WASHINGTON — On the morning of the biggest speech of his life, Barack Obama found himself, quite literally, sidelined.
Obama shot baskets by himself at the Denver Athletic Club, talking trash to his friends as they ran the basketball court in what had become a campaign ritual, the pickup hoops game.
Worried that he might get elbowed in the jaw hours before he was to accept the Democratic presidential nomination before 80,000 people, the players convinced Obama he'd better sit this one out.
"There was a particular concern about not wanting him to turn up with a busted lip," said Alan S. King, a Chicago attorney and a regular in Obama's movable basketball games. "That's the only time he's ever done that."
On some of the most momentous days on the election calendar, Obama has defused the tension by hitting the basketball court. The tradition began the day of the Iowa caucuses in January. Obama set up a game while nervously awaiting the results, knowing that a poor showing in the caucuses might kill his campaign.
He played ball; he finished first in the caucuses.
Obama and his crew skipped the election day games in New Hampshire and Nevada -- and lost the balloting in both states. Was there a connection?
"He was trying to figure out what we did differently in Iowa," said Eric Whitaker, a friend since graduate school at Harvard. "He said, 'We played basketball in Iowa, and we didn't play in New Hampshire and Nevada. We have to start playing again.'
"We've played every primary day ever since."
Old friends from Chicago have flown in just to play. To round out the teams, Obama plucks a few athletically inclined aides and any stray players who happen to be in the gym that day. Games might last an hour or two, with two teams of five squaring off as Secret Service agents stand guard. The public and the press are usually barred.
Play is competitive. Obama bruised a rib playing the day of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries in May, when Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias knocked him to the floor.
"Barack was between Alexi and the basket," Whitaker recalled. "Alexi lowered his shoulder and took him out."
Vic Lombardi, a Denver sports TV anchor recruited to play in a game that same month, said the competition was so fierce that one of Obama's sneakers came apart.
"There've been a couple of plays where you see him go down and you're just like, oh, man. That could be bad," said Reggie Love, Obama's 26-year-old personal aide, who played basketball and football at Duke University.
Regulars include Love, King and Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, who played professionally in Australia. Marty Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama's campaign, often plays, along with Whitaker, the Harvard friend who is now executive vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and John W. Rogers Jr., founder of investment firm Ariel Capital Management.
Players say Obama chatters throughout the games, razzing those who miss a shot -- Love is a favorite target -- or calling out strategies.
Chris Duhon, a guard for the New York Knicks who has played pickup ball with Obama in Chicago, recalls a game where he trapped the Illinois senator on the court and forced a turnover.
Duhon needled him: "You're supposed to be the point guard. You can't get in those situations!"
A few plays later, Duhon got trapped and gave the ball up. Obama trash-talked him right back.
"He's very vocal. He's talking throughout the whole game," said Duhon, who went to school with Love and remains a close friend.
Obama, 47, has been playing most of his life. He played on a high school team that won the state championship, though he was not a starter.
Teammates at Punahou School in Honolulu recall a teenage Barry Obama who was bulkier and flashier than today -- a player who liked to drive the lane and take double-pump shots.
Friends say his game has evolved since then. Less dazzle, more thought. He moves without the ball in hopes of getting open, and looks to pass to the man cutting toward the basket.
But he has the same competitive drive.
"He's got a killer instinct," said Duncan, who is 6-foot-5 and played on Harvard's basketball team. "There are a lot of folks who play for the workout or because it's something to do. Barack plays to win."
Still, Obama's skills are open to debate. A natural lefty, he can shoot layups with his right hand. Players say he can execute a cross-over dribble, switching the ball between his left and right hands to throw off the defender.
Duhon: "The form looks good, but he doesn't always make the shot."
On a campaign trip in April, Obama scrimmaged with the University of North Carolina men's squad, one of the best teams in the country. A skinny 6-foot-2, he looked small and out of his depth as he tried to keep up with some of the nation's top college players.