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Here's the beauty of pickup basketball: You may be a U.S. senator, a living symbol of racial healing and perhaps even the next President of the United States, but if you're gliding in for an easy layup and each point is precious, I've got no choice then, do I? You're getting hacked. So, yes, I'm hammering that arm and crashing headlong into your whippet-thin frame; and, yes, it's a foul so flagrant, so absurdly desperate, that all you can do, body buckling, is laugh. Hey, it's pickup. Everyone, even you, uses whatever he's got to win.

"Believe me," Barack Obama says, walking to the top of the key, "you can get shot for doing that."

He's not serious. I think. But he wants me off his back, and invoking jumpy Secret Service men is a wise ploy. With the race for the Democratic presidential nomination whisker-close, Obama can't afford to show up for some Dubuque meet-and-greet with a mysterious fat lip. His wife, Michelle, warned me, "Don't break his nose, give him a black eye or knock his teeth out. Or I'll have to come find you."

Actually, Michelle understands. She hails from a Chicago family that believes the game—when you pass, when you call fouls, how you check the ball—reveals character. Once her romance with Barack got serious, she pressed her brother, Craig Robinson, to conduct the acid test: Go play. Robinson tried to duck it; he had starred at Princeton, and Barack had been a benchwarmer for his Hawaiian high school team. "All I could think was, This guy's going to be terrible, and I have to report that back," says Robinson, who's now the coach at Brown. "And you can't fudge it, because if he turns out to be a jerk and you knew but didn't say it, you're in trouble."

He liked what he saw. Obama was confident but not cocky, unselfish but unafraid to shoot. On court he showed the same balance that has fueled his political rise; he could talk trash without seeming mean, compete feverishly without seeming angry. Yet few knew how central the sport—"my first love," he calls it—was to his self-image as a mixed-race child: How the greatest gift from his absent dad was a basketball, how playing gave him his closest white friends and a place where black skin wasn't a disadvantage. When a coach, a close friend, casually threw out the word n-----, Obama says, "It reminded me that race is complicated, that people are complicated, that you could have ugly strains even among people who were otherwise decent.... It does not necessarily mean they're bad people."

So it's no surprise that Obama bit at the chance to play one-on-one. We met at the YMCA in Spencer, Iowa, in a gym with signs scolding, DO NOT DUNK BALLS OR HANG ON RIM! No problem. We both graduated high school in 1979, and the days when a soda bottle could roll beneath our jumping feet have long passed. At 6'1 1/2", Obama is all lefty, quick with long arms. Before we start, he grabs some opposition research from my son, who readily says I'm "not in basketball shape" and will thus spend his teenage years peering through the barred windows of our basement.

"All right," Obama announces. "I've got your game cased out."

"It's all over?" I ask.

"It's all over."

Obama exudes none of that anxious Washington ambition; he's not weighing words. He's here to play.

The first game flies by in a blur of missed (mine) and made (his) jumpers: I lose 11-5. Obama throws out a cheap "Wooooo!" whenever I shoot but never resorts to ticky-tack calls; before the second game he notes our 15-pound weight difference. "If you wanted to bang inside a bit," he says, "you could."

I'm no fool. I start banging. After I commit that criminal foul under the basket, he lofts an air ball and I pull ahead 2-1. But we're both gasping, and proceed to play the ugliest, slowest game in history. A handler steps in, says his man must leave, so we decide to play to seven.

Obama hits two jumpers to go up 3-2, and I remember what Michelle told me: "He's very good at the last minute."

"All right," I say coyly, flipping him the ball. "This is for the presidency...."

He drills a 19-footer, heels barely leaving the ground. "Did you hear me?" I say.

"Why do you think I hit it?" he says.

I back him down twice to tie 4-4. He drains two more, but I swish one to cut it to 6-5. Now Obama closes in, blocks my last shot, grabs the ball. He shuffles out wide, turns and sets, face blank. I thunder toward him, arm outstretched, feeling suddenly like Hillary and Edwards and anyone else in Iowa trying desperately to stop Obama's rise.

The ball drops through the net like a stone.