Morton, who also played on the team. Morton can tell you that Obama eschewed the knee-length basketball socks that were popular at the time but can't tell you for certain that Obama was a teammate. But, notes Morton, "it's been a long time. If somebody says he played, OK, fine. I can't say to the opposite."

Mike Zinn says he played.

"I coached there, and he definitely played for me," says Zinn, a former Occidental athletic director and basketball coach.

Obama, he says, was his starting small forward in the 1979-80 season.

"He was really athletic, ran good, jumped good," says Zinn, who left coaching about 20 years ago and is a partner in an Orange County sales agency. "He wasn't a great outside shooter. In basketball terminology, he was kind of a slasher. He was left-handed. He went left well, didn't go right that well.

"He had a nose for the ball, always came up with loose balls and rebounds inside. So if he got 10 points in a game, most of them were probably under the basket. He didn't hit jump shots from 15 feet or anything like that.

"He was a good defender, definitely a good athlete."

And a natural leader?

"No, he was not," Zinn says. "He was very quiet. . . . He wasn't a leader or a captain-type kid. Whether he would have grown into that, I don't know."

He probably has an inkling.

In his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama wrote that he played basketball "with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent" but makes no mention of playing at Occidental. The politician, who helped his high school basketball team win a state championship in Hawaii, wrote that he was accepted into "several respectable" colleges but chose Occidental "mainly because I'd met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii."

Kelly Beck, sports information director at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and a former SCIAC spokesman, says the conference archives do not include JV records. He also says that, in the Claremont JV score book from the 1979-80 season, Obama's name does not appear in the accounting of a Claremont-Oxy game.

Zinn, though, is adamant.

He estimates that Obama averaged about eight points, five or six rebounds and one or two assists a game. In 1980, Zinn was elevated to varsity coach and says he met with Obama "to tell him that I was interested in having him continue to play. I anticipated that he was going to contribute somewhere in the program throughout his career, if not as a starter than as a reserve."

But when Obama returned for his sophomore year, Zinn says, he told the coach he would no longer be playing basketball because he wanted to concentrate on academics. Before his junior year, Obama transferred to Columbia.

Occidental, meanwhile, went on to win the SCIAC championship in 1983, Newhall leading the way as the conference player of the year.

Obama, Zinn says, "would have been part of that group."

But Zinn wasn't surprised he'd turned to loftier pursuits.

"You could tell he was a really intelligent guy, a pretty deep thinker," Zinn says. "Freshmen are goof-offs, in a lot of cases, but he was not like that.

"He was very serious."

Morton, assistant track coach and sports information director at Dickinson State in Dickinson, N.D., says he remembers Obama from pickup games and recalls the president-elect as an "even-tempered, pretty impressive guy."

And one more thing.

"It wasn't stylish to wear those itty-bitty socks back then," Morton says, "but I can remember him not wearing socks when he played -- at least that you could see. The rest of us had socks halfway up our legs.

"I suppose he could have had socks underneath his high tops, but you never saw them. And that certainly wasn't the style."

Even back then, it seems, Obama was a trailblazer.

As far as memory serves.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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